Notre Dame Football Notebook: Backfield In Motion
After losing junior starting running back Jafar Armstrong to a rectus abdominis (abdominal muscle) tear in the season opener at Louisville that could sideline him all of September — and possibly longer — the Notre Dame backfield dealt with another potential setback during this weekend’s scrimmage when sophomore Jahmir Smith suffered a sprained toe.
Smith — who carried eight times for 24 yards against the Cardinals, highlighted by three- and one-yard touchdown runs — will practice with the team in preparation for this Saturday’s home opener versus New Mexico, but he will be closely evaluated on how many reps he can handle.
As a contingency option, junior Avery Davis — who redshirted as a quarterback in 2017, moved to running back in 2018 and shifted to cornerback this spring — is back this week aiding the running back corps. He will not cross-train at corner while working at running back.
“Avery is a great teammate,” head coach Brian Kelly said of yet another position change for Davis. “If I was Avery, I would be sick of the head coach, too. He just wants to get on the field. We’re in a need situation.
“He wasn’t getting a lot of time defensively, so he was anxious about the opportunity and excited about the opportunity of coming on the offensive side of the ball and seeing what he could do to help us. … Avery is not a complementary piece for Jahmir. He’s a complementary piece for Jafar.”
Kelly did not put a time table on how long Armstrong will be shelved, but did say it would be “a few weeks” because of the reattachment process that was involved in the surgery.
As for the 5-11, 202-pound Davis, he appeared in nine games last season in a reserve role and carried 22 times for 70 yards (3.2 yards per carry). He also caught five passes for 30 yards.
Senior Tony Jones Jr. is the bell cow figure among the corps, and he finished with 110 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries against Louisville. Physicality, versatility as a runner, receiver and blocker, and assignment correctness are the calling cards for the 5-11, 224-pound Jones, who has had his own injury setbacks the past couple of years.
“He is comfortably fitting who he is,” Kelly said. “He’s not trying to be somebody else. He’s assignment correct. He’s physical at the point of attack. He’s doing his job, and he’s being Tony Jones, and I kind of like that.”
Also aiding the backfield corps will be freshman Kyren Williams (5-9, 205) and sophomore C’Bo Flemister (5-11, 200), who will be the deep men on kickoff returns with Armstrong sidelined.
Williams appeared for one play on offense at Louisville, but he was not reinserted after dropping a pass. Flemister finished the final series of the game for the Irish with three carries for five yards. He picked up seven yards on his first attempt.
Cole Kmet Practicing Again
The junior starting tight end, who broke his collarbone during practice at Culver Academies Aug. 8 was involved in seven-on-seven drills last week, and some full team work as well. The X-rays taken last week showed significant progress, and he has been cleared by the medical staff to do football-related drills in practices.
The issue now boils down to whether to use him against the five-touchdown underdog New Mexico Lobos this Saturday when junior starter Brock Wright and emerging sophomore Tommy Tremble (three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown at Louisville) are available, or give Kmet a little extra time to rest and get back into a rhythm for the showdown at No. 3 Georgia Sept. 21.
“We’ll make a decision at what level we want to engage him this week, but his X-rays looked really good,” Kelly said. “… That’s going to be a day-to-day situation as to how we see how far we want to accelerate him.”
Kelly believes Kmet is healed to a point where he could take snaps against New Mexico.
“That will be a decision that we make within the program as to whether we choose to do that,” Kelly stated.
Junior starting wide receiver Michael Young, who incurred his broken collarbone Aug. 17, also has continued to progress satisfactorily, although not yet ready for game snaps this week.
“I don’t know want to get too technical here, but you’re looking for problems like non-healing — and we don’t have that with him, which is a good sign,” Kelly noted of Young.
Business As Usual
Although last weekend was a bye for the Fighting Irish, they went through a normal game-week routine, including a Saturday scrimmage, because it is so early in the year.
“I didn’t want to go a full week without contact and tackling,” Kelly said. “We got some live tackling in there with our ones, our key backups.
“We worked on special situations that I didn’t think that we were quite up to snuff in, and really spent a lot of time on those in particular. You could probably all figure out which those situations were.”
That likely featured short-yardage work, which included failing to convert two third-and-one and two third-and-two situations, in addition to coming up short on a fourth-and-four pass.
It was also a time to “take reps” with the veterans — including captains such as quarterback Ian Book plus defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara — on not getting too caught up with outcomes over the process.
“A lot of our veterans got caught up in a little bit too much of wanting to make plays instead of being much more focused on their technique,” Kelly said. “Consequently, that got them into some trouble.
“They did a great job this past off week getting focus back on their technique, and I’m confident you’ll see that this weekend.”
Although the weekly depth chart released by each school the week of the game often is referred to as a “two deep,” three inside linebackers apiece were listed at both Mike and Buck.
Junior Drew White is the starter at Mike, with sophomores Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer behind him, while fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal is No. 1 at Buck, with junior Jordan Genmark Heat and sophomore Jack Lamb next on the list.
“Clearly we have more than two guys that can play there,” said Kelly, noting that Bauer in particular excelled during the bye week. “So [defensive coordinator Clark Lea] has to figure out time, down and distance, and who are the guys that need to be matched up together as well. That’s a big consideration.
“I don’t know that there’s a clean over-the-boards rotation for him. He’s trying to get to that. I think you’ll continue to see more than two guys going in and out of the game … it is a pretty fluid situation.”