When Notre Dame opened preseason practices three months ago, its first-unit offense featured names like Cole Kmet, Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong. The right side of the line consisted of three-year starters Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey. Of the 11 to start practice on Aug. 4, only sophomore center Jarrett Patterson looked to be a distinct question.
When the now-No. 15 Irish (6-2) opened the season on Labor Day in Louisville, Tony Jones joined Armstrong in the starting lineup, a two-back look that drove the offense down the field in only six plays on the first drive of the season.
Of those seven names, only Patterson has been a mainstay this season. Kmet missed the first two games due to a broken collarbone; Young lost time to the same injury before opting to transfer. Armstrong tore an abdomen muscle on that first drive, and Jones has missed most of the last two games. Kraemer sprained an MCL at Michigan, and then Hainsey broke his ankle against Virginia Tech.
That initial first-unit offense lined up in a competitive game exactly zero times.
There are other reasons the offense has struggled this season, a myriad of other reasons, averaging 32 points per game. That may sound like plenty of output, but it is neither what is needed in college football in 2019 nor what was expected from Notre Dame this season. In Ian Book’s eight starts in 2018’s regular season, the Irish averaged 36.6 points per game. Building on that was the base line.
Instead, injuries have compounded inefficient play. This weekend, for the first time since that opening drive at Louisville, Notre Dame might be able to return to the two-back set that has long been Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preference.
That drive went 75 yards in six plays, directly relying on a running back on five plays and using one as a decoy on the sixth. Armstrong did not return until three plays against USC and was up for only four touches at Michigan, where Jones suffered a rib cartilage injury in the first half that kept him out of the next three halves entirely.
In their respective places, sophomore Jahmir Smith showed adeptness bowling over opponents, but a hand injury limited his effectiveness in the passing game. Classmate C’Bo Flemister has not yet shown an ability in that respect. And junior cornerback-turned-running back Avery Davis had not shown comfort in his return to the backfield until the final, game-winning drive a week ago.
Thus, the importance of Armstrong and Jones.
“We saw some really good things today with Jafar Armstrong back in for the first time,” Kelly said after last week’s 21-20 victory against Virginia Tech. “You got to go back to him. He’s going to mean too much to our offense.”
That was without Jones, when Armstrong was the only trusted option in the backfield, taking 19 carries for 37 yards and catching four passes for 49 yards.
“I think what [Jafar] feels more comfortable doing right now is using his size and running somebody over,” Kelly said Sunday. “But there’s no question that yards after the catch are also the ability to make people miss.”
If all finally goes to plan, if Jones’ game-time decision goes the other way than it did last week, then Notre Dame’s offense may be able to show some of the wrinkles it always wanted. Of course, by no means is that the only reason the Irish firepower has fallen so short of expectations.
“We’ve got to earn everything, it doesn’t come easy,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to scratch and claw and that’s why we can’t miss open receivers or miss some easy opportunities. We’ve got to take advantage of those, because we’re putting it together, certainly, but it doesn’t come easy and we got to continue to develop and continue to recruit and continue to put our kids in good position.”
That is a symptom of depth, rather, a lack thereof. It is a reflection of questionable long-term development. And it is a result of injuries to players Notre Dame could not lose this year, be they Kmet and Young or Armstrong and Jones.
The one area the Irish have depth is its offensive line. Losing Kraemer and Hainsey at right guard and right tackle, respectively, is far from ideal, but fifth-year Trevor Ruhland brings veteran savvy to right guard and junior Josh Lugg is the type of lineman simply needing playing time, an opportunity.
Sophomore John Dirksen will be needed to spell Ruhland.
There is a touch of here-we-go-again in that Notre Dame’s backfield returns to full health for the first time since 8:09 p.m. on Labor Day only as the Irish line replaces its right side.
For the first time since a 2002 trip to No. 18 Air Force, an Irish game is not on a national broadcast. By 7:30 ET, anyone wanting to watch should confirm they have access to the ACC Network.
Most cable companies offer it by now, but at least one notable holdout remains. To work around this issue, either find a friend happy to share a YouTube TV account login (thanks, Corey) or activate a weeklong trial for the service. A similar option should work with Hulu’s live television service, as well. For further information, meander over to getACCN.com.
It is only one week, and it is not likely to be a problem with that one holdout much longer, if logic proves accurate.