Jafar Armstrong's real improvement transcends distorted Blue-Gold Game outcome

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jafar Armstrong said it took him until the fourth game of last season until he actually felt like a running back, and not a wide receiver lined up in the backfield.

“I would say the first three games I was really just out there,” said the Notre Dame junior, with eligibility through 2021. “I was trying to do the best I could, trying to get a feel by watching film. The game moved so fast.”

And now Armstrong is moving faster.

On a day when format, scoring system, personnel choices and purposely bland offensive and defensive schemes made distortion the norm in the 90th Blue-Gold Game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound former Kansas high school state sprint champ in track was a welcome breath of unfiltered reality.

Armstrong combined his old skill set (four receptions for 71 yards) and his newer one (a game-high 85 yards on nine carries with a touchdown) to lead the losing Blue team (offense) in a 58-45 verdict for the Gold (defense).

Concocted scoring aside, the No. 1 offense dominated.

“I really like the pieces that are coming together offensively,” said 10th-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who spent most of the game coaching while standing in the field of play.

“We can throw it. We can run it. The quarterback is really good. We’ve got explosive playmakers, and the offensive line is going to be a really good unit. All the pieces are there, but we’ve got more work to do.”

Not that they didn’t accomplish plenty during the 15 spring sessions, capped by Saturday’s, in front of an announced crowd of 30,000.

Incumbent starting quarterback Ian Book was challenged by Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and QBs coach Tommy Rees this spring to work outside his comfort zone this spring, particularly when it came to a better pocket presence and finding consistency in the deep passing game — two glaring flaws in the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson.

Book Saturday played like he got the message — including a perfectly placed 43-yard bomb to Chase Claypool —as well as executing what he did well last year in cobbling together the nation’s 17th-best pass-efficiency rating (153.97) and a school-record completion percentage (68.2).

The senior finished 16-of-21 for 220 yards and a 12-yard scoring pass to Michael Young on third and goal.

“The touchdown throw that he made was indicative of the progress he’s made this spring,” Kelly said of Book, “where he slid, bought time in the pocket and was able to hit Mike coming in the back of the end zone.

“Those are the kind of throws that separate good players from great players.”

The starting offensive line thrived this spring and on Saturday in part because sophomore converted left tackle Jarrett Patterson has so seamlessly merged with the four returning starters as ND’s new starting center.

The tight ends and wide receivers, expectedly, surged this spring, though the wideouts may have even exceeded the high expectations. Claypool led that group with four catches for 92 yards on Saturday.

There were no such high expectations for the running backs coming into the spring, at least from the outside looking in.

Leading rusher Dexter Williams is off to the NFL via the draft in a couple of weekends. He also was the only remaining running back on the roster higher than a three-star prospect coming out of high school.

Lance Taylor was hired as running backs coach to not only keep up the high level of player development that predecessor Autry Denson purveyed during the school’s all-time leading rusher’s four-year run at his alma mater, but to upgrade recruiting as well.

Taylor is off to a strong start on both fronts, and Armstrong’s quantum improvement is a big part of that.

After redshirting as a wide receiver in 2017, Armstrong was ND’s third-leading rusher last season with 383 yards on 72 carries (5.3 average). His seven rushing TDs were second on the team to Williams’ 12. Injuries slowed Armstrong’s momentum late last season, but he worked hard over the winter, in the weight room and through exhaustive film study, to gain it back.

When Kelly was asked Saturday if he thought Armstrong was on a trajectory that would coax him to the kind of production and dynamic presence the Irish got out of Williams and Josh Adams the past couple of years, the ND coach didn’t hesitate to affirm that.

“He’s starting to find a running back’s vision, if you will, where he’s really starting to understand how to stay perpendicular and cut,” Kelly said. “He’s taking that step up.”

No. 2 back, senior Tony Jones Jr. has as well, per Kelly, but an injury kept Jones out of the spring-ending intrasquad game.

That left more opportunities for the three young backs — redshirted freshmen Jahmir Smith (56 yards on eight carries and 2 TDs; three catches for 37 yards) and C’Bo Flemister (13 yards on 8 carries, one catch for minus-2 yards), and early enrollee Kyren Williams (22 yards on six carries and a TD; two receptions for 10 yards).

“(They) give us confidence that if we get into a pinch, we’ve got those guys to count on as well,” Kelly said.

The parts of the 2019 Irish that look most unfinished Saturday were special teams, the No. 2 offense and the linebacker corps, though the top two rovers — junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Penn High product Paul Moala, a sophomore — topped the tackle charts with nine and seven, respectively.

Kicker Jonathan Doerer, who will be challenged by freshman walk-on Harrison Leonard in June, made a 35-yard field goal and doinked a 39-yarder off the upright. Freshman punter Jay Bramblett compiled a modest 34.9-yard average on eight kicks, some of which were line drives.

The second offensive line was responsible for most of the defense’s credited 15 sacks. Some of those were no more than a pass rusher breathing hard in the vicinity of the QBs, but the total was still one more than the Irish amassed in the entire 2016 season, the one in which former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was purged in season.

Behind the faulty protection, No. 2 quarterback Phil Jurkovec pressed.

In an up-and-down spring in which the mission was to evolve into a reliable backup — not overtake Book — the sophomore on Saturday went 15-of-26 for 135 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

“He’s still cooking, he’s still growing,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of things he learned today about recognition of when the ball needs to come out of his hand — a clock in his head, so to speak.

“Getting in a game like this today really helps him in that awareness, so I think he will learn a lot from today’s experience about awareness. I think sometimes when you’re a quarterback, you get too locked into progressions.

“He’s got to get the ball out of his hands and take some one-on-one matchups when he gets them as well. And that’ll come. It’s just a matter of time.”

Kelly feels similarly about a linebacker group that mix and matched and experimented its way through the spring but looked overmatched against the run on Saturday.

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea was able to pare eight hopefuls down to six during the spring. Sophomore Jack Lamb was the one of the six who didn’t get to play Saturday. He suffered an ankle injury in practice No. 14 on Thursday.

Two other injured players and three June-arriving freshmen will add to the linebacker mix this summer. Ten of the 13 have freshmen or sophomore eligibility.

“There’s a lot of progress being made there,” Kelly said of the group. “We’re progressing to the point where we’re starting to see some of the things that are being taught, repeated. And that’s when you start to feel a little bit better about where you’re going to end up as a finished product.

“They’re not as experienced at that position as we’ve had in the past, so it’ll be our job to utilize their athletic ability and put them in position to succeed. We’re seeing progress, and I think we’ve got to be smart in taking advantage of their skill sets.”

Junior Jafar Armstrong (8) and the rest of the Irish holdover running backs impressed their new position coach, Lance Taylor, this spring.
Quarterback Ian Book (12) looks down the line before the snap during the first half of Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium.