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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s depth concerns at RB and CB

The rock band 'Chicago' plays with the Notre Dame band during the halftime show of the Irish's game against Bowling Green.

The last missing piece of No. 9 Notre Dame’s offense expected back this season will return this week and in the nick of time for the Irish (4-1). Junior running back Jafar Armstrong did not make it through the first series of the season opener before tearing his abdomen, meaning the dynamic running back never got a chance to enjoy an offense once expected to feature him.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would not outright commit to playing Armstrong this week, but Saturday has long been the targeted date for his return and Armstrong looked good enough in practice last week to warrant dressing against Bowling Green, usually the last step — a bit of a mental boost — before actual action.

“We’ll put him in a much more vigorous environment relative to his practicing,” Kelly said Sunday. “He did quite a bit last week. We’re confident we can put him in some scenarios and situations that will give us 100 percent certainty as to whether he will be able to contribute on Saturday. We believe he can based upon what we saw last week.”

Now facing a USC defense that allows 4.51 yards per rush, Armstrong may have a chance to make a strong first impression (three touches for 36 yards at Louisville, notwithstanding).

“Jafar brings an explosiveness to the offense that we’re waiting for,” Kelly said. “What we saw in camp and a little last year is his ability to impact the offense as a receiver and a runner. He has top-end speed, and he’s big and physical.”

As Armstrong returns, freshman running back Kyren Williams has likely seen his last action of the season. Williams played in the first four games of the year — all of one snap, a dropped pass, at Louisville — before not taking the field in the 52-0 victory against Bowling Green on Saturday. To the astute observer, that signaled a possible attempt at preserving a year of eligibility.

Kelly admitted as much, though any such attempt comes ripe with disclaimers. See: Jamir Jones’ now-scuttled intentions this season.

Freshman linebacker Jack Kiser, thus far a special teams ace, will also be on the Williams’ timeline.

Notre Dame is averaging only 62.8 plays per game, a paltry number for a team with a high-octane offense that does not mind working at a quick pace. In fact, of teams having already played five games, only nine have run fewer plays than the Irish, and only two of those have winning records, 4-1 Wyoming and 3-2 Southern Miss.

This does not bother Kelly, because he sees an underlying reason, one of good news for the Irish offense. It averages 7.1 yards per play, No. 12 in the country.

“We haven’t had many long, 90-yard drives,” Kelly said. “This offense has not operated that way this year. … What we’re doing is taking what the offense’s strengths are and so far this year we’ve been trying to gain balance in this offense through the running game, but we’re also taking what our DNA is and it seems to be that this offense hits big plays.”

Those numbers are not merely byproducts of averaging 9.39 yards per play against the Falcons with 573 total yards on 61 plays. Before that easy afternoon, Notre Dame was already averaging 6.55 yards per play, which would rank No. 26 in the country.

To some degree, this stands out as a measure of efficiency as much as explosiveness, considering the oft-fretted over struggles from Irish senior quarterback Ian Book in throwing deep.

When freshman receiver Cam Hart lined up at cornerback late in Saturday’s blowout, it warranted note for the future. A move to the secondary was always possible for Hart, and with fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford out for a few weeks with a dislocated elbow, practice depth was logically a concern. Kelly saying, “We want to look at him,” after the game implied it was a long-term thought.

When Hart appeared in Monday’s two-deep, the reality became clear the move may be about more than the long-term.

Notre Dame has starters Troy Pride and TaRiq Bracy, and then senior Donte Vaugh, available for only one more game due to eligibility ideas. With sophomore Houston Griffith now repping at safety, that leaves Hart or freshman KJ Wallace as the third cornerback down the line, the fourth this weekend.

“This is a week where you would like veteran presence out there,” Kelly said Monday. “... Donte Vaughn is going to be a guy that’s going to play this weekend. We’ve been strategic in the games we’ve played, so you’ll see him this weekend. He’ll be the first man in.

“From there, that’s where it gets interesting. We’ll have to be creative in coverages and make sure we put our younger players, if in fact they’re called on, in a position to succeed.”

Times like this amplify the failure in the 2017 recruiting class not including a single cornerback.

Simply because a fifth name may be added to this tracker next season, it is worth noting Kelly’s success against USC coaches during his decade at Notre Dame.

  1. Lane Kiffin: 2-1vs. Ed Oregeron: 1-0vs. Steve Sarkisian: 0-1vs. Clay Helton: 3-1

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