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Fighting Irish running backs under Brian Kelly, take note: If your first three seasons haven’t quite fulfilled your expectations, keep maintaining a strong work ethic, wait your turn … and then seize the moment when opportunity awaits as a senior.
This has become a tradition under the ninth-year head coach, most recently with Dexter Williams. It would seem to be an oxymoron to have a senior named “Offensive Newcomer Of The Year,” at the end-of-regular-season Echoes show on campus, but that’s what Williams was honored with in his better-later-than-never breakout campaign.
It almost seemed his football ship might have been sailed when a four-game suspension to begin the season for violating a team rule kept him shelved. However, Williams’ positive outlook and unwavering dedication to his craft continued a tradition of running backs under Kelly — and mostly the tutelage of all-time Irish rushing leader Autry Denson — thriving during their final run, so to speak.
Williams referred to his evolution this year as a “chain reaction” of teammates picking each other up instead of just looking out for themselves.
“I just want it more for them and they want it more for me, and they were expecting a lot from me,” the Orlando, Fla., native reflected. “So I just try to come out every day and give it my all.
“I was just happy to have my senior year like this. I couldn’t ask for more, just to be playing football, being at this beautiful University of Notre Dame, just being here with my family, brothers and family, the coaches — how hard they push us and how hard we push each other on and off the field.”
Chronologically, the running back order has seen:
2011: Jonas Gray
Through his first three seasons, the former U.S, Army All-American never had more than 34 carries in a season, totaling 75 for 309 yards and zero touchdowns.
Senior Year: Rotating with Cierre Wood, Gray racked up 114 carries, 791 yards — 6.9 yards per carry — and 12 touchdowns before a knee injury on Senior Day ended his season after more than doubling his rushing output following his first three seasons.
His three-year NFL career was highlighted in 2014 by a 201-yard, four-touchdown performance for New England against Indianapolis that put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
2012: Theo Riddick
Originally signed as a running back in head coach Charlie Weis’ final recruiting class at Notre Dame in 2009, Riddick was moved to more of a hybrid slot/running back role his first two seasons under Kelly. Through his first three years, he totaled 54 carries for 252 yards and no touchdowns.
Senior Year: Moved back to running back in a full-time capacity, Riddick accounted for 1,287 yards total offense, a team high 917 on the ground and 370 more through the air as the Irish posted their first 12-0 regular season under Kelly before losing in the BCS Championship.
Riddick is in his sixth season in the NFL.
2015: C.J. Prosise
Enrolled as a safety, moved to receiver as a sophomore and then shifted to running back his senior year when graduation, transfer and injury all hit the position. He had 10 carries for 126 yards and a score as a junior while mainly running jet sweeps.
Senior Year: Carried 157 times for 1,029 yards, or 6.6 yards per carry, with 11 touchdowns, and added 26 receptions for 308 yards and another score, bringing his total offense mark to 1,337 yards. That earned him a third-round selection.
2018: Dexter Williams
Not once in his first three seasons did he have more than 39 carries, nor more than eight in any game.
Senior Year: Despite sitting out the first four games, he exploded on to the scene with a 45-yard touchdown run on his first carry, versus nemesis Stanford during a 38-17 victory. His 97-yard touchdown burst a week later at Virginia Tech broke open the contest. His 52-yard scoring run at USC helped put the Irish ahead for good in the hard fought 24-17 win in the regular season finale.
With his 941 yards rushing this year, Williams has averaged 6.6 yards per carry like Prosise, and tallied 12 touchdowns. Williams developed into a much more complete and durable running back , but far more important was he became an even better man amid the suspension.
“I don’t like to let my teammates down, I don’t like to let my family down,” he said last week. “It was just that time I needed to grow up and become a man, so I just dealt with the consequences and kept my head up.”
The well-documented story of his mother, Cheryl Williams, moving in with him — despite battling terminal illnesses — at the start of his suspension to provide needed moral support during the suspension helped provide the motivation to not let down loved ones, including his teammates.
“I couldn’t imagine it without her, and so I’m just glad to have her and thankful to have her on this road to success and this journey of winning 12 wins and have her here and seeing the success [we’re] having,” Williams said.
Her health has been relatively stabilized, and she plans to be in Dallas for the Dec. 29 Cotton Bowl.
“She still has her days every now and then, but she’s doing [well],” Williams said. “I’m trying to stay on top of her medicine and making sure I’m taking great care of her.”
Clemson’s No. 3-ranked defense (92.9 yards per game allowed), led by its vaunted mini-NFL line, has not allowed any back to rush for more than 100 yards this season.
Notre Dame and Williams will have the opportunity to take care of each other again later this month.