Leftovers & Links: Whether he is a RB or a WR, Armstrong looks to make plays for Notre Dame


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.”

Nine carries may not seem like much, but junior Tony Jones only exceeded his Saturday workload once last year, when he took all of 10 carries against Wake Forest. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020


Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach


Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.