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The Journal Gazette

  • Dylan Sinn | The Journal Gazette Notre Dame offensive linemen get set to run a drill at Saturday’s fall camp practice, held at Notre Dame Stadium.

  • Dylan Sinn | The Journal Gazette Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. ran for 392 yards and three touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore last season. 

  • Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong ran for 383 yards last season.

  • DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette Notre Dame running backs Jafar Armstrong (left) and Tony Jones Jr. will split carries for the Irish this season after making strides in 2018.

Sunday, August 18, 2019 1:00 am

Young runners strength for Irish

Pair expected to make an impact

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame got a glimpse of its 2019 running game in the first four games of the 2018 season. 

It was then that future NFL draft pick Dexter Williams sat out for undisclosed reasons, forcing Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. to carry the load in the backfield. The young duo delivered, each turning in at least one game with more than 100 total yards and giving the Irish a window into the future.

With Williams graduated to the Green Bay Packers, Jones and Armstrong are now the returning veterans at Notre Dame. They will each get plenty of carries and be called upon to catch passes out of the backfield. The Irish expect to have a formidable passing game with Ian Book under center and weapons on the outside, but the running game will have to be effective to make that aerial attack work.

“(We can be) really good,” Armstrong said. “We try to push ourselves every day. Dex (Williams) was a great back, but we have to focus on the present now. Notre Dame has had great backs in the past, so we're just trying to keep that tradition up.”

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Armstrong, a redshirt sophomore, was Notre Dame's breakout star on offense in the early part of 2018, proving himself a threat on the ground and in the passing game. He had 127 total yards and a touchdown against Ball State and ran eight times for 98 yards against Wake Forest while scoring twice.

It was an eye-opening performance, especially for a player who had spent his life as a wide receiver before moving to running back in 2018. This year, he feels more comfortable at his position and the Irish are committed to having him there.

“It's just a cleaner transition,” coach Brian Kelly said of Armstrong's second year in the backfield. “He knows he's playing running back. (Last year) we were kind of one foot in, one foot out. This is a full commitment to that position. ... It's a totally different place than where we were last year at this time.”

Armstrong had several powerful runs near the end of practice Saturday. He doesn't often get brought down by first contact and he has a low center of gravity, allowing him to shed tacklers more easily. Kelly called him a “physical presence,” but also admitted there are times when the younger back tries to do too much. On one play in particular, Armstrong tried to bounce a run outside and got stopped for no gain rather than taking it up the middle for three yards.

Still, Armstrong's aggressiveness is generally a positive and he and Jones figure to create a formidable duo. Their running styles are similar, but emphasize different abilities.

“(Armstrong) is elusive, but he's also powerful, so teams forget about (the power),” Jones said. “I'm powerful, but I'm also elusive, so it's the same type of (style), it's just flipped. I think that's really going to keep defenses on their heels.”

Jones, a 5-foot-11, 225-pound bruiser, was the hero of the Irish's win over Vanderbilt, racking up a career-high 174 total yards, including 118 rushing yards on just 17 carries. 

Kelly praised Jones for a play he made in practice Saturday on which the redshirt junior artfully picked up a linebacker blitzing up the middle, giving Book a chance to throw for a first down.

“(That play) is indicative of the kind of skill set he has that's going to help us win football games,” Kelly said. “I know it doesn't sell subscriptions, but what he does for coaches, a lot of the little things that help you win football games, that is Tony Jones.

“Jafar obviously has a skill set that maybe has a brighter light to it at times, but (Armstrong and Jones) together make for a really fine tandem.” 

It's September 2018 all over again.

dsinn@jg.net