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The Solution to Notre Dame’s Running Back Injuries: Bring Back the Fullback

A treatise on bringing the neck roll back into style

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Bowling Green at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Friday, it was announced that Notre Dame freshman running back Jadarian Price tore his achilles tendon and is expected to miss the entire 2022 season. When taken with sophomore Logan Diggs’ torn labrum and the injury histories of junior Chris Tyree and freshman Gi’Bran Payne, the running back position is in a bit of a tricky spot.

It’s not dissimilar to what happened to Notre Dame’s linebacker depth chart going into last season. A position that seemed deep and talented suddenly saw bodies start dropping — from Marist Liufau’s broken leg, to Paul Moala’s achilles tear, to Shayne Simon’s torn labrum, to Prince Kollie entering COVID-19 protocols.

It makes one worry about Notre Dame’s ability to establish a running game early in the 2022 campaign. The personnel is best suited for that, although the cupboard is starting to look barer at running back than it does even at wide receiver — and that’s saying a lot.

But I believe the solution to Notre Dame’s injury woes at running back might be found in a one-off play from two seasons ago. It was a hot September day in South Bend, Indiana. I should know, because I was there, wearing a God-forsaken mask and standing on the bleachers in the southwest corner of Notre Dame Stadium. And then… it happened.

With just over 8 minutes left in the second quarter, on a 3rd-and-1 from the South Florida 26-yard line, Ian Book took the snap and handed the ball off to tight end Tommy Tremble for a four-yard gain on the ground. A glorious fullback dive.

And then, like Keyser Söze, poof… it was gone. Never to be seen again.

But now, with the powers vested in me by the Site Manager/Emperor/Supreme Warlord/Defender of the Faith himself, I call upon offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to reintroduce the fullback into the Notre Dame offense. Not just as some gimmick, but a legitimate element of the running game.

Give those hosses at tight end and linebacker some neck rolls, spread the ball around to keep everybody fresh, and proceed to beat the opposition to a pulp. Simple. Straightforward. Efficient.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Minnesota at Iowa

Let’s break it down by the numbers: Notre Dame rushed 34.5 times per game last season, down from an average of 42.1 in 2020. Let’s split it down the middle and say the 2022 number is somewhere around 38.

Last season, Kyren Williams averaged 17 carries in his 12 games and Diggs averaged 6.5 through eight games. Let’s say that at the start of the 2022 season their 23.5 combined carries are all accounted for by Buchner, Tyree and Payne. Now let’s assume that Estime gets them to about 30 total. Throw in three rushes among the wide receivers — because it feels like Braden Lenzy, Avery Davis and Lorenzo Styles should each get about a touch per game. That’s 33 total carries, five short of our projected 38.

So, split those five carries among fullbacks. As for who those fullbacks are, there are plenty of candidates:

The Tight Ends

Notre Dame is indisputably Tight End U, at least so long as Michael Mayer is on the roster. And speaking of Mayer, I am in no way suggesting that he should be converted to a fullback. The passing game needs enough help as is, so his energies should be directed there. Same goes for Eli Raridon and probably Mitchell Evans given their skillsets.

But poor Kevin Bauman had the misfortune of being in the same tight end class as Mayer, so virtually any shot of him being a focus of the passing game went out the window. Then Cane Berrong, possibly last on the depth chart last season, tore his ACL. And now Holden Staes comes in looking like the second-coming of Tremble.

Bauman, Berrong and Staes were all composite four-star recruits. All are listed within half an inch of 6-foot-4, and their weights range from 224 to 242. They were built for trucking defenders, and they already do that as blockers. So why not let them do that trucking while also having the ball in their hands?

The Irish always have more tight ends than they know what to do with, so reward these guys for always doing the dirty work.

The Linebackers

There’s a build and athleticism with linebackers that makes for a convenient transition to fullback. And the young talent at the position has shown evidence of positional flexibility. Prince Kollie rushed for 26 touchdowns and over 1,500 yards as a high school senior. Jaylen Sneed and Joshua Burnham* both played quarterback in high school (and I’m sure they were dual threats).

*Yes, I know Burnham has moved to defensive end since arriving in the spring, but he was recruited as a linebacker and he’s only spent a couple of months in his new spot. And if memory serves, fellow D-lineman Osita Ekwonu was training as a fullback during the 2020 season, so let’s throw him in here as well.

Among the experienced guys, Jordan Botelho plays like he wants to take his opponents’ heads off — and the staff has been struggling to find a role for him — so why not try channeling some of that aggressiveness toward opposing defenses. And we know J.D. Bertrand isn’t good in space as a linebacker, but he led the Irish in tackles last season for a reason; get him in a compact situation on offense and he could thrive there, too.

The linebackers are a different breed than the tight ends and can possibly bring a little bit of variety to the fullback game — less brute force, more shiftiness. And if Irish fans never got to see Kyle Hamilton play both offense and defense, the least the staff can do is let some defensive guys flash on the other side of the ball.

The Fullbacks

The most obvious candidates to fill this role are the ones who already have an “FB” next to their names on Shoutout to the three walk-ons — Justin Fisher, Davis Sherwood and Barrett Liebentritt — who proudly carry on the tradition.

Since they’ve already been playing the position, they presumably have a leg up on the aforementioned tight ends and linebacker. But I’m sure these guys are unselfish and willing to impart their wisdom to any converters.

There you have it: the answer to the running back injury problem. It isn’t a question of if, but when, Tommy Rees sees the light and gives the fullbacks their moment in the sun. Do it soon enough and Ohio State will be quaking in their boots.

T-70 days to Columbus. Get hype.