Analysis: Time for Brian Kelly to find Jafar Armstrong's place in the Notre Dame offense

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Had Jafar Armstrong fizzled in his spring of 2018 experiment as a running back for the first time in his football life, Jon Holmes is convinced the Notre Dame junior would have become a slot receiver for the Irish.

An elite slot receiver, per his head coach at Bishop Miege (Kan.) High School in suburban Kansas City.

The beauty in unearthing a fix for a position group that desperately needed a pleasant surprise at the time is that, theoretically, the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder from Lee’s Summit, Mo., could be both simultaneously, a headache for opposing defensive coordinators in the running game and the passing game.

It’s still more theory than reality.

Of the 20 Irish games that have been played since Armstrong moved past a redshirt freshman season and debuted as a starter at his new position in the 2018 season opener against Michigan, you could argue that he’s been at 100 percent health for six of those.

The sixth, this past Saturday night in a downpour against a more formidable version of Michigan, he received just four offensive touches and returned three kickoffs in his second game back from his latest physical setback, abdominal surgery stemming from a Sept. 2 injury.

“We had nine three-and-outs,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered as to why Armstrong wasn’t a bigger part of a Michigan game plan that produced the second-fewest total yards (180) in a game in a decade of football under Kelly at ND.

“You know, I think he’s still finding himself.”

Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long, in turn, need to find Armstrong, starting with this Saturday’s Notre Dame Stadium matchup between the 16th-ranked Irish (5-2) and surging Virginia Tech (5-2). Broadcast time is 2:30 p.m. EDT for the NBC telecast.

“He’s got a really good attitude about it,” Holmes said of Armstrong’s comeback and the speed bumps that have come with it. “He knows what he’s got to do. He’s just got to keep working.

“I think his mentality is the same as before the injury. I think he can be a difference-maker. I think it’s important, because when he’s rolling and he’s playing well, I think a lot of guys feed off of that.”

It’s time for the Irish coaching staff to invest in Armstrong to get to the bottom of what he can become.

They’ve certainly seen more than glimpses of it in practices last spring and in August training camp. And Armstrong has a distant past that includes the distinction of zero games missed because of injuries, becoming the Kansas high school career record holder for career TD receptions (45) and earning state track titles in the 100-meter dash, the 200 and the 4-by-100 relay.

“When he’s able to put his foot in the ground and get vertical, that’s where he’s at his best on the football field,” Holmes said. “I know some of the things I watched in the spring when I was up there for a couple of days, those are the things he was able to do.

“I think he’s physical enough to get the edge, but then he’s also fast enough to get his foot in the ground and get up the field.

“I think what makes him different from other guys is some guys can get to the edge and get you eight to 10 extra yards. He’s the guy who can get to the edge and take it to the house every time he touches it. I think that’s the mindset he’s got and I think that’s the speed he’s got behind that.”

Kelly himself has said Armstrong is one of the most physically and mentally tough players on the Notre Dame team and the one with the most endurance, per the GPS devices that track the players’ activity and fatigue levels.

Yet Armstrong’s 15 carries in his college debut, a 24-17 victory over Michigan to start the 2018 College Football Playoff run, remains his career high. He had 13 the next week against Ball State and 11 the following week against Vanderbilt. He hasn’t been in double-digit carries since.

Some mitigating circumstances — a knee infection that sidelined him for three games in 2018, a high ankle sprain that lingered with him the from late October to the end of that regular season and the abdominal tear seven plays into ND’s 2019 season-opening win at Louisville at Sept. 2.

Investing in Armstrong doesn’t necessarily mean demoting senior Tony Jones Jr., who has been playing the best football of his career by far in the first half of this seaosn and whose skill set complements Armstrong’s. And that gives offensive coordinator Chip Long added flexibility when it comes to both formations and play-calling.

Two-back sets anyone?

Jones, incidentally, will be a game-time decision per Kelly against the Hokies Saturday, having left the Michigan game early with a rib injury.

If Armstrong does succumb to injury again, Kelly and Long already know what they have as far as running back inventory without him. What they don’t know is how the dynamic the ND offense can truly be with him.

“I think he could be a high-level impact guy,” offered Holmes. “If you’re able to use one player to play in two spots, that helps you. He can be a mismatch in the passing game with a linebacker on him. he’s that good of a route runner.

“Those are those things I think he can bring, especially with his size. He’s always been very fast, and I don’t think he’s lost that with the 15-20 pounds that he’s put on since he’s been there.

“From what I’ve seen and when I talked to him, there’s no hesitancy about getting back into contact. He feels good that he’s going to be able to go in and do the things he did before the injury. He doesn’t want to just talk about it. He’s ready to go out and prove it.”

Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong (8) runs the ball during the Notre Dame-Michigan NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.