SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Tailback U. is the well-earned sobriquet for the football program at USC.
Yet, it’s Kyren Williams who will be the most dangerous running back on the field when the Trojans visit Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night.
“Kyren,” Irish defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa said, “is nasty.”
Built like a fireplug and nearly as indestructible, the third-year sophomore from St. Louis leads the No. 13 Irish with seven touchdowns, 363 rushing yards and 563 yards from scrimmage.
Three of Williams’ touchdowns have been go-ahead scores, including two such moments in a 32-29 road win over Virginia Tech two weekends ago. That included an epic 10-yard run late in the third quarter on which Williams pinballed off at least four would-be tacklers despite the brevity of his scamper.
“He’s insane,” Notre Dame receiver (and former running back) Avery Davis said. “His ability to just maneuver through tight spaces to make people miss, his strength to stay up — he’s just entertaining, man.”
Generously listed at 5-9 and 199 pounds, Williams also has proved his worth in blitz pickup, standing in against the stoutest of linebackers and giving Notre Dame quarterbacks those precious extra milliseconds needed to get the ball downfield.
“It’s want-to,” coach Brian Kelly said. “You’ve got to want to. That’s who he is. That’s his DNA.”
Then there’s Williams the punt returner. Taking over this year for the risk-averse Matt Salerno, Williams is averaging 8.4 yards on his eight returns.
He has yet to break off a long punt return, but you get the sense with each passing week that moment is drawing closer.
Yet, it’s Williams’ role as spiritual leader where he seems to shine the brightest. When Hokies linebacker Dax Hollifield went headhunting against Williams in the waning minutes in Blacksburg, Virginia, the ensuing ejection for targeting seemed to ignite the Irish offense.
Eleven points followed in the final 2:26.
As the teams made their way off the field at game’s end, Williams could be seen shouting a few choice words at the ungracious hosts, no doubt a carryover from Hollifield’s unsuccessful knockout attempt.
Voted a team captain in August, Williams frequently sets the tone for the Irish with his boisterous personality and boundless energy.
“He’s wired that way,” Kelly said. “We test our kids, their central nervous system, on a day-to-day basis. His fitness level is off the charts. He’s just wired that he’s high energy.”
There are times, such as at the end of a long night in Blacksburg, when Williams might need to rein in his emotions. Chalk those up to growth opportunities.
“It has to be pointed in the right direction,” Kelly said of Williams’ energy. “He’s still young. There will be times that youthful energy needs to be redirected.”
As long as Williams can remember, that’s the attitude he has brought to the football field.
“I’ve always been that way ever since I was growing up,” Williams said. “My dad, he taught me that. It’s always been in my ability as a football player. It really just comes from my dad [Larry] being my coach all the way through Little League.”
Williams started out as a slot receiver at St. John Vianney in suburban Kirkwood, Missouri. He received his first scholarship offer (from Nebraska) the summer after his freshman year.
Williams set a state championship record with 289 rushing yards in his high school finale, capping off a 40-touchdown senior season that included 2,760 yards from scrimmage.
Should Williams ever feel his commitment wavering, he just looks down at the tape on his wrist.
“BAM” is the message scrawled there. It stands for “By Any Means” and dates to his freshman year, when Tony Jones Jr. brought that acronym to the running backs’ room.
“The receivers had ICE — ‘I catch everything’ — so we came up with BAM,” Williams said. “That’s what we live by. It’s our motto for anything that we do.”
It also happens to be the sound that results whenever anyone tries to get physical with Williams.