Noie: A healthy Jafar Armstrong could be a bust-out bowl guy for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Word has it that the big guy with the beard and the belly and the bag of goodies is on his annual world tour.

A Christmas gift arrived earlier this month for Notre Dame sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong. It didn’t come by way of the newest electronic gadget or a gift card or anything that needed to be returned in exchange for the correct size. This present was something that Armstrong had waited for and worked through the back half of the 2018 college football season.

Full health, and the go-ahead to be a full go in practice. For Armstrong, football life doesn’t get much better than that.

When Notre Dame (12-0) commenced bowl preparations following the regular season, Armstrong was given the green light to get back to doing what he loves. Forget the numbingly repetitive nature of drills and snaps done and run over and over. Armstrong couldn’t wait to practice. More reps. More practice periods. More everything.

“You can never get enough practice,” he said. “I’m loving it. I’m taking every opportunity I can get.”

That’s because Armstrong has been to the game’s other side. The dark side. He visited it earlier in the year and didn’t like the view.

As Armstrong met the media last week in Isban Auditorium following practice in preparation for Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 2 Clemson (13-0) in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, he sat a few rows down and a few seats over from the spot he staked out the last time he conducted post-practice interviews.

That was a long time ago, back when the converted wide receiver was days removed from one of the best games of his young collegiate career. He had run for a career-best 98 yards and two touchdowns in the 56-27 throttling of Wake Forest on Sept. 22. Three days before the Sept. 29 home game against Stanford, Armstrong discussed plans to build on that bust-out game.

He’d never get the chance.

As he sat there that late-September evening, Armstrong also had a bag of ice on his left knee. It seemed no big deal. Just something to ease an ache during a long football season. Nothing to it.

There was something to it. Armstrong already had experienced swelling in the knee following the first two games, but pushed passed it. He also had several cuts around the knee, but also dismissed them. That was football. Deal with it.

The day before the Stanford game, Armstrong was ruled out with a left knee issue. Two surgeries were required to clean out a bursa sac infection. What Armstrong initially brushed off as nothing had become something. It took him time to process what the medical staff kept telling him.

“It was confusing because they used all these doctor terms, all these big words,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yo, what’s up with my knee?’”

Surgery shelved him for three weeks. No practices. No games. While Notre Dame ripped off midseason wins over Stanford and Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, Armstrong could only watch and wait and heal.

“It’s just life; it’s adversity,” he said. “You just gotta bounce back. How you answer adversity makes you the kind of man you are.”

Armstrong jumped back into the running back rotation against Navy. He ran for 52 yards and a touchdown. He caught five passes for 64 yards, both career highs. But he also tweaked an ankle that night in San Diego.

“Every time it seemed that we turned a corner, something would put him back,” said coach Brian Kelly.

Armstrong played in nine games. He rushed for 377 yards on 71 carries and seven touchdowns. He caught 12 passes for 151 yards. But following the Navy game, he finished the final four games with 80 rushing yards on 15 carries and no receptions. Armstrong wasn’t himself in November. Something about his game was missing. He felt it. He knew it.

“You can’t go as fast and you can’t explode like you want to,” he said.

Only after the regular season ended did Armstrong start to heal. It showed during a 60-play scrimmage on Dec. 15. He moved easily, more confidently. He looked more like the Armstrong that we saw in Winston-Salem and San Diego.

“He’s back to where he was,” said Kelly, who joked that he considered putting Armstrong in a red “hands-off” jersey in practice to keep him healthy.

He’s healthy.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Armstrong said. “I’m back to full speed.”

That means, fast speed. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound Armstrong wouldn’t state his case as the fastest player on the squad, insisting that fellow offensive dudes Dexter Williams and Michael Young would give him a good run. A three-time Kansas high school track champion from Lee’s Summit, Mo., Armstrong’s quickness can cause concerns for Clemson. He offers offensive coordinator Chip Long the opportunity to go deeper into his playbook. Get him in a matchup mismatch and turn him loose in space.

Armstrong could be this season’s bowl version of Miles Boykin. Use the big post-season stage to make a big play and make a national name for himself. He’s got a plethora of potential waiting to be unleashed. How about unleashing it in Arlington?

“Whatever Coach needs me to do, I’m going to do it,” Armstrong said. “It’s a huge game. It’s the biggest game I’ve ever played in in my career.”

It won’t be hard for Armstrong to get up for this one. Not only because a spot in the national championship game is at stake, but those three weeks missed left him fresh and focused. The calendar may say that January’s nearing but for Armstrong, it feels more like early September.

“I feel like it’s the beginning of the season,” he said. “I want to go out and give my all to this team.

“I’m blessed to be where I am now.”

Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong (8) runs for a touchdown against Wake Forest Sept. 22 at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, NC.

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)

WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m. (EST)

WHAT: CFP Semifinal/Cotton Bowl

WHERE: AT&T Stadium (100,000); Arlington, Texas

TV: ESPN

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Clemson by 13