Jafar Armstrong finding right balance of physicality as Notre Dame running back

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Jafar Armstong can still play wide receiver.

Expect to see the junior running back to be lined up in various positions in the Irish offense in addition to a leading role in the backfield when Notre Dame opens the season at Louisville on Monday.

But when the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Armstrong meets a defender, he doesn’t want to run like a wide receiver. He wants to punish tacklers.

“If you’re not physical as a running back, you’re going to get hit hard,” Armstrong said. “You want to bring that physicality to take some pain off your body. Give hits instead of taking hits. It’s a physical position.

“If you’re just standing up high and not delivering the blow, you’re going to be hurting after the game. If you lower your shoulder and give it back, you’re going to feel a lot better sometimes.”

In his first full season as a running back last year, Armstrong dealt with his share of injuries. A breakout start to the season — 47 carries for 245 yards and five touchdowns in four games — was derailed by a bursa sac infection in his left knee. He needed two surgeries and missed the next three games in order to recover.

Then when Armstrong returned in the Navy game, he had another impressive performance. He rushed nine times for 52 yards and a touchdown and led the Irish in receiving with five catches for 64 yards. The success came with yet another setback. He tweaked his ankle and the injury lingered for the remainder of the regular season.

As Dexter Williams became Notre Dame’s go-to back, Armstrong finished the season with just 16 carries for 86 yards and one touchdown in the final five games. The Irish likely can’t afford Armstrong to be forced into a limited role this season.

“With injuries, I’ve learned that they’re always lingering,” Armstrong said. “Unless you really handle it every single day, even when you feel 100 percent, you still have to take care of it or it’s going to come back. That’s what I’ve learned from last year.

“This year I’m doing a much better job. Even if I feel a little tweak, I’m taking care of it and staying on top of it to make sure it doesn’t come back.”

Notre Dame has options beyond Armstrong. Senior Tony Jones Jr. will play an important role sharing the workload with Armstrong. Sophomore Jahmir Smith appears ready to be a contributor as well. Even freshman Kyren Williams, also a former wide receiver like Armstrong, and sophomore C’Bo Flemister may see some action.

But Armstrong has the best chance to be the playmaker of the group.

“Jafar, his background is receiver, the way that he runs routes, the way that he catches the football — his explosiveness has been really great,” said running backs coach Lance Taylor.

Armstrong’s ability to make big plays will certainly be an issue for opposing defenses, but it can also be a detriment to himself too. At times, head coach Brian Kelly said, Armstrong will try to bounce a play to the outside rather than settle for a three-yard gain.

Sometimes a running back has to take what’s given to him. Armstrong, who caught 54 passes for 1,277 yards and 21 TDs in just his senior season at Shawnee Mission (Kan.) Bishop Miege, still has to shake some of his wide receiver tendencies.

“Being receiver, it’s a lot of big plays, running bombs for touchdowns on posts. That’s what I was used to doing. That’s something I’m still trying to learn,” Armstrong said.

“Sometimes you have to be fine with taking three or four yards and that’s still a good run. Sometimes you see second-and-7 and think, ‘Dang, I could have done more with that.’ But that’s how the play’s supposed to be run. I just have to trust myself sometimes instead of always trying to make something out of nothing.”

Armstrong’s knowledge of the offense has expanded. He’s moved on to learning more about defensive tendencies and blitz recognition.

Taylor, in his first year at Notre Dame, has helped Armstrong continue his progression.

“This is a full commitment to that position,” Kelly said of Armstrong at running back. “Lance has done a great job. He’s in Lance’s room every day. There’s a relationship there that is building. It’s a totally different place than where we were last year at this time.”

That didn’t stop Armstrong from scoring two touchdowns in the season opener against Michigan last year. If he’s making strides in every area, Armstrong should be a tough back to take down regardless if he’s running through, around or past defenders.

“We try our best to not really have one emphasis for our running back game,” Armstrong said. “We try to hone in on all things — be good at pass pro, be good at breaking tackles, making guys miss. Me and Tony, as well as the other running backs, try to do a great job of being above average and excelling in all phases of being a running back.”

Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong (8) tries to shed a tackle attempt by Irish cornerback Houston Griffith in April’s Blue-Gold Game.
Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong waves to fans after the Notre Dame-Navy game last October at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, California.

WHO: No. 9 Notre Dame (0-0) at Louisville (0-0)

WHEN: Monday at 8 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, Ky.


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

LINE: Notre Dame by 20