Running down the possibilities and potential of Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jafar Armstrong has changed both his uniform number and positions at Notre Dame more often than he has changed a game.

More times, in fact, than actual college plays logged — zero — so far for the former No. 25 and current No. 8 on the Irish football roster.

The 6-foot-1, 218-pound redshirt freshman’s history suggests he’s a savvy gamble, though, to throw reps at in practice to quickly and decisively get to the bottom of who he can become, as a running back, as a hybrid player, as an option in the return game.

As a sophomore in high school, the most prolific wide receiver in Kansas high school history when it comes to career TD catches (45) was athletic enough to step in and be the emergency starter at safety one game and thrive without having ever practiced the position.

Throughout his high school career at Bishop Miege in Roeland Park, Kan., in suburban Kansas City, Armstrong paired those physical gifts with a relentless work ethic that can actually, at Notre Dame, now be measured as unparalleled.

“He can go all day. The kid is incredible. His GPS numbers, we’ve never had them as high as his,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly explained this past week of the technology that allows the ND coaches to track work volume. “And he bounces back the next day. He’s an incredibly conditioned football player.”

And incredibly determined to define himself, primarily at a position he never dabbled in at any level until this past spring.

The range of outcomes could be anywhere from ascending out of nowhere to the lead back for a team that finished seventh nationally in rushing in 2017 to package/gadget player to a well-intentioned experiment that topped out before the season opener with Michigan, Sept. 1 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Armstrong’s opportunities (mostly with the second-team offense) and performance in the three preseason camp practices (of eight total) that have been open to the media suggest a trajectory toward the more ambitious end of that spectrum.

“Jafar is the closest thing that I’ve had to Theo Riddick since I’ve been here,” Kelly framed Saturday of the current Armstrong snapshot. “Tenacious. Runs physical, and has the skills to catch the ball coming out of the backfield. and I’m not ready to put him in that (Riddick) category, but I’m just comparing him to the kind of player that he is.

“We haven’t had that guy that can bang it up inside with that physicality. C.J. Prosise was nice, but he wasn’t Jafar. Had great speed, and this kid is going to be a really good player for us.”

Riddick, a sixth-year pro with the NFL’s Detroit Lions, and Prosise are among Kelly’s most successful position-switch experiments in his first eight seasons at Notre Dame.

Riddick, recruited by Kelly predecessor Charlie Weis as a running back, was moved to wide receiver for a couple of seasons when Kelly took over. But during ND’s run to the BCS National Championship Game in 2012, Riddick moved back to running back and gave ND the best of both worlds, including more than 900 yards in rushing and more than 350 in receptions.

Prosise was a safety-turned-wide receiver-turned running back, who ran for more than 1,000 yards, despite a run of injuries, in 2015 — his only college season as a running back. But as Kelly noted, Prosise, now with the Seattle Seahawks, was more comfortable and effective running outside than between the tackles and the former third-round draft choice still fights durability issues.

While Armstrong’s only occasional carries on offense for Bishop Miege came on jet sweeps and reverses, he consistently showed the toughness for a possible trial at running back, even at 190 pounds.

“I know that physicality, his blocking in the run game specifically, is one thing coach Kelly liked when he saw the film,” Bishop Miege coach Jon Holmes said. “Coach (offensive coordinator Chip) Long came in as well, and he kind of mentioned the same thing about that.

“I don’t know if this was ever in their plans to move him to the running back spot, but I think it’s worked out well so far. I can’t wait to see where it ends up.”

Armstrong, who has yet to be made available to the media this preseason, was part of three straight state championship teams at Miege (2014, 2015, 2016). He won state titles in track in the 100-meter dash (10.83), 200 (22.13) and 4-by-100 relay (42.7) as a junior. It wasn’t until that success on the track, though, that he received his first college football scholarship offer.

“He’s kind of freaking out and wondering, ‘Are these schools going to offer me?’ ” Holmes said of a player Rivals.com deemed a three-star prospect and merely the 77th-best wide receiver nationally in the 2017 recruiting class.

“I think part of it is where we’re located,” Holmes said of the tepid interest in Armstrong. “There are some people who might not think our level of football is very good. I had a number of coaches come through here, and they looked at him and they said, ‘If this kid was in Texas or Georgia or Florida, he’d have 45 offers.’ ”

Eventually, Northern Illinois became the first school to do so, followed by Western Michigan. When Power 5 Missouri followed suit, Armstrong quickly committed.

Notre Dame got into the picture very late in the cycle and flipped Armstrong as one of six commitments the Irish picked up in the final week before the February 2017 signing day. Five of those six decommitted from other programs.

Last August Armstrong was impressive in preseason camp with his admittedly limited opportunities, but sheer numbers at the wide receiver position eventually prompted a redshirt season.

Attrition at the running back position this winter prompted Kelly and his staff to do some depth chart engineering.

Leading rusher Josh Adams went pro early. Freshmen Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes were dismissed. and senior Dexter Williams, the presumptive No. 1 when spring started, is expected to miss the first four games of the 2018 season because of a university-imposed suspension.

Enter Avery Davis, a redshirt freshman quarterback who’s dabbling as a running back/wide receiver hybrid, and Armstrong. Packaged together, their versatility poses potential matchup problems for defenses, given the variety of formations and roles Long could shift them into pre-snap.

They could be in a two-back look just as easily as part of a four-wide receiver formation.

“Together they really add some flexibility,’ Kelly said, “but they can stand on their own.”

To what extent? and how soon?

The next couple of weeks in practice, which resumes Monday after a day off Sunday, will be telling.

“I’ve talked to Jafar a lot, and I know he really is happy with the role switch,” Holmes said. “He just wants to play and be an asset to the team. He loves to be pushed and loves to be challenged. That’s a big part of who he is.

“When he decided to come to Miege, it was a 30 minute-drive each way (from Lee’s Summit, Mo.). In the summers, we worked out at 6 a.m. every single day. That means he’s leaving his house at 5 a.m., getting up about 4:30.

“Those are those kids that when they get to be seniors and move onto college, you know they’re going to be successful, because everything that they’ve sacrificed leading up to that point is for an opportunity to do that.”

Redshirt freshman Jafar Armstrong has switched unoiform numbers, switched positions to running back, and bulked up 28 pounds since his days at Bishop Miege (Kan.) High.