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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

April 16, 2020

Last week was all about Clemson. This week is all about Notre Dame.

My thoughts this week aren’t about the players fans expect to be stars. This week my focus is on six upperclassmen, none of whom we included in our bracket for the most important players on the team.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be considered differently by the end of the season. It just means that no one is getting too excited about them right now because they’ve been around college football long enough while not coming close to breaking through.

What better player to start off with than Jafar Armstrong?Could this be the season when Armstrong becomes the player some people projected him to be? It’s unlikely given what we’ve seen so far. 

He just experienced two underwhelming seasons at running back and after averaging 2.7 yards per carry in 2019, you can forgive people for not counting on him being ready to be more than a complimentary piece on offense.

The track record explains it all.

Armstrong has had 142 touches over the last two seasons. Out of those touches, he has two plays of 30 yards or more: a 30-yard gain vs Wake Forest in 2018 and a 42-yard run vs Ball State. That’s quite a few opportunities and not a lot of explosive plays.

There were a lot of complimentary things said about Armstrong when he made the move from receiver to running back and he flashed in that first spring ball. Expectations were way too high for someone who was switching positions and not rated as a blue-chip recruit, though.

I think people got caught up with the success of CJ Prosise making a similar move and hoped Armstrong would have the same results. After two years we’ve seen that comparison wasn’t the right one to make.

Before he moved to running back in 2015, Prosise had only 46 career touches, but out of those 46, there were 6 plays of 30 yards or more including plays of 50, 53, 59, and 78 yards. While people didn’t know how he would do at running back, it wasn’t that surprising that he became a big play back because of what he showed in limited opportunities prior to that.

Armstrong hasn’t shown that and has had enough chances to demonstrate that he’s not the same guy as Prosise. He has not proven to be a tackler breaker or a “make-you-miss” player in space. He has good speed, but he’s not good enough to get the corner against a fast defense.

He is who he is.

While I believe he can produce a lot more than he has, I think if everyone resets their expectations for him then they can be a lot happier with him as a situational back rather than a lead guy. If he’s playing on 3rd downs running those angle routes or running a wheel route like Tony Jones did, Armstrong can have success and contribute to the offense.

I hope the staff doesn’t keep trying to make him into a player he hasn’t shown himself to be and instead lets him shine at the things he can excel at.

2. Speaking of letting someone shine at the things they can excel at, I was happy to see that Avery Davis has moved to the slot. Although I’m certainly a fan of Lawrence Keys’ potential, I would not count out Davis emerging as the starter in the slot if given an opportunity.

This is mostly based on what we saw from him in the spring and fall of 2018 when he got to work in drills from there. There’s something dynamic with him that I think can be unleashed and he’s shown signs of it while running that jet sweep 59-yards to the house against New Mexico.

If there’s a list of potential surprise breakout players for the Irish this season, Davis should be near the top.

3. I wonder if Brock Wright could be put on that list as well.

The former highly rated recruit hasn’t exactly had the career he or anyone else would have hoped for. Part of that is being stuck behind two guys who have been drafted by the NFL and a third who is going to be the first tight end off the board in next week’s draft. The other part is that he spent most of his first two years playing as a short-yardage fullback, which he never seemed to look comfortable doing, rather than being an additional in-line blocking option, something he was outstanding at back in high school.

I saw new tight end coach John McNulty had former Notre Dame tight end Anthony Fasano speak to his position group earlier this week. It’s probably more of a coincidence than anything else, but the type of player Fasano was, a tough as nails complete tight end, was the type of player I thought Wright would be.

He still might end up being that guy because Tommy Tremble, the one who most assume will replace Cole Kmet’s production in the passing game, has a much different skill set than Wright.

Tremble has shown a knack for isolation blocks as a full back. He can be physical as an H-back running whams and also be a matchup problem down the seam against linebackers. Wright can focus on being that in-line option for Notre Dame and if he does, that might be as important to the Irish running game as the five returning offensive linemen.

4. There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the linebackers on the roster and for good reason. The returning starters look like they are ready to be even better and the young players are talented enough to push for playing time.

Where does that leave Jordan Genmark Heath? If we went through all 11 of the scholarship linebackers on the roster, I bet most fans would say they are the least excited about JGH this season.

It’s understandable given that he was expected to compete for the starting Buck job last fall and ended up playing less snaps than two others who didn’t finish the season with injuries. His snaps actually went down from 2018.

Yet, when spring ball started, JGH was with the ones on their lone day of practice. That probably had a lot to do with Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb not being fully ready to participate, but it also shows JGH still has a sliver of hope to compete for the open Buck job.

He’s always looked more like an athlete than a linebacker. Physical traits are certainly not the thing holding him back. I wouldn’t bet on him emerging as the starter at Buck, but then again, Clark Lea is a linebacker wizard who has gotten the best out of his players the last three years.

If he helps JGH become a factor this season, then maybe we should start calling Lea “Merlin”.

5. Shayne Simon might be the favorite to start at Buck when the players start practicing again. He was the next man in after Asmar Bilal there this season before Simon’s season was ended by an injury. He was showing some serious promise as a blitzer and you could tell he stopped thinking and was playing more freely.

It’s a shame that the four-game rule for redshirts didn’t happen earlier because Simon would have benefited greatly from it. He could have three years left instead of two with them holding him to four games in ‘18. Then Simon would be grouped in with the young linebackers. Now he is basically a veteran that has to make his mark now or he’ll never become a starter. It all seems a bit unfair for a guy who hasn’t played a lot of football.

I always felt that many were placing unfair expectations for him to make an immediate impact because of his ranking as a recruit. That ranking never took into account that he was going to make a transition from what was essentially a box safety to an inside linebacker. It’s not an easy move to make.

Last season he was showing signs that he was ready to be the player he was projected to be. If guys like him and Houston Griffith start playing up to the ranking they came into Notre Dame with, the defense may make the leap to an even better one than the 2019 version that finished fifth in FEI.

6. I know Notre Dame needs to find some answers at corner, but graduate transfer safety Isaiah Pryor might be the biggest wildcard for the defense. He started at Ohio State, but ultimately lost his job and that’s why he ended up at Notre Dame with two more years to play.

We saw what Lea could do with three quality safeties last year in his sub-packages and if he has three again with Griffith, Pryor, and Kyle Hamilton, it will make their coverages more diverse and help continue their excellent play on 3rd down (19th in conversion percentage).

If Pryor had chosen the Irish out of high school, he would have been the second highest rated safety behind only one player. That player? Max Redfield.

That’s a reminder that Pryor has a ton of raw talent, but much like Redfield, it hasn’t exactly translated the way many assumed it would. Although, if he’s being compared to Redfield, it’s worth mentioning that Pryor had 10 Havoc plays in two seasons at Ohio State, more than Redfield had in his three at Notre Dame (8.5).

But he doesn’t have to be an All-American for this to work out well for the Irish. He just has to be good.

If Terry Joseph can do what he did with Jalen Elliott in terms of turning a raw athlete into a productive player, then that can change how Lea uses Hamilton as a blitzer and in coverage. And who doesn’t want to watch Hamilton utilized in a way that could make him an even bigger factor for the defense?

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