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A look at Notre Dame’s running backs and distribution without Jafar Armstrong

Michigan v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 01: Jafar Armstrong #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish carries the ball in the first quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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As is always the case with an injury, there are two aspects for No. 8 Notre Dame to consider with Jafar Armstrong reportedly sidelined due to a knee infection. The sophomore running back will miss the biggest game of his young career, not getting a chance to test himself against No. 7 Stanford’s rushing defense, which has given up only 3.42 yards per carry this season.

Armstrong had been a revelation through four games, averaging 5.2 yards per attempt in gaining 245 yards and scoring five touchdowns. Irish head coach Brian Kelly had made a habit of praising the converted receiver’s fitness and overall welcoming of the position change.

“I love the physicality of his play,” Kelly said just six days ago. “He plays hard. He can take 100 snaps if that’s what’s needed. … He’s just learning how to play the game, so you see that growth from play-to-play.”

For this afternoon at least, the length of Armstrong’s absence is unknown. The matter at hand is the 7:30 ET kickoff (NBC) against the Cardinal and how Notre Dame will replace Armstrong’s contributions.

The presumed imminent return of senior running back Dexter Williams from an unofficial suspension was previously seen as the addition of depth and big-play possibilites to the Irish backfield. Now it takes on greater import, but it is not as simple as plugging in Williams for Armstrong’s 11.75 rushes per game.

First of all, a repeated fact: Williams has never managed more than eight rushes or 10 touches in a game. He has never been a workhorse back, in part due to difficulty pushing through nagging injuries and in part due to his lackluster pass blocking. Some of that may have trended toward development during his four-week sabbatical, though.

“He’s better in all facets than the Dexter Williams version that we had in the spring,” Kelly said Tuesday.

At this point, let’s turn to math.

The Irish average 41.25 rush attempts per game (sacks adjusted). That number may not be reached today. While Notre Dame has snapped an average of 78.75 plays per game, Stanford slows things down, managing only 58 plays per game. For the ease of this exercise, let’s split that difference to about 68 plays. Cutting the Irish rushing attempts by the same proportion lowers it to 36.

Junior Tony Jones has averaged 11.5 per game, with a season-high of 17. Two scenarios emerge, one where he sticks close to his average and one where he trends toward that upper number. It remains unlikely he exceeds it by much, simply a sign of the era in college football where true bellcow backs are few and far between (Boston College’s A.J. Dillon; Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor).

Junior quarterback Ian Book rushed nine times last week, well short of senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s average of 16.3 attempts per game (sacks adjusted). Book’s carries will not spike toward Wimbush’s, but he will continue to take the ball in a number of zone-read moments each week. Let’s keep his figure right at nine.

Michigan v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 01: Avery Davis #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish carries the ball in the second quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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Then comes sophomore quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis. In three games, he has taken handoffs just 13 times.

“Avery hadn’t been given much of an opportunity, been practicing real well,” Kelly said Sunday. “He’s part of that young group of players that just needs game reps and the more he gets touches, the more you start to like what he’s doing.

“He still has to build up an understanding of hwo to finish runs and things of that nature, but so do Jafar and Tony.”

In a top-10 matchup that serves essentialy as a College Football Playoff elimination game, it is hard to fathom Davis getting more than a handful of carries.

That leaves 5-10 carries for Williams. That larger number seems manageable at first glance, but something in the range of 5-6 may make more sense. Remember how Kelly worried about the start of the season with regards to Armstrong and Jones:

“They just needed reps, real live reps,” he said following last week’s 56-27 victory at Wake Forest. “I tried to go as much live [in practice] as I could, but that’s hard to duplicate even in camp. Our guys don’t want to take them on at the level that you want to.

“They needed game reps. They needed these games to really find themselves.”

Williams has been without those game reps for an additional four weeks. It has been since his 31-yard rush against LSU in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day that he truly took on contact. The following snap he certainly avoided it in blitz pickup. Williams may need to run into the season a bit, absorb and return from contact over the span of a couple weeks.

As such, it cannot be readily presumed Williams simply picks up where Armstrong left off. The latter’s production had become too much for that. It is more likely the whole group is needed in lieu of Armstrong.

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