When Tony Jones, Jr. decided to leave the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and try his hand in the NFL, the ears of every other running back within a two-mile radius of the Gugliemino Athletics Complex should have perked up. Jones was by far the most productive runner for the Irish in 2019 and would likely have taken a lot of carries in 2020. His departure leaves the mantle of lead back up for grabs (I imagine him gathering his fellow backs around him and saying “to the strongest” before he hit send on his social-media announcement).
Finding the right rotation at running back will be one of the most important challenges for run game coordinator Lance Taylor and his partner in crime, Tommy Rees. Will Jafar Armstrong step up and become a true lead back? How will the talents of Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister, and Kyren Williams be utilized? Will Chris Tyree leave all these guys in the dust? We’ll explore these questions and more in this week’s installment of Rees’s Pieces.
RB1: Jafar Armstrong
2019 was a tough year for Jafar. He had flashed some serious potential the previous year, and rumors out of fall camp suggested he would be a focal point of the offense.
Then he suffered a groin/abdominal injury in the first game of the season. Losing him threw a wrench into the Irish offense, which was often dysfunctional and lacked an identity for a large part of the season. When he returned, it was clear he hadn’t fully recovered. He never really received a lot of touches and struggled when he did, most notably and depressingly when he became the first Irish running back to lose a fumble in four years, in horrifically spectacular fashion. What was supposed to be a coming-out year became a lost season.
Fortunately for Jafar, a new year means new beginnings, and there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about what he can do in 2020. While he doesn’t bring the straight-line speed of a Braden Lenzy or Chris Tyree, Jafar is absolutely a big-play threat who can outrun the second-level defenders of every team the Irish play next year that is not clad in orange and represented by a methhead tiger. He is a dynamic runner in space with great cutting ability and acceleration to make would-be tacklers miss. His background as a receiver also makes him a major threat in the passing game.
The flip side of that receiving background is that the nuances of carrying the ball as a running back - identifying holes, reading the defense and deciding whether to cut inside or outside, etc. - don’t always come naturally to Armstrong. This is why you will sometimes see him bounce outside when there is room between the tackles, or run straight into an offensive lineman who is creating a lane for him.
For that reason, I don’t think he’ll become a feature back a la Dexter Williams or Josh Adams in 2020. However, I think he will have a significant role as a hybrid/flex player, getting a fair number of carries out of the backfield while functioning as both a safety valve and playmaker in the passing game. Ideally, his role would be similar to what we saw from Theo Riddick - who, it should be noted, struggled to find a role in the offense early in his career before hitting his stride in 2012.
Riddick was able to springboard that great 2012 season into a solid NFL career; I think Jafar can get there as well, especially since he is being coached by an offensive coordinator who played with Riddick for three years.
RB2: Jahmir Smith
Smith got some serious minutes in 2019 and flashed potential, rushing for 180 yards with two touchdowns on 42 carries. That’s 4.3 yards per carry, and that is exactly the kind of back Smith seems to be: a thumper who can keep the chains moving, fall forward when tackled and get crucial yards in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations (both of his touchdowns came from inside the 5).
While he’s not a blazer, Smith has a good burst that can get him into the second level and lead to solid chunk plays, like the 40-yard scamper he had against Duke.
Smith is a broccoli running back. Is broccoli the most exciting food you’ll eat? No, but there is always a place for it in your diet, just like there is always a place in an offense for a running back who will consistently gain solid yardage, fall forward to turn a potential 2nd-and-7 into a 2nd-and-5, move the chains on 3rd-and-short and punch it in on the goal line. If Smith can excel in those areas and break a few longer runs along the way, he can play an important role in the Irish offense and set the rest of the team up for some major success - just like putting some broccoli on the side makes it healthy to eat mac and cheese.
RB3: C’Bo Flemister
Let’s get this out of the way: C’Bo has easily the coolest name on the team and I hope he gets a lot of carries just so I can hear announcers say it.
Flemister rushed for 162 yards and 5 touchdowns on 48 carries in 2019. 3.4 yards per carry isn’t ideal, but on those touchdown runs Flemister showed some really good traits: plus speed and a good burst at the line of scrimmage, and a punchy running style with an eagerness to get contact (although he still has some progress to make in actually breaking those tackles).
Those are traits that can take a running back far in college football, and Flemister will have opportunities to show them off and make a statement. However, he also lacks a distinguishing quality - like Smith’s strong inside running or Armstrong’s receiving ability - to keep his touches from being taken by, say, Kyren Williams or Chris Tyree.
C’Bo will have to get bigger and stronger, work on running lower to break tackles, and learn how to make would-be tacklers miss (part of the reason his yards-per-carry average was low last year was that he got blown up in the backfield quite a bit). If he can do that, we will be hearing his glorious name quite a bit in 2020; if he can’t, we may only hear it in garbage time.
RB4: Kyren Williams
Williams only played in two games in 2019, which was an intentional decision on the part of Brian Kelly to preserve his redshirt. That decision was a wise one, because in the games Williams played in he had some classic freshman moments: dropping a swing pass when he heard footsteps from an opposing defender, etc. This should not at all be interpreted as a dig at him. It’s an entirely understandable and expected adjustment.
With a year of college experience under his belt, however, I think we will start to see his unique skillset utilized. He’s a little small at 5’9”, but Williams is a strong runner with a good lower-body motor. He has excellent speed in the open field and has great potential as a receiver out of the backfield. We could also definitely see him on returns, as his speed and strength give him a bouncy running style with a little bit of a Golden Tate look to it.
How big a role Williams takes this year will depend a lot on how Armstrong is used: if Jafar is healthy and effective and taking the lion’s share of third-down snaps and catches out of the backfield, then Williams probably won’t get too many touches on offense and will mostly serve as return specialist. Going forward, however, his future as a Darren Sproles-esque lightning bug out of the backfield is still very bright.
RB5: Chris Tyree
Tyree is the most highly-touted Irish running back of this generation, and how much he is able to contribute right away will likely have implications for every other back on the roster. He has game-wrecking speed, with a forty-yard dash PR of 4.23 seconds. To illustrate just how fast that is: the difference between that time and that of the incredibly fast Braden Lenzy (4.40 seconds) is the same is only .02 less than the difference between Lenzy and Tony Jones, Jr.
(This is where I have to be a little bit of a downer to myself and point out that that 4.23 was a little bit of a statistical outlier, and his more widely reported time was 4.37 seconds - which is still incredibly fast).
Beyond his blazing speed, Tyree is also a natural running back with excellent vision and patience. Provided he is able to bulk up a bit, he should have no problem running between the tackles later in his career. In 2020, however, we will most likely see him running to the outside and split out as a receiver.
I don’t think Tyree will become a feature back in 2020. However, Tommy Rees and Lance Taylor would be insane if they didn’t find a way to utilize his speed and playmaking ability. Do not expect Tyree to take a redshirt, as he will be on the field early and often in 2020. The only question is how much.
Bonus Section: Where in the World Is Avery Davis?
OFD’s way-too-early depth chart has Davis listed at cornerback, and so do most media outlets I could find. Of course, he was also listed at cornerback last year, and you saw how that turned out.
Davis has good speed and made some important plays in 2019, including a long touchdown run against the New Mexico Lobos and a critical first-down catch on the last drive against the Virginia Tech Hokies. If he is used on offense, he will likely be an Amir Carlisle-esque bit player who has the speed and hands to make a few important plays, but is not an integral part of the offense.
It is entirely possible that I will be wrong about any and all of these players, as this position group is very much in flux. The Irish have a lot of good options, and I think T & T (Tommy and Taylor) will be able to figure it out.