Notre Dame's offense needs a consistent, healthy Jafar Armstrong

Carter Karels | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Just as Jafar Armstrong seemed to take a step forward, another setback for the Notre Dame running back followed.

Armstrong’s fumble on the one-yard line in last week’s game against Virginia Tech negated the excitement from what he accomplished three plays before. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior converted a third-and-11 for a first down to extend the Irish drive late in the second quarter.

That sequence sums up the kind of season — and collegiate career — Armstrong’s had so far. The Irish caught glimpses of the potent version of Armstrong they expected heading into this football season in their 21-20 win over the Hokies. Armstrong’s confounding tendency to regress after showing flashes continued, however.

“The biggest thing when you have a play like that is just to focus on the next play,” Armstrong said. “You can’t do anything about the play that just happened. You can’t control the past. You just have to focus on how we can win the game, and that’s what we did.”

On that 13-yard gain earlier in the drive, Armstrong displayed a physicality and short-area quickness that had been lacking from him since suffering a Sept. 2 abdominal injury. The Armstrong of old appeared to be back after he missed four games and played sparingly against USC and Michigan.

Then came the lost fumble moments later — the first from an Irish running back since Josh Adams against Boston College on Nov. 21, 2015. Hokie defensive back Divine Deablo returned the Armstrong fumble — which linebacker Rayshard Ashby forced — 98 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 14 heading into halftime.

The Irish continued to ride Armstrong after the miscue. He became the featured back in the absence of senior Tony Jones Jr., out with cartilage damage in his ribs. Jones is expected to return for Saturday’s game (7:30 p.m. EST on ACC Network) between No. 15 Notre Dame (6-2) and Duke (4-4) at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.

“He played last week (against Michigan), but he was so tentative,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Armstrong. “He caught a kickoff and looked like he didn’t know where to go. So this was really his first game back. We saw some really good things (Saturday) with Jafar Armstrong for the first time.

“And yeah, you have to go back to him. He’s going to mean too much to our offense.”

Kelly alluded that the good ultimately outweighed the bad for Armstrong. He gave life to a screen game that had become almost nonexistent without him. Armstrong turned four receptions into 49 yards, which included a 26-yard catch on a screen pass. He ran with authority at times, powering through defenders on a few occasions.

Maybe the most meaningful contribution from Armstrong came on the final Notre Dame drive capped by Book’s game-winning touchdown run of seven yards. Facing fourth-and-3 at Irish 20-yard line, Armstrong secured a pass in the flat for a five-yard gain.

“A lot of composure went into that drive,” said wide receiver Chase Claypool. “Jafar getting that first fourth-down conversion, if he drops that the game is over. The amount of pressure that was on each and every one of us to make those plays was pretty huge.”

The Irish labored for minimal gains on Armstrong’s inside runs, though. He recorded 25 yards on 13 rushes between the tackles, and only two of those 13 amassed more than three yards. Armstrong tallied 37 yards on 19 attempts for the game.

Not having the 5-foot-11, 224-pound bruiser in Jones contributed to those struggles, as did the absences of right guard Tommy Kraemer (knee) and right tackle Robert Hainsey (ankle).

“Jafar is certainly a guy that is just coming back from an injury,” Kelly said. “I think what he feels more comfortable doing right now is using his size and running somebody over.”

Reaching that point took time for Armstrong. After tearing his rectus abdominis, Armstrong underwent surgery and a cautious rehabilitation process. Mere light jogging caused pain for Armstrong in his early stages of rehab.

Measuring progress called for Armstrong to balance between gradually testing his limits and erring on the side of caution. One push too far could have re-aggravated the afflicted region.

“When you are first going through it,” Armstrong said, “you are not trying to put pressure on it much. Mainly just walking on it. Not trying to jog. You are just trying to make sure the muscle can heal back.

“You are really just working on your core and your groin. Make sure that strengthens back up so when you do come back, you can exert the amount of pressure that you feel is necessary to move.

“Just being really careful and just knowing what your body can and can’t do.”

The injury halted the progress made by Armstrong in the offseason. He had established himself as the 1A option at running back, ahead of 1B Jones, after missing three games last season with a knee infection and nursing a high ankle sprain throughout November.

Notre Dame reactivated Armstrong against USC with a meager one carry for minus-three yards. Armstrong said he felt back to normal two weeks later against Michigan, but the Irish continued to ease him back with three rushes for three yards. Jones suffered his rib injury in the first half of that game.

That means Book has yet to have Armstrong and Jones each at 100 percent for a full game this season. No more setbacks from Armstrong may be the first step to fixing this imperfect Irish offense.

“As a football player, this is the life you live,” Armstrong said. “Sometimes it’s a very violent sport. We are using our body almost every day of the year, so you know what comes with that. You just have to pick yourself up and keep going.

“There’s a lot of guys that have been hurt here multiple times and kept going, kept the same smile on their face. I’m just trying to bring that same energy when things are going right and when things aren’t going right.”

Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong (8) gets dragged down by Virginia Tech’s Rayshard Ashby (23) during Saturday’s game in Notre Dame Stadium.