SOUTH BEND — In the hierarchy of hypothetical long-term injuries that could change the trajectory of eighth-ranked Notre Dame’s football season, losing running back Jafar Armstrong would rank almost at the top.
On Wednesday the hypothetical became reality, and now so does the challenge that comes with it.
The Athletic’s Pete Sampson was first to report that the groin/abdominal injury that knocked Armstrong out of ND’s 35-17, season-opening victory at Louisville after the second Irish offensive series of Monday night’s game will keep him on the sidelines for at least five weeks and perhaps up to two months.
A source later confirmed to the Tribune that same timeline for Armstrong’s return.
That translates to an appearance against USC on Oct. 12 in the most ambitious scenario for the 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior, and Nov. 2 vs. Virginia Tech or Nov. 9 at Duke in the longer prognosis.
So no Georgia on Sept. 21 and maybe no Michigan Oct. 26 — the two games where Armstrong’s absence would figure to be felt the most.
The Irish have an open date this weekend before hosting New Mexico on Sept. 14 in the 2019 home opener.
Notre Dame has numbers in the backfield, and all five Irish running backs saw action against the Cardinals, with only sophomore C’Bo Flemister’s snaps coming in strictly low-leverage situations.
Freshman Kyren Williams didn’t have any carries in the game. On his only offensive snap near the start of the second quarter, Williams dropped a pass thrown to him on a route out of the backfield. He was then shuffled to the bottom of the deck.
Senior Tony Jones Jr., billed as running back 1B during training camp, and sophomore Jahmir Smith combined for 23 carries in the game. Jones was eight yards away from his career high Monday night, with 110 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown.
Smith amassed 24 yards on eight carries with two TDs in a niche short-yardage role for the most part.
The rub is that Armstrong not only has the most complete skill set among the five running backs on the roster, the former Kansas state sprint champ is the only one with breakaway speed.
He’s also the best receiver among the five, giving the Irish schematic and play-calling flexibility when he’s healthy.
But Armstrong hasn’t been healthy, not consistently. He missed chunks of the 2018 season with a knee infection and then a high ankle sprain. And now this, for a player who is one of the best-conditioned members on the team.
So how does what looked like the most dynamic offense of the coach Brian Kelly Era in the spring and in training camp cope with a running game comprising complementary pieces?
Perhaps quarterback Ian Book’s 14 carries Monday night, three short of his career high, becomes more of a normal workload. The passing game certainly must carry a greater burden in the offense, and tight end Cole Kmet’s progress from a broken collarbone would be an important piece to reclaim.
Jet sweeps with Lawrence Keys III and an efficient short passing game would certainly help. But the Irish need a surprise to emerge from the running back corps, much like C.J. Prosise provided in 2015.
If there is an incubating surprise, it could very well be Kyren Williams. He doesn’t have Armstrong’s speed, but he does have a lot of versatility to his game and the head start as an early enrollee will serve him well in the coming weeks.
As for Jones?
“I think there were times where he wasn’t certain what his role was and it caused him some anxiety at times,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday night after the opener. “He knows exactly what his role is, what we’re asking of him, and he’s been excellent in fulfilling that.”
And now that role changes dramatically.
Jones isn’t going to be able to provide the speed that is expected in a No. 1 back, but he can elevate his game as he did in August and play the best football of his career.
Anything else isn’t an option if Notre Dame is going to hang in the top 10 of the polls this season.