Saturday will not be entirely about Notre Dame junior running back Jafar Armstrong, it just may seem that way.
Given how quickly the Irish reincorporated junior tight end Cole Kmet when he returned from injury — the target of passes on three of Notre Dame’s first four snaps at Georgia — it will not come as the slightest of surprises if the Irish open the primetime matchup with USC (7:30 ET; NBC) by giving the ball to Armstrong.
That was always the plan entering the season, as made evident by him touching the ball three teams within Notre Dame’s first five plays in the opener at Louisville. He and senior running back Tony Jones were on the field for all five of those plays, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long at ease in his preferred two-back set.
Then Armstrong tore his abdomen running a crossing route. He actually toughed out a five-yard carry after the injury, but that can be chalked up to adrenaline and youthful toughness.
Notre Dame has missed his versatility and speed out of the backfield since. Yet, Irish head coach Brian Kelly wants to temper expectations, understandably so given how uncomfortable a tear of the abdomen muscle sounds.
“I don’t know if we can expect him to throw on a cape and play like Superman this weekend,” Kelly said Monday. “There is going to be a process of coming back, especially at the running back position. You can’t go from not playing for six weeks and have a workload of 50 plays. If we could get 20 plays out of him, that would be terrific.”
Perhaps Kelly was dabbling in his usual coach-speak, maybe that was utterly sincere. Either way, there is no better opponent remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule for Armstrong to get his feet wet against. The Trojans give up 4.51 yards per carry, worst among the seven Irish foes to come, tied with Duke. When Notre Dame comes out of the idle week, it will face a Michigan defense allowing just 3.28 yards per rush, a number likely to drop further this week at Illinois.
That USC front should allow the Irish to approach a preferred offensive balance. Statistically, it has been there of late, particularly against the woeful Bowling Green defense, but practically, Notre Dame has yet to combine an efficient rushing performance with an explosive passing showing.
“Whatever those numbers are, whether it’s 150 (yards rushing) and 275 (yards passing), you’re looking for that kind of ratio-balance where you’ve established the run and have a big play opportunity in the passing game,” Kelly said Sunday. “We want to continue down that road.”
Armstrong alone, however, will not solve all of senior quarterback Ian Book’s inconsistencies. He will not make the timing of a downfield throw any easier. He will not make the pocket more secure, particularly since it is Jones who truly excels in pass protection. And he will not make working through progressions less necessary.
Well, to that last one, perhaps Armstrong could.
“He was a trained wide receiver in high school, so we start with really good sense in the passing game, ball skills, route running,” Kelly said. “He’s explosive. When I say that, it’s the combination of speed and power. He has top-end speed as good as any of the backs.”
Armstrong should create further offensive mismatches, a la Kmet, for Book to exploit. There was a reason the Irish opened exclusively with two-back looks on the first drive against Louisville. The combination of Armstrong and Jones puts two backs on the field, both adept in rushing, receiving and blocking.
Now that he finally has this season’s full array of offensive playmakers at his disposal, how will Long use them? Beginning with two-back sets was expected; the emergence of sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble was not. Kmet’s quick impact was anticipated; Tremble establishing himself as a blocking force was not.
The last few weeks have featured an influx of two tight end sets, a means of going both big and dynamic, as Kmet and Tremble each could either block for Jones or could slice down the seam as preferred targets for Book. Long will certainly not remove that from his repertoire, but incorporating a second back would come at the expense of a receiver. Then again, a package of Kmet, Tremble, Armstrong, Jones and senior receiver Chase Claypool would put most defensive coordinators in an unenviable bind.
It has not been available to Long since last September, those five plays at Louisville aside. When a knee infection knocked Armstrong out of action last year, only to then be done in by an ankle sprain, Long no longer had two backs who could reliably present as receivers. As explosive as Dexter Williams was, work in the passing game was not a trusted facet of his game.
Now, the Irish have a variety of offensive looks available and finding at least one that works against USC will be needed.
Needed because the Trojans will score. Consider it inevitable and a result of a receiving corps that exposed Notre Dame last season, as well.
“You start there offensively with the best wide receiving corps that we’ll see all year, without question,” Kelly said. “The trio of (Michael) Pittman, (Tyler) Vaughns and (Amon-Ra) St. Brown, just a very, very talented group, and they complement each other extremely well.
“Pittman is explosive, gets down the field, big-play receiver. Catches everything that’s thrown his way. Vaughns obviously has great length. It’s a matchup issue. And then St. Brown in the slot is physical, competitive, does all the tough jobs, as well.”
In good times, that would be a challenge for the Irish secondary. Without fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford — somehow expected back against Michigan, per Kelly on Thursday — these are not good times for the Irish defensive backfield.
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A year ago, USC counteracted the Irish pass rush by getting the ball out quickly to those receivers. It proved troublesome. Trojans new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell will certainly have some added wrinkle for Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea to match, but if there is anyone on the Irish coaching staff trusted to win a battle of adjustments, it is Lea.
Meanwhile, forcing those adjustments on the other side of the ball will be Long’s task, now with a returned playmaker to ease his creative burden.