One moment he is a running back, the next a receiver. That isn’t just sophomore Jafar Armstrong on the field during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory against No. 14 Michigan on Saturday. That is also Armstrong after the game answering questions.
His excellent preseason practice, highlighted by near-weekly public praise from Irish head coach Brian Kelly, earned Armstrong the start over junior Tony Jones. That led to Armstrong getting a hand-off on the game’s seventh play from scrimmage, taking it 13 yards for his first career score. He finished with 35 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. That was the running back.
“If scoring two touchdowns is my part, I’m happy for that,” Armstrong said.
It was not a surprise to him that he would start. The coaching staff tipped him off nearly two weeks ago, per Armstrong. He spent the next week peppering teammates with questions about their first starts until concluding it was just football as always.
Treating football the same at all times is a large part of what made getting Armstrong involved such a priority. Rather than treat his freshman year merely as time on the sidelines, he looked at it as a prolonged audition.
“Any way that you can get yourself seen, no matter where it is, you do it,” he said. “My goal last year, I’m not playing, I said, when it’s my time to get reps, I’m going to go every single rep 100 percent so it shows on film and coach Kelly, [offensive coordinator Chip] Long and [running backs coach Autry] Denson, whoever sees it, and I get noticed.”
It worked. If Armstrong had not shown an unexpected level of endurance, he may not have been the staff’s choice to bolster depth at running back, moving him over from receiver. There was an inherent risk to making that switch, nonetheless.
Receivers operate largely in open spaces, especially when compared to running backs and their interactions with defensive linemen. Reading the field is a completely different task from one position to the other. The figurative books may be the same language, but they are different genres. That can often be the downfall of a receiver making a backfield cameo. Not for Armstrong, the running back.
“[His vision is] better than we had imagined,” Kelly said Saturday. “… As we continue to develop, he’s only going to be a better football player. That’s why we were okay playing him right away, and not waiting on him.”
Not that some receiver habits are still not prevalent in Armstrong’s game, and not just in his pass-catching skills that showed themselves in two receptions for 11 yards this weekend. He still runs like a receiver, exposing a bigger target to opposing linebackers such as Wolverines junior Devin Bush, whom Armstrong credited with landing a “couple good hits.” Kelly mentioned the need for lowered pad level in Saturday’s postgame, but Armstrong did not need to hear the reminder. Bush had already made it pretty clear.
“I did a below average job of pad level today,” Armstrong said. “I was getting it, getting pushed back. I wasn’t trying to think about it. I was trying to go out, first start.”
Here, Armstrong betrays some of his greenness at the position by outright admitting it.
“I am a little raw at running back. I’ve only been playing it since March. There are a bunch of things I have to work on.”
But ask Armstrong if he is a receiver or a running back, and he does not even consider hedging.
“I’m definitely a running back.”
BUT NOT THE ONLY RUNNING BACK
If you’re reading this space, you probably watched the Irish victory Saturday. You probably remember senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had some longer runs, so you figure he was the team’s leading rusher. Who was second?
No, not Armstrong with his two touchdowns. Rather, Jones took nine carries for 45 yards, an even 5.0 yards per rush average. His first carry came in the second quarter, and Jones promptly took it for 12 yards and a first down, adding seven more on the next two plays.
While starting Armstrong undoubtedly was primarily due to his playmaking, there was some intentionality of reserving Jones for a little bit.
“It really helps us with Tony, because as you can see when he gets in there, he’s physical,” Kelly said of the 5-foot-11, 220-pound back. “We were knocking some guys out of the game because of his physicality when he’s fresh.”
The split in running back carries may fluctuate between 50/50 and wildly toward Armstrong over the next few weeks, but Jones’ quiet contributions made it clear Saturday that Notre Dame has multiple complete backs this season. None of them are the caliber of Josh Adams, but the rotation may spare them the nagging injuries that limited Adams throughout 2017’s second half.
ON WIMBUSH AND BOOK AND RB INDIFFERENCE
It seemed too coincidental to be actual coincidence, but all indications are Armstrong’s two touchdowns coming on junior quarterback Ian Book’s only two snaps really is nothing more than happenstance.
At the end of the first Irish drive, Wimbush drew a face-masking personal foul penalty on Michigan. More than a grab-and-twist, defensive back Tyree Kinnel’s hand slipped inside the facemask. Wimbush described it as, “My eye got gouged out.”
In came Book.
Armstrong had no idea.
“I had no clue what happened,” he said before asking the media if Wimbush had been hurt. “I got back [to the huddle] and saw Ian. … I was as surprised seeing Ian come in as you guys.”
On what looked to be a read-option play, Book gave the ball to Armstrong who enjoyed the rewards of the offensive line’s large hole.
When Armstrong found the end zone in the second quarter, it was again from Book and Armstrong was again surprised, but that rendition may have been more planned. It resulted in a traditional handoff from four yards out.
“There’s a package set up for [Book] in short yardage and in some blue-zone situations where we think he can handle some direct snap offense, pro-style, that really fits him,” Kelly said Sunday. “… We want to keep him involved in the game. Brandon is going to run the ball a lot this year. He’s going to need a blow here and there. That’s why it’s important we have those packages in there so [Book is] always feeling the football in some fashion, getting him in the game, keeping him ready.”
One can safely presume Book’s pro-style package includes more than just turning and giving the ball to Armstrong, even if that was all coincidence revealed in the opener.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— Quick start, strong defense make Notre Dame too much for Michigan
— Things We Learned: In its line and safeties, Notre Dame’s defense shows strengths not seen in years
— Notre Dame loses defensive interior depth with Tagovailoa-Amosa broken foot
— Auburn and Notre Dame are contenders
— On Louisville’s defense and its coordinator, one Brian VanGorder
— With Bryce Love Bottled Up, Stanford’s Offense Finds a New Lethal Weapon
— The Way Back to Syracuse by quarterback Rex Culpepper
— ‘Messy’: QB transfers the new normal in college football