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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 8 Jafar Armstrong, starting running back, junior

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game

SOUTH BEND, IN - APRIL 13: Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Jafar Armstrong (8) warms up prior to game action during the Notre Dame Football Blue and Gold Spring game on April 13, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Listed Measurements: 6-foot-¾, 220 pounds.2019-20 year, eligibility: A junior, Armstrong has three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2019.Depth chart: Armstrong will start in Notre Dame’s backfield, and though it is a position where a rotation is preferred, the converted receiver will be the featured ball carrier.Recruiting: After the debacle known as 2016, the Irish recruiting class was held together by a thread. To solidify the grouping, Notre Dame chased a three-star receiver committed to his homestate Missouri. A visit three days before National Signing Day was enough to flip Armstrong.

Armstrong moved to running back part-time in the spring of 2018 when the Irish backfield abruptly lost three contributors before spending all his time there in the preseason. Opportunity was afoot, increasingly so when Dexter Williams was discreetly suspended for four games to open the season.

Armstrong exited last spring seemingly in competition with Tony Jones and Avery Davis, but by the time Notre Dame faced Michigan, it was clear who the top running back was in Williams’ absence. Armstrong gained 342 total yards in the first four games of the year, scoring five times. A knee infection then sidelined him for three weeks, just as Williams was welcomed back into the fold. Armstrong never genuinely regained his stride upon his return, in part due to Williams’ effectiveness and in part due to the lingering effects of the infection.

2018: 10 games, two starts; 72 rushes for 383 yards with seven touchdowns; 14 catches for 159 yards.

As impressive of a debut season as Armstrong had, there were two knocks on him: his injuries and his habit of running upright, a trait of a receiver. Some would argue there is nothing to be done about the first item; injuries happen, especially to running backs. But that is exactly why Armstrong’s inability to finish the season strong is something to acknowledge and expect otherwise in the future.

“Jafar is a tough kid,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring practices. “... You can’t play this game at 100 percent, so mentally how do you play it at 80 percent? I think as a young player, at that position, never having played it before, how do I play this position at 80 percent?

“There’s a lot of great running backs that can. … It’s just his maturity and understanding what he went through this year is going to make him a better football player.”

The rest comes with time, repetitions and work.

“Jafar always had good talent,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said at the end of spring practices. “It’s just when you come from receiver your whole life to playing running back, he’s getting used to just the pad level. He ran high a lot of times last year just because it’s so unnatural to him. You see him developing into a running back.

“Obviously he has great ball skills, he’s a good receiver out of the backfield, a lot more confidence in pass protection than he ever was last year, and that just comes with time.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 CFP Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Jafar Armstrong (8) hypes up the crowd during the CFP Semifinal Cotton Bowl Classic game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Clemson Tigers on December 29, 2018 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“Armstrong’s move to running back from receiver could prove all the difference this season. At receiver, a quartet of returning contributors will fill most of that rotation, but at running back, half of the expected 2018 depth chart was dismissed during the winter and the availability of senior Dexter Williams is murky with questions and rumors.

“That leaves Armstrong as the possible primary backup to Jones. Even if Williams is available, then Armstrong falls only to third, still a needed spot among running backs as clearly illustrated last season when the fourth-string back became the second-most productive.

“Armstrong will still run some routes. When Notre Dame received his national letter of intent a little less than 18 months ago, Kelly described Armstrong as a ‘deep threat … that can really push the field vertically for us.’ That speed has not vanished, though it has been complemented by a weight gain of 30 pounds thanks to a year in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

“That combination may have made Armstrong a viable speed option out wide. It will also make him a dangerous one-cut rusher, finding a crease and gaining six yards before a defender can get a clean shot on him. If durable, that kind of running attack can be very dangerous.”

Armstrong will be the leading Irish running back, as long as healthy. That much is simple. But Notre Dame would rather rely on a grouping of backs — perhaps with Jones and sophomore Jahmir Smith complementing Armstrong’s athleticism. That makes it tough to project stats.

Then again, such has been the hope for as long as Long has been in South Bend, but the lead back gets the lion’s share of work, nonetheless. Despite battling ankle injuries and balky muscles, Josh Adams took 56.9 percent of the running back carries in 2017. In his nine games of action last year, Williams handled 68.1 percent of the running back attempts, a number skewed higher by Armstrong’s injuries.

