Jafar Armstrong Provides Dual Threat To Notre Dame Backfield
In every sense of the phrase, Jafar Armstrong had to learn on the run last year.
With Josh Adams’ early departure to the NFL following his junior year, the transfers of C.J. Holmes (Penn State) and Deon McIntosh (Washington State, via Eastern Mississippi Community College) for disciplinary reasons, and senior Dexter Williams sidelined the first four games in 2018 with a suspension, the wide receiver recruit Armstrong — redshirted as a freshman in 2017 — was the “in case of emergency, break glass” option to complement Tony Jones Jr. in the first one-third of the 2018 campaign.
Despite never having played running back during a record-breaking career at powerful Bishop Miege High in Kansas, where he nabbed 172 passes for 3,744 yards and 50 scores, Armstrong responded remarkably well during Notre Dame’s 4-0 start.
His 245 yards rushing during that span were second only to Jones’ 263, and his five rushing touchdowns (two versus Michigan in the opener) paced the team. He did not lose a fumble, and his seven catches out of the backfield for 87 yards also provided a boost to the attack.
An infection in his knee and some other health maladies, plus the return of Williams, limited his work thereafter, but his 542 yards total offense (383 rushing, 159 receiving) were a notable debut on a 12-1 team that advanced to the College Football Playoff.
With Williams now gone, the robust 6-1, 220-pound Armstrong is primed to evolve into a 1,000-yard total offense back like so many of his predecessors under 10th-year head coach Brian Kelly. Even last year in the preseason, Kelly said Armstrong was the closest to current seventh-year NFL player Theo Riddick (2009-12) as the prototype all-purpose back, including blocking, that he has seen in his time with the Irish.
After undergoing his running back apprenticeship last season, Armstrong won’t say it’s a position he’s mastered, but he’s now much more entrenched and comfortable in his role.
“It’s still a position that you have to learn because I haven’t played it my whole life,” he said. “But now I know what the blockers are doing, so it’s now just phase two and three, just making the second level (linebackers) miss and learning how to extend plays sometimes.
“Just keeping the IQ of the game up and learn the tendencies of the defense. I don’t think I did a very good job of that last year. There was a lot going on. Knowing what defenses are really doing before the game, knowing the blitz plays, breaking tackles … all the mistakes I made last year, not making those same ones.”
He’s also appreciating there is nothing wrong with three- or four-yard gains — instead of trying to make them 30- or 40-yard pickups and ending up with zero or negative yardage.
“He's a physical presence,” Kelly said. “He tends to want a big play every time, but his ability to pass protect and catch the football mirrors what Tony Jones can do."
“Being a [former] receiver, I’m used to a lot of big plays, running bombs for touchdowns on post routes,” Armstrong said. “That’s something I’m still trying to learn. Sometimes you’ve got to be fine with taking three, four yards as a good run.
"Sometimes you see second-and-seven and you’re like, ‘I could have done more with that.’ But it was the type of play that was supposed to be run and I just have to trust myself sometimes instead of always trying to make something out of nothing.”
In just over one half of action versus the No. 1 defense in last spring’s Blue-Gold Game, Armstrong accounted for 156 yards total offense on nine carries for 85 yards and a team high four catches for 71 yards (but also a lost fumble). That is the type of dual-threat capability envisioned and coveted by offensive coordinator Chip Long in the attack.
Now it’s about taking advantage of Armstrong’s off-the-charts work volume and staying healthy to fulfill it.
Top Rushing/Receiving Numbers Under Brian Kelly
1. 2017 Josh Adams: 1,531 —1,430 rushing, 101 receiving.
2. 2015 C.J. Prosise: 1,337 — 1,029 rushing, 308 receiving.
3. 2011 Cierre Wood: 1,291— 1,102 rushing, 189 receiving
4. 2012 Theo Riddick: 1,287 — 917 rushing, 370 receiving
5. 2018 Dexter Williams: 1,128 — 995 rushing, 133 receiving