No. 9 Notre Dame may find out this season that a stable full of running backs is better than one.
Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. are sharing the load in practices, with three underclassmen also pushing for playing time. The previous two seasons, Josh Adams (1,430 yards in 2017) and Dexter Williams (995 yards in 2018) got most of the carries for the Fighting Irish, but so far a primary back has not grabbed the job.
Armstrong is a 200-pound junior who came to Notre Dame as an all-state wide receiver from Bishop Miege High School in Kansas before converting to running back during 2018 spring practice. Jones is a 224-pound senior who played at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Each would like to be the workhorse that their predecessors were. For now, they are comfortable sharing the workload with each other and the other three hopefuls.
“He (Armstrong) keeps me on my toes — I always want to grind and do better,” said Jones, who last season rushed for 392 yards, including 118 against Vanderbilt, and had 157 yards receiving, including a 51-yard touchdown against USC. “We’re always trying to one up each other and do better.”
“Me and Tony just try and build off each other,” said Armstrong, who missed three games with a staph infection in his knee but managed 383 rushing yards and seven touchdowns along with 159 receiving yards on 14 catches. “If Tony makes a big play, I’m going to try and make a big play.”
With just 10 games under his belt as a running back, Armstrong isn’t afraid to seek advice from Jones to better his game.
“Tony has a real IQ for the game — he’s smart and been here for four years,” Armstrong said. “So any time I have a question about anything, I’m going to Tony. He knows the playbook.”
“We’re all selfless,” Jones said. “We all want the team to win. I think we both have similar types of games but show them in different ways. He’s elusive but he’s also powerful. I’m powerful but elusive.”
Coach Brian Kelly and first-year running backs coach Lance Taylor like what they are seeing from Armstrong and Jones, who not only have shared the snaps as the solo running back in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s spread formations, but sometimes find themselves together or sharing the field in multi-back schemes.
“They are a load and they are a handful,” Kelly said. “Jafar tends to want a big play all the time. He’s (become) a physical presence. His ability to pass protect and catch the football mirrors what Tony can do. … Both of them together make a fine tandem.”
True freshman Kyren Williams, an early enrollee from St. Louis who went through spring drills, has received some first-team looks this preseason as have sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister, who were redshirted last season. Long is using all of them in formations that will try and offset the losses of tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Michael Young, both on the mend from broken collarbones.
Taylor, whose father played for Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama, played wide receiver for the Crimson Tide, where he first came under the influence of current Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. He then started his coaching career as a Crimson Tide grad assistant for Nick Saban. Turner came to Notre Dame from the Carolina Panthers where he coached wide receivers after serving time as running backs coach at Stanford under David Shaw and tutoring all-purpose All-American running backs Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love.
“Both Jafar and Tony have different strengths that complement each other,” Taylor said. “The young guys — Jahmir, C’Bo and Kyren — have taken turns making plays when the football has found them. One of the things we stressed is be explosive and have playmaking ability — win 1-on-1 matchups, run through arm tackles and finish in the end zone.”
Notre Dame opens the season at Louisville on Sept. 2.
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