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Jafar Armstrong, Dexter Williams prove to be explosive backfield combination

| Sunday, October 28, 2018

SAN DIEGO — In the first game for the Irish featuring both senior Dexter Williams and sophomore Jafar Armstrong, the combination was on full display in San Diego, showing no signs of jet lag as they contributed four touchdowns to lead the Irish to a 44-22 win over the Midshipmen.

Williams, who was did not play for the first four games of the season for undisclosed reasons, made his return to Notre Dame Stadium in memorable fashion, running 45-yards straight into the end zone on his first carry against Stanford, and hasn’t looked back since, averaging 123 yards and totaling four touchdowns in three games of play. His return couldn’t have come at a better time for the Irish. Facing arguably their toughest opponent at the time, Armstrong had just been announced as unavailable following a knee infection.

Junior quarterback Ian Book said having Williams in the backfield adds another dimension to the offense.

“You know when you give the ball to Dex, he’s going to do his job,” Book said. “That’s all you can do when you have a group of running backs like that. Having Dex, Jafar, honestly everybody in the running back room, it’s a key for our offense.”

Anna Mason | The Observer
Irish senior running back Dexter Williams dives for a touchdown during Notre Dame’s 44-22 win over Navy on Saturday at SDCCU Stadium.

However, this Williams looked different: equally as explosive, but more composed and strategic about his routes. Although he had his fair share of flashy 20-plus-yard rushes that allowed him to break into free space, all three of his touchdowns came within 12-yards and required an awareness of blocking and gaps in the defense.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly described this evolution is part of Williams becoming a more well-rounded player.

“I think what’s starting to come clearer to us is that Dexter is clearly becoming that top back, if you will,” Kelly said. “But he’s becoming a complete back. He has not been that for us. He got the game ball because of his blocking tonight. He was outstanding. Picked up a blitz, took care of the blitz, came back around, picked up another player. Caught the ball coming out of the backfield. That was not part of his identity as a back.”

Although the path to success hasn’t been the smoothest for Williams, his maturation has impressed many in the program.

“Just his dedication to wanting to be the best player he can be,” Kelly said. “Not worried about a million other things other than being the best version of Dexter Williams. That’s hard to do sometimes when you’re at his stage of being a fifth-year player, not playing in the first four weeks … it’s fun to coach him right now.”

For Williams, his final season in the gold helmet means more than just building his NFL stock.

“I don’t really try to chase stats,” he said. “I try to go out and win each and every game with my brothers. It doesn’t matter if I have 10 carries, 20 yards, 10 carries, 100-some yards. I really go out and try to lay it all on the line that night and really just keep moving and just keep on winning.”

While Williams might have surprised fans in his calculated decision making, Armstrong exhibited play-making skills both with and without the ball, especially with his catches out of the backfield.

That knee infection ultimately required surgery, and Armstrong wasn’t even practicing until this past Monday. Although he had an impressive quarter of the season, averaging over 60 rushing yards and 29 receiving yards, if his performance against Navy on Saturday was indicative of the direction he’s headed, those first four games were just a tease of what he’s capable.

A fourth-quarter catch is all that’s needed to explain Armstrong’s effect. With Navy knocking on the door to make this game a competition, two consecutive runs by Armstrong brought up third-and-10. With the offensive line providing ample time for Book to make a decision, he scrambled in the pocket before finding Armstrong, having snuck behind outside to make a 27-yard catch along the right sideline. This catch set up the 22-yard touchdown for senior receiver Miles Boykin that would put the Irish safely ahead of Navy, with the score holding for the remainder of the game.

“On that play, I mean, I think it’s just a broken play,” Book said. “The guys are working to try to get open for you. As a quarterback, to see Jafar sprinting down the field, there’s nothing better. Happy he was working that hard. It was a big play in the game for us.”

Armstrong’s five catches for 64 yards led all receivers in the matchup and complimented Williams, scoring the first touchdown for the Irish.

“Jafar is coming back after a month off,” Kelly said. “He’s not there yet as the runner that we want him to be. But, boy, can he catch the football. So they’re kind of identifying themselves as to who they are right now. But I think we’re going to get more out of Jafar as we continue to play.”

Even with efficient night by Book and a great supporting performance by the Notre Dame receivers and tight ends, everything kept coming down to the dynamic duo in the backfield.

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