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Where Notre Dame was and is: Running backs

Devin Bush, Jafar Armstrong

Notre Dame wide receiver Jafar Armstrong (8) scores a touchdown in front of Michigan linebacker Devin Bush (10) in the first half of an NCAA football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)


Notre Dame’s current running back room is rather familiar. While the Irish have a new coach at the position with Lance Taylor replacing Autry Denson, the top-four names in it are the same ones as they were a year ago and through September. Then, though, Dexter Williams returned from suspension to add explosiveness. He is not walking through the door this time around.

Now, junior Jafar Armstrong leads the way as a dual-threat, no longer a recently-converted receiver, but instead a multi-talented running back.

Williams’ unspoken suspension gave a preview of what the Irish have now. Armstrong still very much looked like the receiver he originally devleoped as, but he still ran for 245 yards in those first four games, finishing the year with 383 rushing yards on 71 carries with seven touchdowns, adding another 151 yards on 12 receptions.

Injuries diminished Armstrong’s 2018 to the extent he remained an unknown entering the spring. A knee infection cost him three games and a sprained ankle hampered him throughout November. Yet, Notre Dame could not err on the side of protecting Armstrong this spring, needing to develop him as a running back.

Senior Tony Jones picked up even more of the slack while Williams was sidelined, rushing for 263 of his 392 yards in those four games, scoring three times. His bruising style saved the Irish against Vanderbilt, in particular, when he took 17 attempts for 118 yards and caught two passes on wheel routes for a combined 56 yards. His methods may not be glamorous, but they are often quite effective.

Entering this spring, the prevailing thinking looked at those two as a speed-and-power combination, with sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister offering depth.

Much of that prevailing thinking played out as expected. Armstrong does offer the most speed. His overall productivity may be such it becomes more a lead-back situation rather than a split rotation. Jones, when healthy, will indeed offer the bruising style, but he can be complemented by Smith, a “truck,” to use Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s description.

It is debatable what was more notable this spring: Armstrong’s rise and comfort at the position, somewhat expected but also desperately needed, or Smith’s emergence as the No. 3 back, a luxury only in that he will not be needed until someone gets hurt.

Armstrong feels at home in the backfield at this point, as made evident by his 85 yards on nine rushes in the Blue-Gold Game, but that does not take away from his pass-catching abilities, which he showed off with four receptions for 71 yards Saturday.

“I was learning a bunch of different plays (last year),” he said after the spring finale. “Along with the receiver stuff, I was doing the running back stuff, too. This year, I know the plays, I know what to expect. It’s just me going out there getting into my game. It’s a lot less to worry about this year for sure.”

At Notre Dame, any running back with receiver abilities immediately gets compared to CJ Prosise and, to a lesser degree, Theo Riddick. Those are bold thoughts to put on a player, yet Armstrong seems to deserve them. His skill set certainly raises the ceiling on the Irish offense.

In order to reach that ceiling, multiple backs will be needed. Aggravated muscles, sprained ankles and overall wear-and-tear are inevitable. He missed the public exhibition with a minor injury, but Jones remains Armstrong’s complementary piece.

“I’ve been singing the praises of Tony Jones all spring,” Kelly said. “It’s too bad he couldn’t play. He’s had a great spring. Those two guys are really going to help our running game.”

Rather than call Jones the backup running back, the phrasing complementary piece was chosen deliberately. It is vital to remember he outperformed Armstrong in Williams’ absence and has far more experience at the position. Jones may not have the possible star-turn ahead of him that Armstrong does, but his reliability raises the floor of Notre Dame’s offense, if you will.

As does the development of Smith. Between him, Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, the Irish hope was one would step forward this spring. While all three looked impressive Saturday — Williams more than Flemister — Smith shined brightest, by far, taking eight carries for 56 yards and two touchdowns, adding 37 more yards on three catches.

“Jahmir’s a truck,” Kelly said. “He’d just as soon run over you than miss you, which is fine. We know what his style is.”

Not that Smith is anything near a finished product or about to challenge Jones for a greater share of carries.

“He’ll also trip over lines when you swing him out of the backfield, so we have to clean that end up,” Kelly said. “But he’s a physical kid.”

That physicality showed itself repeatedly Saturday, but Smith was not as clumsy as Kelly somewhat-in-jest made it seem. The easy comparison is to a younger Tony Jones. Simply enough, Notre Dame would gladly take that kind of player as its third running back in September.

This does not mean Flemister and Williams are entirely out of the mix. Flemister still presents a shiftiness that may find a role, particularly if Armstrong were to be sidelined for multiple games. A season preserving eligibility for Williams may make logical sense, but he could still serve the role of mop-up duty in up to four games. In a season that grinds running backs to dust, even giving the top two a few fourth quarters of rest is a welcome contribution. Think back to Deon McIntosh in 2017; when the Irish had a lead, they brought him in to run out the clock, and he did so ably.

On that note, a thought about needing multiple backs …
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long may remember 2017 a bit differently than history will. In a season when the Irish briefly launched a Heisman campaign for their starting running back, Long focuses on how many backs were needed.

“Last year was really the first year where we had a consistent guy (in Williams), but he missed the first four games,” Long said last week. “[In 2017], shoot, we were rotating four guys every game. That naturally comes with the way we want to run the ball.”

Josh Adams finished 2017 with 206 carries, followed by McIntosh’s 65 and Jones’ 44. Adams rushed 18 or more times in seven games, the latter number diminished both by injury and by massive leads. Those massive leads gave McIntosh 11 or more carries in four games, while Jones reached double digits in the blowout-turned-shootout against Wake Forest.

Hardly a genuine rotation, but given Adams’ late-season injuries, Long can be forgiven for remembering it as such. The point here is if that is how he remembers a season with a 200-carry bellcow, a legitimate rotation should be expected this season with a lead back stepping into the backfield full-time for the first time.

Kelly on Lance Taylor
This quote might not find a home anywhere else, so might as well drop it here.

“Lance’s style is different than Autry’s,” Kelly said Saturday. “Autry was a very good coach and each year we look to bring in great teachers. I just think Lance is a great teacher. He connects well to that group. I think you’re going to see them continue to excel. What does he do to change the group? I don’t know if there’s anything he changes per se, but he’s an intense guy and he demands excellence.”