Armstrong’s emergence balances Irish offense
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, September 7, 2018
“I mean, he’s going to play. You know how we roll here. We’re going to go with the guy that’s playing really well.”
During Notre Dame’s Blue and Gold game this past spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly was still figuring out who would fill the sizeable hole(s) in the backfield, as Notre Dame (1-0) suddenly had serious question marks at one of its biggest positions.
After the departures of Josh Adams and Deon McIntosh, who both played a major role last season in the revamped offense in which the Irish finished seventh in the country with 269.5 yards per game, Team 130 had a glaring hole to fill. In the short term, the only two returning running backs with game experience, senior Dexter Williams and junior Tony Jones Jr., looked set to feature prominently in the upcoming season, and Kelly echoed the sentiment after the spring game.
But the Irish didn’t just stop at two backs.
Over the offseason, sophomores Avery Davis and Jafar Armstrong, listed and recruited originally to play quarterback and wide receiver, respectively, began taking handoffs in the backfield. With both playing in positions jammed in the depth chart, Kelly and the staff elected to utilize both players’ athleticism on the field, rather than keep it on the bench. Heading into the matchup with Michigan, the news that Williams was apparently suspended internally for four games made the switches that much more important.
Against the Wolverines this past weekend, the sophomore, who had never taken a collegiate handoff previously, came out with the Irish first team on their opening drive. With Williams out and Jones on the sidelines, Armstrong did not disappoint, capping off an impressive first go-around with a 13-yard run for his first career touchdown.
“It’s going to be awhile before he really gets all the nuances, but he’s an elite football player,” Kelly said postgame on Armstrong’s performance. “He’s just really raw. He runs as you see, high, but he can catch it, and he’s physical, and he’s game. He’ll go as long and as hard as he can, and you love that about players that just don’t get tired. He just has that kind of cardiac ability.
“ … As we continue to develop, he’s only going to be a better football player. That’s why we were OK playing him right away, and not waiting on him and then it really helps us with Tony, because as you can see when he gets in there, he’s physical. I mean, we were knocking some guys out of the game because of his physicality when he’s fresh.”
Kelly kept the committee going all night, as Armstrong finished his night with 15 carries for 35 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Jones also added 45 yards on nine carries, and Davis ran the ball twice and caught a pass.
“Quite honestly, we didn’t know if we were going to get two or 15 carries,” Kelly said Sunday of Armstrong. “We were probably of the same opinion of most of you guys, that we weren’t sure how it was going to shake out until we started to play the game. We knew we were going to start him, then kind of go from there.
“ … But I thought Tony came in and complemented him well with some physical runs. Then we kind of just played off those two. Avery gave him a blow. It just organically went that way. We didn’t have any predisposed idea of how it was going to go. We kind of needed to get into the flow of game.”
While Irish starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush remains a threat on the ground — the senior set a Notre Dame record with 14 rushing touchdowns last season — having the complement of talented backs gives the Irish another dimension to attack with.
“I’m excited,” Wimbush said Wednesday. “We have two new guys back there taking reps at a new position, and obviously Dexter is not available right now, and I think when he comes back you add him to the mix with the three guys we already have — we have so many different types of backs, and that’s hard to defend against, and all of these guys can catch out of the backfield as you saw, so I’m excited for the four, five guys that we have.”