The first game of any new football season presents opportunities for young players to step up into new roles.
In Saturday's opener against Duke, Notre Dame got plenty of contributions from some of its new faces, including a running back who made history and a tight end who made one of the day's highlight plays.
Redshirt freshman running back Kyren Williams, who carried the ball just four times in 2019, ran for 112 yards on 19 carries, scoring twice and also catching two passes for 93 yards in the Irish's 27-13 victory.
Williams became the first Notre Dame player to gain 90 yards rushing and receiving in the same game since Allen Pinkett did so in 1983 against Air Force. Pinkett went on to become the all-time leading scorer in Irish history, a mark he held until kicker Justin Yoon surpassed him in 2018.
For his efforts, Williams was named ACC Running Back of the Week. His teammates weren't surprised by the outburst, even if it was a surprise when coach Brian Kelly named the 5-foot-9 back the starter coming out of fall camp.
“He's the same guy every day,” quarterback Ian Book said of Williams. “He brings the energy every day, so when you go out on the field on game day he's doing the same thing. He runs extremely hard and he just loves the game of football. Personally to be in the backfield with him, I just feel comfortable. He's just someone that motivates me and I do that with him too and we just bounce back and use each others' energies.”
The Irish plan to lean on Williams, but there are other options at running back and all of them will be integral to the team's success.
“(Williams) adds a dimension to our offense that makes us a better offense,” Kelly said. “So you're going to see him continue to play a large role. But you also saw a Jafar Armstrong who can catch and play physical, Jahmir (Smith), I know everybody saw the explosiveness of Chris Tyree. ... I think it's important those other guys get touches because they can help our offense.”
Tyree, the highest-rated running back Kelly has ever recruited to Notre Dame, was another freshman who made his mark Saturday. The speedster was the main kick return man for the Irish and on his first collegiate touch burst through a seam and returned a kick 38 yards. He was largely bottled up out of the backfield, but he did break a 25-yard run in the fourth quarter to set up a field goal.
The other freshman who stood out was five-star tight end Michael Mayer. He had three catches for 38 yards, none bigger than a 7-yard reception on third-and-7 for a first down early in the fourth quarter.
It came right after Duke had cut the deficit to 17-13. Notre Dame was in danger of going three-and-out and punting the ball back to the Blue Devils, but Mayer caught a pass in the flat and ran through a defender, then lowered his shoulder and dove to the sticks to grab a first down. The Irish went on to score a touchdown and put the game away.
“I was extremely impressed with Michael,” Book said. “He's been doing that all camp as well so it wasn't a surprise, but he's physical. Everybody saw that (Saturday). He's not going to go down the first time he's touched and as a quarterback that's huge.”
The Notre Dame freshman class might have more to give as the season goes on, as well. Jordan Johnson, the highest-ranked receiver Kelly has brought to Notre Dame, did not get in the game, and the Irish coach said he'll see action as he gets better with his “traits.”
“This isn't just about football, he's got football talent,” Kelly said. “We've got to continue to work on his attention to detail and his focus and we're getting better there.”
Safety Kyle Hamilton had seven tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hit in the first half but sprained his ankle in the third quarter. He did not return, but Kelly said Monday that scans came back clean (no breaks) and that the 2019 Freshman All-American is day to day. He'll be in a walking boot until Wednesday and could play Saturday against South Florida.
Former Homestead wide receiver Ben Skowronek left Saturday's game in the second quarter with a hamstring injury and is probably going to be out this week because of it, Kelly said. The Irish said after the game Saturday the injury is not serious.
Skowronek was not listed on the depth chart released Monday after starting Saturday.
The Fort Wayne native was replaced on the depth chart by sophomore Braden Lenzy, the former Oregon track star who made a name for himself on gadget plays in 2019. Lenzy did not play Saturday, and Kelly said Monday it was because of a hamstring injury that sapped some of his elite speed. Kelly expects Lenzy to be ready to go against South Florida.
As if the backfield behind Williams wasn't already crowded enough, Kelly said that redshirt sophomore C'Bo Flemister didn't get any carries Saturday only because he was recovering from a collarbone injury and he'll likely be 100% against USF.
Note: Notre Dame announced Monday that four players sat out Saturday for coronavirus reasons. Two of them tested positive last week and two others were in quarantine for contact tracing purposes.
vs. South Florida
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
Records: No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0), South Florida (1-0)
TV: USA Network
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM