It was just a glimpse, but it was very telling.
Notre Dame opened their season against Louisville with the glorious two back offense Chip Long has been wanting to run for the last two seasons and his entire life. Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones took the field together, everything felt right, and six plays and 75 yards later, Notre Dame was in the end zone on their first possession. It was clinical, and it was efficient. And then it was gone.
Jafar Armstrong hurt his rectis abdominus muscle on the 4th play of the drive, played one more snap, and then we didn’t see him till some spot minutes two weeks ago against USC. Gone was Notre Dame’s most versatile player, and with him went Chip Long’s baby, his two back lineup.
Reports are that Armstrong has been fully integrated back into the offense, and with two weeks to prepare and no classes to worry about, you better believe Long has got something cooked up for the Wolverines this weekend. The name of the game here is versatility and with Armstrong, Notre Dame can choose their adventure on offense and leave the defense in a bad way defensively. But what might it look like? Let’s go back in time.
The First Five Plays Against Louisville
Notre Dame took the field against the Cardinal for the opening possession in 12 personnel–two backs (Jafar and Toney Jones Jr.), one tight end (Brock Wright), and two receivers (Chase Claypool and Chris Finke). They ran five plays before Armstrong left with his injury, all out of different formations and all with Armstrong in a different spot than before. And just a note before we get into the drive itself; on Saturday Notre Dame will be able to do this with Cole Kmet at tight end. Just a little fun thing to think about.
For the opening play, Notre Dame lines up with slot right, Chris Finke outside off the line of scrimmage (LOS), and Armstrong in the slot on the LOS. Tony Jones Jr. is in the backfield with Ian Book, Chase Claypool is the receiver left on the LOS and tight end Brock Wright is in an H back position left and motions across the formation.
Notre Dame can do anything out of this; they can run for power, they can throw quick, or they can throw deep, as all three players lined up outside are deep threats. The latter is what they choose to do. They go play action to Jones Jr., who stays in to block with Wright and send Armstrong on a post, Finke on a streak, and Claypool on a deep crosser. They all end up open, Book can hit any of them, but he sees the linebacker bite on play-action and turn his back completely to the play and chase down the middle. Book opts just to keep it and scramble for 37 yards.
Notre Dame comes out in a similar formation to the last one, except this time Brock Wright is attached to the line on the right and Armstrong and Finke or both lined up off the LOS. Again, everything is available for Notre Dame. They run an RPO up the middle with Jones Jr., and he gains nine yards. You’ll notice that if Book pulls this ball and wants to go quick outside to Armstrong on the screen, there is plenty of room for that. The defensive backs are playing deep, and an easy 10+ is available. But, Book opts for the run, which was also there, and it’s a positive play.
It’s now 2nd and one and Notre Dame puts both Jones Jr. and Armstrong in the back field, with Wright in the slot to the right next to Finke, and Claypool wide left. This is where it’s a problem for the defense. Notre Dame is still big out there with their running backs and the tight end. But, shotgun and split backs with a tight end detached is a passing formation, and you’d especially think so with Cole Kmet out there. Again, everything is available.
On this play, Notre Dame runs the sweep to the right with Armstrong for a gain of five. If Jarrett Patterson doesn’t get beaten on this play allowing the nose tackle to get a piece of Armstrong through the hole and slowing him up, this looks to be a touchdown, with everything else sealed off.
Notre Dame really throws Louisville for a loop here, going trips left with Claypool, Finke, and Wright to the field with Wright on the LOS, and Armstrong lined up at wide receiver alone to the right. Armstrong runs a quick drag across the field on a straight drop back, Book hits him, and even though Armstrong is injured at this point, the play is good enough for a 13 yard gain.
The beauty here is it’s a clear passing formation, but Louisville can’t get into nickel because Notre Dame still hasn’t changed personnel, and even if they did, with Jones Jr. in the back field they can still play physical, while also being dynamic with Armstrong outside. Add Kmet into the lineup here, and it’s a terrifying scenario for the defense.
Notre Dame seamlessly moves from a dynamic passing formation to a power running look a play later. This time, Armstrong lines up in the back field with Book under center. Wright lines up attached to the line on the right, with trips to the same side and Jones Jr. split out in the slot with Finke and Claypool. Notre Dame runs their power G scheme to the right for a gain of five, and with a better cut it might be a score (Armstrong is already hurt by now, so cuts may not have been available to him).
Power, speed, and finesse with multiple formations and the same lineup grouping throughout. And it’s all made possible because Armstrong is as credible as a wide receiver as he is as a running back. A running back who can run for speed and power at that. Add in Kmet, and you’ve got an offensive group that can keep any defense off balance and makes it difficult for the defense to match up with because if the positional versatility and deep skill sets of Armstrong and Kmet. Let’s hope Long is finally ready, as well as Armstrong, to break these things out in a big way this weekend.