No doubting Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong's position now

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Jafar Armstrong doesn’t need a slash in his position. He’s not a hybrid, a gadget player or a secret weapon.

He’s a running back.

After starting his first career game and scoring two touchdowns from the position in the season opener against Michigan, the Notre Dame sophomore can’t run away from that reality. He doesn’t want to either.

“I’m definitely a running back now,” Armstrong said. “I’ve been doing this since the spring. The thing with football is, I don’t try to have a position. I try to just be a playmaker. Wherever coach puts me, I’ll try to make plays from.”

The 6-foot-1, 218-pound former wide receiver showed flashes of brilliance in his backfield debut. He read his blocks and avoided Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel to score a 13-yard touchdown just 1:25 into the game.

Armstrong didn’t even need to make anyone miss on his second touchdown of the game. He won a race to the pylon to his left for a four-yard score in the second quarter.

“O-line did an amazing job,” Armstrong said. “Running through gaps like that, you don’t get that everywhere. I’m just blessed to have an O-line like that.”

The Roeland Park (Kan.) Bishop Miege product is already talking like a running back too.

Nearly every time head coach Brian Kelly spoke to reporters about Armstrong in the preseason, Kelly noted the conditioning of the new running back. Kelly mentioned it again after Saturday’s game.

“He’ll go as long and as hard as he can, and you love that about players that just don’t get tired,” Kelly said. “He just has that kind of cardiac ability.”

That’s not by accident. Armstrong didn’t see the field in his freshman season. That motivated him to find a way to stand out to Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson.

“My goal from not playing last year, I said, ‘You know what? When it’s my time to practice, my time to get reps, I’m going to go every single rep 100 percent so it shows on film and coach Kelly, coach Long, coach Denson, whoever sees it,’” Armstrong said. “’Then I get noticed.’”

Consider Armstrong noticed.

He’s not a finished product, and he fully admits that. Armstrong identified his pad level as his No. 1 area for improvement after being hit hard a few times against Michigan.

But Armstrong still led the Irish running backs with 15 carries. Even if those runs resulted in only 35 yards, it’s an indication that Notre Dame’s coaching staff won’t hesitate to rely on him.

Armstrong said he learned he would start the Michigan game a little more than a week prior to Saturday. Junior running back Tony Jones Jr., who rushed nine times for 45 yards against the Wolverines, figured to be the lead back because of his experience (44 carries in 2017).

Young running backs like Armstrong typically have to answer the same questions. Can they help in pass protection? Will they hold onto the ball? Armstrong did enough in spring practice and preseason camp to ease any of those doubts.

As Armstrong said Saturday, ball security is job security.

“He did a lot of things on the football field for a first start,” Kelly said. “He returned kicks. He was catching the football. He was picking up blitzers. He was running the football. He was in a number of different alignments.

“We asked a lot for a first-time starter, so I think all that versatility in itself is quite a load, and I think he handled it very well with a great demeanor. He wasn’t overwhelmed with the stage nor with the assignment that we gave him.”

The start, the first carry, the first touchdown — none of it was taken for granted.

“It’s a dream come true,” Armstrong said. “I was trying to find motivation for (last) week and trying to find ways to calm myself. I’ve been doing this for a long time — football. As we all have. But everything I’ve ever — every workout, every game I’ve ever played was to get to this moment.”

Notre Dame sophomore Jafar Armstrong (8) ran for two touchdowns in his first game as a running back.