Before the season began, Notre Dame expected to have a pair of running backs capable of carrying the load in the backfield.
Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. were penciled in to contribute significantly after the Irish lost Dexter Williams to the NFL. Instead, the injury bug hit, first a groin injury for Armstrong, then a rib injury for Jones.
When the Irish take on Duke on Saturday, the two-headed monster that they envisioned should be 100% healthy for the first time since the opening quarter against Louisville. That's good news for a Notre Dame offense that has averaged 2.2 yards per carry over the last two games
“I feel like we're different backs, but we bring a lot of energy and poise to the offense,” Armstrong said. “It's just good to have two good backs in the backfield helping each other out.”
Armstrong and Jones were listed as co-starters before the season, but Armstrong, a sophomore, was slated to get more touches, in large part because of his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. That changed almost immediately, when Armstrong came up lame after catching a pass in the first quarter against Louisville.
His injury kept him out for the better part of five games and even when he returned full time against Michigan, he was not as mobile laterally as he usually is. Coach Brian Kelly said Armstrong was more comfortable running through people than trying to go around them.
“I feel like naturally when you have that kind of groin injury, you're going to have a slow reaction to wanting to make juke moves,” Armstrong said. “But just the way the game (against Michigan) was going, it was a really physical game, I just felt like I had to lower my shoulder more in certain phases.”
While Armstrong was out, Jones stepped in and became a strong No. 1 back. He ripped off three 100-yard performances in a row against Virginia, Bowling Green and USC, including a career-best 176 yards on 25 carries against the Trojans.
Jones isn't the pass-catching threat that Armstrong, a converted wide receiver, is, but he stabilized the rushing attack. That is, until he went down against Michigan with the rib injury.
Jones was dressed and ready to go against Virginia Tech, but the Irish held him out, preferring to give him an extra week of rest. Armstrong handled the carries for the Irish, getting 23 touches.
Now, both players should be healthy and the Irish can count on the rushing attack they always expected to have.
“We go and we practice the guys that are ready,” Kelly said. “It would be great if Tony is ready to go and we expect him to be. We will get them both in the lineup and they both can contribute and be helpful for us. It'll be nice to have them.”
Notre Dame at Duke
Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, N.C.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Records: Notre Dame (6-2), Duke (4-4)
TV: ACC Network
Radio: 92.3 FM