Notebook: Can Jafar Armstrong be Notre Dame's X-factor in College Football Playoff?
SOUTH BEND —In between the ponderous big-picture questions that Brian Kelly fielded Saturday came the smaller-picture revelation that a potential X-factor for Notre Dame this postseason may have finally resurfaced.
Sophomore Jafar Armstrong in September certainly filled that role, a former wide receiver-turned running back who thickened and sweetened offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook by his ability to toggle between his present and former skill sets.
Then came a knee infection that required surgery before game 5 against Stanford, an ankle injury when he recovered finally from the knee in late October and recurrences of the ankle problems throughout ND’s stretch run in November toward its first ever College Football Playoff berth.
“He’s finally healthy,” Kelly, ND’s ninth-year head coach, said Saturday shortly before the Irish launched into their first full-length practice, post-final exams week.
“He was running with no arch. No arch, no explosion. Every time it seemed that we turned a corner, something would put him back.”
Even missing three games completely in the middle of the season and hobbling through the final four, the 6-foot-1, 218-pounder heads into No. 3 ND’s CFP semifinal with No. 2 Clemson (13-0) on Dec. 29 at Arlington, Texas, as its third-leading rusher (377 yards on 71 carries).
His seven rushing TDs are second on the team, to senior Dexter Williams’ 12, and he’s the only player on the roster besides Williams with a run longer than 40 yards this season.
Armstrong’s strongest potential impact for the Irish (12-0) in the Cotton Bowl may be his ability to line up as a running back then split out as a wide receiver and create matchup problems. He averaged 12.6 yards a catch on 12 receptions, with none of those catches coming after ND’s 44-22 victory over Navy on Oct. 27.
The Navy game also happened to be the only game when a healthy Armstrong and Williams had a chance to work in tandem. Williams missed ND’s first four games of the season because of a university-imposed suspension.
“We’ll have about a 60-plus-play, full, live scrimmage (Saturday),” Kelly said, “so (Armstrong) will get a ton of work. We think he’s back to where he was earlier in the season.”
Notre Dame’s nickel position, a fifth defensive back used primarily on passing downs, has been in a state of flux ever since senior Shaun Crawford was lost for the season to injury days before the Sept. 1 season opener with Michigan.
Opponents have taken notice, often targeting that position, particularly on third-down and red-zone plays. It’s been a rare soft spot in the nation’s No. 4 pass-efficiency defense.
Freshman Houston Griffith and senior Nick Coleman have each taken a run at the role. All-American Julian Love has been a stop-gap there at times, but that means freshman TaRiq Bracy would play on the outside on those occasions.
Griffith and Coleman have 14 tackles each. Griffith has two pass breakups and a QB hurry to go with that. Coleman has four pass breakups and an interception … and apparently momentum and consistency.
“We like what Nick Coleman has done,” Kelly said. “He closed the season playing really well. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. I think Nick Coleman has really claimed that position by virtue of his play in November.”
The possibility that Notre Dame will be able to strengthen its already impressive defensive line depth for the postseason continues to creep toward reality.
Sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, likely ND’s starting defensive tackle in 2019, is making progress toward salvaging an otherwise lost season.
Penciled in as All-American Jerry Tillery’s primary backup/rotation mate to start the season, Tagovailoa-Amosa suffered a broken foot in the first quarter of ND’s season opener with Michigan on Sept. 1.
“I’m excited that he’s been practicing for the bowl prep,” ND defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “He’s obviously very rusty. He’s not been playing football since the Michigan game, and then played only five or six snaps.
“There’s a lot of work to be done there, and he knows that. The goal is if he can stay healthy, practice, get cleared for the game, he’ll play. How many plays will be determined by his prep, but I definitely want to get him out there for this opportunity.”
Second time’s a charm
The difference between Brian Kelly’s first offer to former Irish quarterback Tommy Rees to join his coaching staff and the one Rees ultimately accepted a year later?
“I begged,” Kelly said with a laugh.
It was also a different position that he was being invited to come back for.
Rees, whose final season in uniform at ND was 2013, could have returned to ND in 2016 as an offensive analyst. In 2017, he was offered the opportunity to coach the quarterbacks, still with only a one-year Northwestern grad assistant stint and a one-year stay with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers on his coaching résumé.
“He felt like he needed more time away from Notre Dame,” Kelly said of the initial turndown. “In retrospect. I think it was the right decision.
“He’s done more on-the-job training here than anywhere else. But I was willing to do that because of the respect that I have of him as a player and a person, and what I thought of him in terms of what he could be as a coach.
“I think he knew when it was the right time to come back.”
By the numbers
Only nine members of the current Irish team saw action the last time Notre Dame and Clemson played each other — Oct. 3, 2015 in Clemson, S.C.
Then-freshmen Jerry Tillery and Justin Yoon had the most statistical impact, with defensive lineman Tillery collecting four tackles and kicker Yoon connecting on a PAT and 46-yard field goal in the 24-22 Clemson victory.
Tight end Nic Weishar was the only current Irish player to crack the starting lineup that night.
The others who played in reserve roles/special teams were tight end Alizé Mack (then Alizé Jones), linebacker Te’von Coney, defensive back Nick Coleman, safety Nicco Fertitta, offensive guard Alex Bars and punter Tyler Newsome.
By the numbers II
ESPN recently revealed its list of college football’s top 50 players this season. Roughly a third came from the four playoff participants — Alabama (5), Clemson (5), Notre Dame (4) and Oklahoma (2).
Notre Dame’s representatives on the list are cornerback Julian Love (21), quarterback Ian Book (37), defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (40) and running back Dexter Williams (50).
The Irish didn’t have a single player in the ESPN preseason top 50.
Clemson’s top 50 players are defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (5), defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (10), defensive end Clelin Ferrell (12), running back Travis Etienne (14) and offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt (47).