That should be Armstrong’s duty this season, and do not be shocked if he becomes the fourth 1,000-yard rusher of the Kelly era. (Williams reached 995 yards.) Armstrong’s time spent taking handoffs in the last year should help his upright approach, not to mention cutting instincts.

“He’s starting to find a running back’s vision, if you will, where he’s really starting to understand how to stay perpendicular and cut,” Kelly said after the Blue-Gold Game. “Last year he was a 45-degree cut and that was it. Now he’s staying square. He’s just learning and we can see that starting to come.”

A thousand-yard season from Armstrong, along with a few hundred receiving yards, could send him to the NFL in 2020. Capitalizing on a solid season while keeping extra reps off his body is the best strategy for a running back. It is as simple as that.

If he does return in 2020, Armstrong will presumably lead a complete return of the running backs room, along with the entire offensive line. Meanwhile, touted recruit Chris Tyree will join the mix.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 94: Isaiah Foskey, freshman defensive end, consensus four-star
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90: Hunter Spears, defensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver
No. 85: George Takacs, tight end
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 80: Micah Jones, receiver
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right guard, three-year starter
No. 77: Quinn Carroll, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive guard
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive lineman
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, left tackle, two-year starter
No. 73: Andrew Kristofic, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle, three-year starter
No. 71: John Olmstead, offensive lineman, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 69: Aaron Banks, left guard
No. 60: Cole Mabry, offensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, veteran backup offensive lineman
No. 57: Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle
No. 56: John Dirksen, offensive lineman
No. 56: Howard Cross, incoming freshman defensive lineman, consensus four-star
No. 55: Jarrett Patterson, starting center
No. 55: Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle returning from injury
No. 54: Jacob Lacey, consensus four-star defensive tackle, early enrollee
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, senior defensive end
No. 52: Zeke Correll, consensus four-star center, early enrollee
No. 52: Bo Bauer, linebacker, sophomore
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, junior defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, senior inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, senior defensive end
No. 42: Julian Okwara, senior defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, junior defensive tackle
No. 40: Drew White, junior inside linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, junior kicker
No. 35: TaRiq Bracy, sophomore cornerback
No. 35: Marist Liufau, Hawaiian freshman linebacker
No. 34: Jahmir Smith, sophomore running back
No. 34: Osita Ekwonu, inside linebacker, consensus four-star
No. 33: Shayne Simon, sophomore linebacker
No. 31: Jack Lamb, sophomore linebacker
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, junior linebacker
No. 29: Ovie Oghoufo, sophomore linebacker-turned-defensive end
No. 27: J.D. Bertrand, consensus four-star linebacker
No. 25: Braden Lenzy, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 24: Tommy Tremble, sophomore tight end
No. 24: Jack Kiser, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Mr. Indiana Football
No. 23: Litchfield Ajavon, four-star safety, freshman
No. 23: Kyren Williams, early-enrolled freshman running back
No. 22: Kendall Abdur-Rahman, quarterback-turned-receiver, freshman
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, the only returning starting linebacker
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, three-year starting safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, defensive back returning from yet another injury
No. 20: C’Bo Flemister, sophomore running back
No. 19: Jay Bramblett, freshman punter
No. 19: Justin Ademilola, sophomore defensive end
No. 18: Joe Wilkins, sophomore receiver
No. 18: Nana Osafo-Mensah, freshman defensive end, consensus four-star
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, junior receiver
No. 16: K.J. Wallace, freshman defensive back, three-star
No. 15 Isaiah Rutherford, freshman defensive back, consensus four-star
No. 15: Phil Jurkovec, sophomore quarterback
No. 14: Kyle Hamilton, freshman safety, consensus four-star
No. 13: Lawrence Keys, sophomore receiver
No. 13: Paul Moala, sophomore safety-turned-linebacker
No. 12: DJ Brown, sophomore cornerback-turned-safety
No. 12: Ian Book, starting quarterback
No. 11: Alohi Gilman, senior safety
No. 10: Chris Finke, fifth-year receiver, second-year starter
No. 9: Cam Hart, freshman receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, senior defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, senior cornerback