Notre Dame’s offense is finally back to full strength this weekend – or at least as close to full strength as it will be in 2019 without Kevin Austin – thanks to the return of Jafar Armstrong. Notre Dame’s RB1 has played just one series of football this year thanks for an abdomen injury suffered in the season-opener. He is set to return to action this week against USC, but what impact he’ll be able to have remains to be seen.
Earlier this week, Brian Kelly said that he expects Armstrong to be available for about 20 plays and not to expect him to assume primary back responsibilities in his first action in over a month. It makes sense given Armstrong’s injury history to ease him back into action. Now, if USC were to say jump out to an early lead, that sensibility could be tested, but assuming he only plays 20 snaps tomorrow, what can we expect out of him?
First off, while we only have less than one drive of action to go off of with Armstrong in the lineup, it could be a coincidence, or this offense could have been designed to really feature Armstrong in 2019. Before his injury, Armstrong carried the ball twice for 10 yards and hauled in a pass for 16. Three of the first five plays of the season funneled through Armstrong. Then he got hurt.
With Armstrong back, we should see more of the two-back sets we heard about over the summer, given his versatility in the passing game. With Tony Jones Jr and Armstrong on the field at the same time, Notre Dame can create some exciting matchup advantages in the RPO game. Book could send Armstrong in motion to line up as a receiver in hopes of a favorable matchup and get him the ball in space. If motioning Armstrong out takes a linebacker out of the box, Book can hand it to Jones and let him run right at the defense.
A potential jumbo package with Armstrong and Jones in the backfield and Cole Kmet and Tommy Tremble both on the field as well gives Notre Dame a personnel grouping that they could power run with or be very dangerous in the passing game given the speed Tremble and Armstrong have for their positions.
In short, having Armstrong back gives Chip Long a lot of opportunities that he previously did not have with the personnel he had on hand the last few weeks. All of the options now available make it hard not to think about what might have been in Athens had Armstrong not gotten hurt. But alas, here we are.
For this weekend, I’d love to see Armstrong take a handoff, find a big hole, and explode through it for a long touchdown as Dexter Williams did against Stanford last year. How realistic that is, I don’t know. For this week, Armstrong’s most significant impact might be the threat he posses on the field. If he can occupy USC’s attention and open things up for his teammates, that alone is a win for the Irish offense this week. He doesn’t need to run 10-12 times on those 20 snaps for his impact to be felt.
Easing Armstrong back into the flow would be very prudent of Kelly and Long, given his injury history. It wouldn’t surprise me for that matter if Armstrong were used more as a decoy at times. For instance, send him in motion into the slot and have him run a go route down the stream to open up the middle of the field for some underneath throws that Book excels at. Book’s been improving on the crossers, so let Armstrong clear out some space for Lawrence Keys or Michael Young to catch something underneath and make rack up some YAC.
In the running game, Armstrong does add an element to the Notre Dame rushing attack that has been sorely missing – the ability to rip off the big run. Tony Jones Jr has been piling up yardage, but he is more of a plodder. Armstrong can be a burner ala Dexter Williams or Josh Adams – albeit maybe without the same top-end speed as Dexter. Given it’s his first game back from an abdomen injury, though, it might not be too wise to run him between the tackles a ton just yet.
We will get a chance to see the Notre Dame offense that Long and Kelly intended to deploy all season this weekend. We just might not see it fully feature Jafar Armstrong just yet even though he will be back in the lineup, and that’s okay. Even having the threat of Armstrong and all of the options a defense must now account for is enough for now. Jafar Armstrong still has a lot of time to make his impact field on the stat sheet – even if it’s not this weekend.