Notebook: Surprise, surprise. Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong gets up to speed

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly is not a big fan of surprises.

Or at least admitting one popped up on his Notre Dame football team right under his nose.

The Irish head football coach was willing to make an exception Thursday night. Running back Jafar Armstrong’s recovery from a knee infection that required surgery has been that remarkable.

“Surprised. Very surprised,” Kelly said of his third-leading rusher. “It looks like he hasn’t been out. I mean he’s running 20 miles an hour and physical.”

The 6-foot-1, 218-pound converted wide receiver last played in a game on Sept. 22 at Wake Forest, where he ran for a career-high 98 yards and two TDs on eight carries in a 56-27 Irish romp.

Until Monday, the last time Armstrong practiced was four weeks ago.

On Saturday night, he’ll be part of the deepest running back rotation the third-ranked Irish (7-0) have had available at any time this season when Notre Dame and Navy (2-5) clash for the 92nd time, but the first of those meetings staged in San Diego.

Kickoff for what is technically the Mids’ home game is 8 EDT. CBS has the telecast.

Senior Dexter Williams was suspended for ND’s first four games, but has emerged as the team’s leading rusher in just three games of game action (370 yards on 51 carries, 4 TDs). Junior Tony Jones Jr. (314 on 62 carries, 3 TDs) and Armstrong (264 yards on 47 carries, 5 TDs) form a nice power complement to Williams.

Converted QB Avery Davis and freshmen C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith have also seen spot duty. A redshirt season is still in play for both freshmen, since neither has reached the new four-game threshold (two games each).

“Our trainers and doctors were like, ‘Put him in bubble wrap. Put a red jersey on him,’ ” Kelly said of Armstrong.

“He was like, ‘I don’t want a red jersey. I’m fine. Let me go.’ He looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. We’re going to have to be concerned with his cardiovascular endurance, but he’s ready to go.”

A cut above

Brian Kelly described junior defensive end Daelin Hayes as anxious to play against Navy — and fully healthy for that matter. Same with fellow end Khalid Kareem.

In fact there’s been a shift in Notre Dame’s defensive linemen’s attitude about playing against Navy and its cut-blocking style, in part Kelly says, because that style has shifted.

“They (the Mids) are bigger,” Kelly said. “They’re much more physical up front. (In years past), it was a much smaller team that had to rely on much more finesse and cut-blocking. That’s not who they are now.”

Junior Julian Okwara was the only one of the Irish starting defensive linemen who didn’t play against Navy in last year’s 24-17 ND win, but he did see action against both Navy and triple-option kin Army his freshman year in 2016.

“He’ll be a good player for us against Navy,” Kelly said.

Defensive debuts

Bob Diaco, Kelly’s first of four defensive coordinators during his nine-year run at ND, struggled mightily the first time he had to game plan for the triple-option while coaching for the Irish.

In 2010, the Mids amassed 367 rushing yards — their most ever in the history of the series — converted 10 of 13 third-down opportunities and got 200-plus yards from a fullback for the first time in school history in a 35-17 Navy victory at East Rutherford, N.J.

Next was Brian VanGorder, whose Irish defense yielded 454 total yards, including 336 rushing yards, in a 49-39 ND victory at Landover, Md., in 2014.

Mike Elko had the best ND debut to date among the Kelly Era coordinators in a 24-17 win over Navy last November. The Mids ran for 277 yards on 72 carries (3.8 per carry), well below their season averages (351.4 and 5.6).

Elko’s successor, Clark Lea, was ND’s linebackers coach last season. Lea’s only other experience with triple-option as an FBS assistant coach was when he and Elko were together at Wake Forest in 2016.

Army beat Wake that year, 21-13, rallying for two fourth-quarter TDs, but the Elko/Lea defense held Army to 238 yards on 64 carries (3.7), well below the season averages of 339.5 and 5.6.

Folston back in the running

Running back Tarean Folston this week became the fifth former Irish player to sign with the upstart professional league Alliance of American Football.

Folston, who last played for ND in 2016 and went undrafted the following spring, will be on the Atlanta Legends roster.

The other ex-ND players who are set to play in the eight-team league, that begins play in February, are linebacker Nyles Morgan (Arizona Hotshots), wide receiver Amir Carlisle (Birmingham Iron), cornerback Cody Riggs (Orlando Apollos) and punter Ben Turk (Orlando Apollos).

Kinder, gentler?

Kelly said the same fire that always burned inside him on game day is still there.

It’s just that it may not be quite as apparent to everyone else these days.

“I just think our team responds better if I’m able to interact with them, be there, lead them,” he said. “If I’m confident, I’m in a good position for them (and) they feed off of that. Just maturing and being a better football coach.”

When asked if that was a difficult process, Kelly responded, “Notre Dame is unique. I think my realization is more where you’re always on TV, more so than my emotions.

“You could still be an emotional coach. You can still have a fiery side to you. It’s just at Notre Dame it’s a lot more difficult to do it, because there’s a camera on you the whole time.

“I had to make a conscious decision that if I was at a different place, I could still have that and still lead, but you can’t do it here, because it’s not good.”

Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong (8) tries to get past Michigan’s Chase Winovich (15) during the Michigan at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Notre Dame's Clark Lea is amid his first season at defensive coordinator.