Armstrong to lead Irish 2019 running attack
Grant DelVecchio | Saturday, April 13, 2019
Heading into the season last year, the Irish had a huge question mark next to the running back position in terms of who would fill the void left by senior Dexter Williams’ four-game suspension to start off the year, as well as former Irish running back Josh Adams’ departure to the NFL. Most of the production during those four games came from then-sophomore Jafar Armstrong and senior Tony Jones Jr., and while the numbers were meager, the backs were helped out by the legs of quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book. Upon Williams’ return, the senior immediately broke out, and finished the year leading the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, with 941 and 12, respectively.
While Williams is the lone departure at the running back position from last year’s team, the void left behind is arguably bigger than when Adams left in 2017. However, there is a lot returning for Notre Dame’s run game in 2019, and experience definitely won’t be an issue moving forward, as the group of Jafar Armstrong, senior Tony Jones Jr., freshman Kyren Williams, and sophomores C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith have quite the potential.
With all of this being said, spring training coming to a close and the annual Blue-Gold game in the books, it is clear that Armstrong will be at the helm of the Irish running attack heading into the 2019 season.
”He can catch the football, he’s starting to find a running back’s vision, if you will, where he’s really starting to understand how to stay perpendicular and cut. Last year he was a 45 degree cut and that was it, and now he’s staying square, and he’s just learning, and you can see that starting to come. We knew he was a physical player. All those backs run physical, I don’t think there’s a guy who doesn’t, but he’s taken that step up,” head coach Brian Kelly said.
Originally set to play wide receiver at Missouri coming out of high school, Armstrong has done an excellent job developing his run game and repertoire as a three-down back who is lethal in the passing game over just two full seasons with the Irish. Last season, Armstrong finished with 72 total carries for 383 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, and 14 receptions for 159 yards in the passing game. In the Blue-Gold game on Saturday afternoon, Armstrong finished the game with nine carries for 85 yards and a touchdown, in addition to catching four passes for 71 yards. His performance Saturday proved he could pose a very tough matchup for any linebacker unlucky enough to have to guard him in coverage.
Armstrong owes a lot of his growth and development as a running back to the leaders he’s played behind in Williams, Jones Jr., and even Adams.
”Tony and Dex have led the way, and I’ve seen guys like Josh who show what it takes to be a Notre Dame running back, so I’m just trying to keep that legacy going by doing my part along with the other backs. So far this spring has been good. Me and Tony have kind of taken that leadership role, and I think we had a really good spring, and we really got a lot of really good work in,” Armstrong said.
Although the increased playing time has thrust him into the limelight of this team, Armstrong admitted that vocal leadership doesn’t always come naturally to him.
”I’m not the type of person who’s going to be a loud guy, I’ll be loud sometimes, but most of the time I’m just trying to lead by example and let my play and my work ethic show,“ Armstrong said. “… Me and the O-Line have had a great relationship since last year, I’m around those guys a lot and they block really hard for me, so I owe a lot to them because playing O-Line you don’t get a lot of credit, but these guys deserve all the credit.“
One criticism of Armstrong‘s since coming to Notre Dame has been his field vision and cutting ability, and Armstrong believes that his biggest strides over the offseason have come in terms of his vision.
”I would definitely say my vision, the game has slowed down so much, and I think it‘s kind of cliche but just being out there today I was able to see holes and make cuts that I wouldn‘t have made during the games last year. … My running back IQ has improved so much but that‘s just playing the game more. … You just have to be patient and keep going at it and that’s all I’m doing right now,” Armstrong said.
He also noted other aspect that’s integrated in his game this offseason.
”Just from a complete football player in all facets, from pass-blocking to vision to making cuts to lowering my shoulder I feel like I’ve really improved in that,” Armstrong said. “I have a lot more work to do before the first game, but this is a great starting point and I feel like I definitely made some strides this spring and I’m excited for the season.”
While it is true that Armstrong has emerged as the favorite coming out of the backfield for the Irish, the 6-foot-1 junior isn’t planning on settling anytime soon.
”My work ethic is never going to change, nothing is given. Just because you’re the number one back now, a lot can change when the fall comes, so I come with the same mindset everyday that I am going to attack the day because in college football nothing is given. Like I said anything can happen, and you have to earn every opportunity you get,”Armstrong said.
As spring winds down to a close, many questions remain for the Irish and how they will respond to last year’s success, but one thing is for sure — Armstrong will be at the front of the pack of the running back group in 2019, and rightfully so.