Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 24, 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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16 SEPT. 24, 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI T he odds last year of current sophomore Jafar Armstrong becoming Notre Dame's top running back in 2018 appeared a few flights above preposterous. Then again, the unexpected at run- ning back has become annual during head coach Brian Kelly's nine seasons. • Who would have thought that in 2012, Theo Riddick — a slot receiver as a sophomore and junior — would now be a sixth-year NFL running back? • Who could have imagined that three-star recruit Cam McDaniel, who moonlighted at cornerback while serv- ing as the fourth back in 2012, would be the team's leading rusher in 2013? • How about 2012 three-star safety recruit C.J. Prosise, another wideout in 2013-14, becoming a 1,000-yard rusher and third-round pick as a con- tingency plan in 2015? • Another three-star recruit, Josh Adams in 2015, wasn't even deemed the best Irish back in his class, yet set a school freshman rushing record and then romped for 1,430 yards in 2017. Redshirted as a freshman wide re- ceiver last season, Armstrong was converted to running back this spring when attrition ravaged the unit. Dismissed from the football team and eventually leaving school were sopho- more Deon McIntosh (East Mississippi Community College) and freshman C.J. Holmes (Penn State), while Adams departed early to the NFL. Finally, there was the "unofficial" suspension of senior Dexter Williams for what was expected to be the first four games for team rules violations. So there was Armstrong, taking the initial snaps against a vaunted Michi- gan defense and scoring the season's first touchdown on a 13-yard gallop less than two minutes into his first college game action (he would add an- other score later in the 24-17 victory). "Running through gaps like that, you don't get that everywhere," Armstrong reflected after the Michi- gan game. "I'm just blessed to have an O-line like that. … Get the one- and-one, and score." And there was Armstrong a week later displaying his natural pass- catching skills with three catches for 61 yards to go with a team-high 66 rushing yards in a hard-fought 24-16 win versus Ball State. Kelly already raised eyebrows this August when he said Armstrong is the closest he's had to Riddick — his standard of all-around excellence with his running, receiving, blocking and physicality — in his time here. "Incredible work load capacity," Kelly said. "He's just an extraordi- nary athlete. … He can go on and on. There just seems to be no breakdown on him. Because of that it put himself in a unique situation within our of- fensive structure." At powerful Bishop Miege in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, Arm- strong totaled 3,744 career receiv- ing yards, unofficially the most a wideout recruit ever enrolled with at Notre Dame (and his 45 touchdowns catches are a state record). Interestingly, Irish wide receivers coach Del Alexander first noted about Armstrong that "he's a seeker of con- tact. … He's a great fit for Notre Dame because of his courage and toughness." As a junior, Armstrong was his state's champion in the 100 meters (10.83) and 200 meters (22.13). An injury issue prevented him from de- fending those titles as a senior. "Speed and power mix, I guess," Armstrong said when asked how he would describe himself as a runner. "I like to run hard, and every play I'm trying to finish." After enrolling at approximately 190 pounds, the 6-1 Armstrong checked in at 218 pounds this season to enhance his physicality, yet his ex- plosiveness has remained because of an innate ability to "play fast." Arm- strong also was involved in high school wrestling part of his career. What he did have to understand himself early this spring was the same as previous rangy, angular fig- ures such as Adams and Prosise. "The No. 1 thing to learn is pad level, and I'm still a little raw there," Armstrong said, recalling some of the hits he absorbed this spring and August. "As a receiver you are natu- rally upright … and I was getting hit at places I didn't want to get hit. "At running back, you're going to have to be able to run between the tackles one play or another, there's no other way around it. … You take that first hit from Te'von [Coney] and Drue [Tranquill] and it's, 'I can't be standing up or it's going to be a long day [or a short one] in practice.'" Armstrong credits his father for instilling his work ethic. "He just told me when you get your shot, never take a play off," Armstrong said. "I like to go fast in everything I do … it's worked for me so far. " Armstrong had an opportunity to visit with Prosise during the spring, and they still text each other. The best advice he's received from Prosise is not getting bogged down with the typical paralysis by analysis. "Just go out and don't think about it," Armstrong replied. "At running back, if you think too much that's when you start slowing down." Originally committed to Missouri, Armstrong was a late addition to the 2017 Notre Dame class on the heels of a 4-8 campaign. From the outset, he was determined to prove that he was not added as a fill-in from a state not renowned as a football hotbed. "I never worried about football be- cause it's all going to work itself out," he said. "I feel like at Notre Dame there are opportunities that you just can't get at other schools, the networking, the education. … My decision to come here was a lot bigger than football. "I definitely came with a chip on my shoulder that I can play with all these four- and five-stars … I felt like I could hold my own. I wanted to play my hardest and do my part." Learning on the run remains a sta- ple of Notre Dame's backfield. ✦ LEARNING ON THE RUN Sophomore Jafar Armstrong is the latest surprise in the Irish backfield Armstrong, a converted wide receiver who holds the Kansas prep career record with 45 touch- down receptions, rushed for 101 yards and three scores in his first two games at Notre Dame. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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