SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame entered the 2019 season with two featured running backs: redshirt junior Tony Jones and redshirt sophomore Jafar Armstrong, the latter of which was listed as the starter for the season opener against Louisville.
Since the first drive against the Cardinals, though, the Fighting Irish have had both of their top two running backs 100 percent healthy for just one full half of football. Notre Dame hopes that’ll change Saturday against Duke.
It was in the first game against Louisville when Armstrong injured his abdomen, forcing him to miss the Irish’s next four games.
“When it first happened, I was just hoping that it wasn’t going to be a long-lasting injury,” Armstrong said. “It eventually was, but it’s just the way life goes sometimes. Sometimes stuff doesn’t go your way. I’ve been hurt before, and I knew exactly what I had to do. I had to rehab hard, get treatment.”
This allowed Jones to step into the No. 1 option at running back for the Irish, and he flourished. He had a then-career high 131 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Virginia and followed it up with 102 yards on just seven carries against Bowling Green.
For the USC game, Notre Dame had both Armstrong and Jones available for the first time since the Louisville game. Armstrong worked in a limited role, though, and finished with just one rush for minus-4 yards.
“I felt pretty good (against USC),” Armstrong said. “It was probably smart that I didn’t play too much. I could finish up the rest of this season.”
This allowed Jones to have a career day, rushing for 176 yards on 25 attempts. Although Jones didn’t find the end zone, he helped set the tone offensively for the Irish in their 30-27 victory over their rivals.
“I saw my (offensive) line working hard, I saw my tight ends working hard and I just put the team on my back and try to do whatever I can do,” Jones said after the USC game. “I’ve always been like this. Coach is letting me out of the cage a little bit.”
Following a bye week, Armstrong and Jones were both 100 percent healthy heading into the road contest against Michigan. Jones didn’t play the second half against the Wolverines, though, with an “upper-body injury.” He was a game-time decision for last week’s game against Virginia Tech, ultimately not playing.
This gave Armstrong his chance as the true No. 1 running back for Notre Dame, and he had a productive game. He finished with 37 yards rushing and 49 receiving for a total of 86 against the Hokies. Armstrong didn’t score, but he made numerous key plays to set up touchdowns for the Irish.
One of those plays came on second-and-10 from the Virginia Tech 30-yard line early in the second quarter. Armstrong took a screen pass from quarterback Ian Book and dashed 26 yards down the left sideline. Armstrong dove for the end zone and appeared to have scored, but he was ruled out at the 4-yard line. On the next play, Book threw a touchdown to tight end Tommy Tremble, giving the Irish a 14-7 advantage.
Armstrong also had a third-and-11 reception later in the game where he barreled over a Hokie defender to reach the first-down marker.
“I was in good shape,” Armstrong said. “I felt like I was healthy coming out, so it was good to finally get the full set of plays in.”
Jones and Armstrong were both listed as potential starters against a Duke defense that allows 145 rushing yards per game. Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool is excited at the prospect of having all the skill players healthy for the Irish offense.
“It’s really good,” Claypool said. “I think that nothing really did go well for us (against Virginia Tech) offensively, but we did a lot of good things in the game. We had a lot of yards on the board, so it wasn’t like we played bad. So just knowing we’re getting even more weapons back is exciting.”
Although he’s excited to have both of his two main running backs healthy, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly acknowledged it’s more about preparing the guys that are healthy to play in recent weeks rather than thinking about who could be healthy.
“We go and we practice the guys that are ready,” Kelly said. “If Tony’s ready to go, we expect him to. We’ll get them both in the lineup. They both can contribute and both can be helpful for us. It’ll be nice to have them.”