Analysis: Jafar Armstrong appears ready to return and help transform Notre Dame's offense
SOUTH BEND — If all goes right Tuesday in practice with Jafar Armstrong’s surgically repaired abdominal tear, Brian Kelly will get his first glimpse since Aug. 8 of what his Notre Dame offense truly is supposed to look like.
And Saturday night (7:30 p.m.; NBC) arch-rival USC (3-2) — an 11 1/2-point underdog — will be tasked with taming it.
Armstrong, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior running back, is the third of three of ND’s most dynamic offensive players who have missed extended stretches of training camp and/or the season itself to return to an Irish offense on a modern era, school-record scoring pace (41.0 ppg).
If Armstrong can stay healthy — not a given so far in his time at ND — and project the way head coach Kelly and his offensive staff expect him to, his presence goes well beyond boosting the nation’s 61st-ranked rushing attack, following a season-high 233 rushing yards against an admittedly struggling Bowling Green defense, this past Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
“Jafar brings an explosiveness to the offense that obviously we’re waiting for,” Kelly said of his No. 1 running back option, out since the first quarter of the Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville, a 35-17 Irish triumph.
“He had (three) plays, but what we saw in camp and a little bit last year was his ability to impact the offense as a receiver and a runner. He’s got top-end speed and he’s big and physical.
“So he impacts in three ways, and that’s something obviously we feel would be a huge upgrade to our offense.”
Tight end Cole Kmet, the first of the three to go down and the first to return, is ND’s second-leading receiver (15 catches for 204 yards and 2 TDs) behind senior wideout Chase Claypool, despite Kmet missing the first two games of the season.
If the 6-6, 250-pound junior had played in enough games to qualify for the NCAA stats (75 percent is the minimum), Kmet would lead the country among tight ends in receptions per game (5.0) and rank fourth in receiving yards per game (68.0).
Michael Young is the other reclaimed piece to the offense for ninth-ranked Notre Dame (4-1). In two games back from an Aug. 17 broken collarbone, including a start on Saturday in ND’s 52-0 home rout of the Falcons, the 5-10, 190-pound junior has four catches for 17 yards.
Each of their skill sets opens opportunities for the others’, and Armstrong’s promises to help balance an Irish offense that leaned heavily on the pass against the better defenses on its schedule.
USC to this point, wouldn’t qualify as one of those. The Trojans are 89th in rushing defense and 83rd in total defense.
So confident that Armstrong will significantly impact the running game, not to mention hold up in Tuesday’s physically demanding practice that will test his readiness, the Irish staff has decided to redshirt freshman Kyren Williams, pending a change in circumstances.
Williams had 26 yards on four carries, a three-yard reception and two kickoff returns for 35 yards over ND’s first four games, but he was held out of the Bowling Green game Saturday to keep him at the four-game threshold that would allow him to redshirt.
With safety Litchfield Ajavon, linebacker Osita Ekwonu and cornerback Isaiah Rutherford all making their college debuts against Bowling Green, only three scholarship freshmen have yet to see game action for the Irish, and offensive tackle Quinn Carroll won’t.
He’s out of the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. The others who haven’t played yet are wide receiver Kendall Abdur-Rahman and offensive guard John Olmstead.
On the flip side, only safety Kyle Hamilton and nose guard Jacob Lacey among the Irish freshmen are past the point of no return on redshirt seasons, having played in five games. Linebacker Jack Kiser is the only one on the brink, besides Williams — at four games, and he was held out Saturday from his normal special teams duty.
Armstrong himself redshirted once upon a time, in 2017, when he was a freshman wide receiver. Last season, in his first as a running back at any level of football, he fashioned the second-best per-carry average (5.3) on the team and scored seven touchdowns.
Around two significant injuries — a knee infection and a high ankle sprain, Armstrong managed 383 rushing yards on 72 carries, and caught 14 passes for 159 yards. Against Louisville in the 2019 opener, Armstrong rushed for 10 yards on two carries, and caught a 16-yard pass.
In his absence, Kelly tested sophomore Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and freshman Williams, and brought junior Avery Davis back from cornerback to figure out what the best complementary pieces might be beyond senior Tony Jones Jr. — ND’s leading rusher at the moment (381 yards, 55 carries, 4 TDs).
Quarterback Ian Book (139 yards, 37 carries, 2 TDs) is the only other Irish player with more than 61 rushing yards on the season. His 37-yard run on ND’s first offensive play of the season remains the longest rush of the season for the Irish.
The hope and conjecture of Kelly is that Armstrong will change that once he gets full clearance, presumably on Tuesday.
“He did quite a bit last week (in practice),” Kelly said, “so we’re confident that we can now put him in some scenarios and situations that will give us 100 percent certainty as to whether he’ll be able to contribute on Saturday.
“We believe he can, based upon what we saw last week.”
When starting cornerback Shaun Crawford went down with a dislocated elbow Sept. 28 against Virginia, the idea of limiting senior cornerback Donte Vaughn’s playing time to keep a redshirt option open appeared over.
But Crawford’s healing timetable has accelerated to the point he will likely be available for the Oct. 26 matchup at Michigan, following a bye week. Kelly said Sunday Crawford will begin conditioning, and doing some agility and position work on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, sophomore TaRiq Bracy started in Crawford’s place in base defense against Bowling Green, and rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah filled his role as a nickel back on passing downs, both earning passing grades from Kelly against Bowling Green with expected improvement moving forward.
And while Troy Pride’s backup at the boundary corner, sophomore Houston Griffith, is now cross-training at safety, Kelly pulled freshman Cam Hart over from the wide receiver glut on offense to add another option at cornerback.
It’s not that the 6-3, 212-pound Vaughn isn’t good enough to contribute this season, especially this week when ND faces the most prolific passing attack on its schedule (USC is 26th in passing offense), with three difficult matchups at wide receiver in Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
There’s an allure to bringing him back as a potential starter in 2020 and pairing him with Bracy, with Pride and Crawford both exhausting their eligibility this season.
Notre Dame’s recruiting class doesn’t have a corner prospect who projects as plug-and-play. And Griffith could very well be a starting safety with Kyle Hamilton, so that further enhances the prospect of a Vaughn redshirt.
“As it sits right now, he’s played in three games, so we want to be very strategic as we move forward with that fourth game,” Kelly said. “We think he brings a lot of value to our football team, and we’re not going to play him unless we absolutely have to put him on the field, so we can have that potential (redshirt) conversation when we get to four games.”
Names and numbers
• Kelly said Sunday he expects sophomore Lawrence Keys III back at practice at full speed Tuesday after the part-time starter at wide receiver missed the Bowling Green game with plantar fasciitis.
• Julian Okwara’s field goal block Saturday was the first by an Irish player since Isaac Rochell blocked an LSU field goal in 2014.
• Though Ian Book missed Brady Quinn’s school record for TD passes in a game by one on Saturday, he did become the first ND QB to throw five TD passes in a half.
Kelly awarded Book the game ball during his postgame talk with the team. Book jumped 25 spots in the national pass-efficiency standings to 16th (169.3) after his performance against Bowling Green (16-of-20, 261 yards). USC freshman QB Kedon Slovic, who is expected to start Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium after suffering a concussion Sept. 20 against Utah, is one spot behind Book, in 17th (168.8).
• The Irish are No. 2 this week in turnover margin, and have scored 70 points off turnovers this season to their opponents’ six points.
WHO: No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1) vs. USC (3-2)
WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT
WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium
RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)
LINE: Notre Dame by 11 1/2