Notre Dame’s 25 Most Important Players: No. 14, Jafar Armstrong
Throughout July, BlueandGold.com is counting down the 25 most pivotal figures whom Notre Dame will rely on to get back to the College Football Playoff in 2020.
This is not necessarily about who is the best player or the top pro prospect. It’s more along the lines of individuals who need to either emerge, remain a centerpiece or significantly elevate their production to facilitate the Fighting Irish goal of climbing toward championship timber.
Much is based on talent and impact, but a premium is also placed on these questions: 1) If you subtracted this individual from the roster, how much of a setback would it be? 2) If this less proven player emerges and makes an impact, how much does that raise the ceiling (or lower it, if a breakout does not happen as expected)? The players and their ranking were determined by vote from five BlueandGold.com writers.
At No. 14 is senior running back Jafar Armstrong, who collected 58 points in our poll.
Why Armstrong Is Ranked 14th
Is there a more enigmatic member on the 2020 roster than Armstrong? Maybe junior wideout Kevin Austin, but consider this: One member of our staff had Armstrong as the third-most important figure on this year’s team, while another didn’t even have him in the top 25 countdown.
Reality is likely somewhere in between such polarity, which is why cumulatively Armstrong came in at No. 14.
To the optimist, the powerfully built 6-1, 220-pound Armstrong, recruited as a wide receiver, is the unpolished diamond in the rough, similar to unheralded former three-star recruit C.J. Prosise (2012-15) — who was listed with the same 6-1, 220 dimensions as a senior.
Prosise enrolled as a safety before playing wide receiver his sophomore and junior years. He shifted to running back as a senior and, behind a veteran line that included three first-round picks plus a second-round selection, thrived with a 1,000-yard rushing campaign that helped make him a third-round choice.
Conversely, to the cynic, Armstrong is akin to “the tallest dwarf,” or the lead figure on what might be considered the position group with the least proven personnel over the course of a full season.
Entering his senior campaign (with a fifth year of eligibility in 2021), Armstrong’s 505 career rushing yards are the most in the running back room, while his 27 receptions are the most among any returning running back, wide receiver or tight end who has played at Notre Dame.
However, his 118 career carries have averaged a relatively modest 4.3 yards, and most notably he managed just 2.7 yards per attempt last season.
Armstrong’s Status Entering The Season
Among the seven scholarship running backs — including former walk-on and current fifth-year senior Mick Assaf, who was rewarded with one last December, and Stanford graduate transfer Trevor Speights — Armstrong is deemed the front-runner.
That was the case each of the last two years as well.
Because of significant attrition at running back in 2018, the sophomore wideout Armstrong made the position switch to the backfield. He debuted with two touchdown scampers in a 24-17 victory over Michigan, began to find his stride, including running with better pad level, in game four at Wake Forest (98 yards and two scores on eight carries) — but then a few days later incurred a knee infection that required surgery. That was followed by an ankle injury. Both sidelined him or resulted in minimal action the final two-thirds of the season.
In last year’s opener at Louisville he received the start, and on the opening series carried twice for 10 yards and caught a 16-yard pass — before an abdominal muscle tear sidelined him more than a month and rendered him far less effective thereafter.
So will the third time be the charm?
He remains the biggest back on the team, yet no one else in the running back room, other than incoming freshman Chris Tyree, possesses significantly more breakaway speed. Armstrong also is a natural at catching passes.
Two years ago, head coach Brian Kelly classified Armstrong as the closest prospect he’s had to 2009-12 running back Theo Riddick, who completed his seventh season in the NFL last year.
High praise, indeed, because when it comes to running inside or outside, catching or blocking, especially on blitz pickup, Riddick is the standard in the Kelly era.
Another opportunity awaits Armstrong to live up to the lofty projection.
What Would Be Considered A Successful Individual Season?
Besides Armstrong finally experiencing a reasonably healthy campaign to complement his high energy and endurance level, our first inclination is to point to Tony Jones Jr. last year.
Jones entered his senior season with only nine more career carries than Armstrong has this year, and he had yet to establish himself as a lead figure.
Jones wasn’t flashy, but in his 11 starts last year he averaged 13 carries a game, rushed for 857 yards (highlighted by a sterling 176 in the win versus USC), averaged 6.0 yards per carry and snared 15 passes.
Jones joined a bevy of Fighting Irish backs under Kelly — Riddick, Jonas Gray, Prosise and Dexter Williams — who produced outstanding senior seasons after experiencing myriad setbacks their first three years.
Armstrong can especially be most effective and dangerous when he is mixed in as a runner and receiver. If he can prove himself to have at least 10 such touches per game, the production should ensue behind maybe the most veteran line in school annals.
One unsettling stat is that in the four games where Armstrong had at least 10 carries, the combined total on those 58 carries was 184 yards — a meager 3.2 yards per carry. The transition from receiver to running back has not come naturally, although there have been flashes.
Those flashes must now become more routine, because other options in the running back room could come into play.
Behind The Ranking
The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press poll. Five BlueandGold.com writers submitted their ballots, and each position on the ballot was given a point value. The top ranking was worth 25 points, No. 2 was worth 24, No. 3 worth 23 and so on down until No. 25, which was worth one point. The players with the 25 highest point totals made the list.
Patrick Engel: 21
Lou Somogyi: 12
Mike Singer: 10
Todd Burlage: 3
Andrew Mentock: Not ranked
Burlage on his high ranking: “Wanting to follow the success script outlined by several previous Irish running backs, Armstrong stands in line to become the next Irish back to enjoy a breakout senior year.
“And with no proven returner at this position, Armstrong’s ascent might be as important this season as any other storyline on the Notre Dame offense.”
Mentock on not ranking Armstrong: “Expectations were high for Armstrong heading into 2019, but the torn abdominal muscle he suffered against Louisville in the season opener held him back the entire season. Even once he was deemed healthy enough to return to action, his productivity suffered.
“The lone running back I put in my top 25 was Tyree, and that’s because he adds a level of speed to the Fighting Irish backfield that it has lacked for a number of years. Armstrong could easily get lost in the shuffle among backs C’Bo Flemister, Jahmir Smith and Kyren Williams, especially if he is plagued by injuries again.”