With the departure of Dexter Williams to the NFL, the Irish entered the year with the tall task of replacing the on-the-ground production from last season’s explosive feature back.
That task grew even taller early in the first quarter of Monday’s season opener against Louisville, when starting junior running back Jafar Armstrong suffered what appeared to be a groin injury that kept him sidelined for the rest of the contest.
Notre Dame responded with 225 yards on the ground, 110 of which came on the legs of senior running back Tony Jones. The hundred-yard outing was the second of Jones’ career, who took advantage of the extra carries that came along with Armstrong’s injury.
“I felt amazing,” Jones said. “This was my second career-start, really, [with the early exit of Armstrong]. I showed [head] coach [Brian] Kelly that I’m growing up and can be a leader. I think I showed the world that I can be that back that Notre Dame needs.”
The bulk of Jones’ yardage came during one of Monday night’s defining drives. Midway through the first quarter, the Irish had just surrendered 14 unanswered points and were facing an early 14-7 deficit.
Notre Dame leaned on Jones on their ensuing drive, who accounted for 78 yards on six carries and capped off the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run. The Irish wouldn’t trail again.
Jones was quick to credit his success on the drive to the men in front of him, as well to the confidence he’s built heading into the season.
“I was seeing my line work, and the holes were big in front of me,” he said. “There’s not a better feeling than when you get the ball and it’s straight grass in front of you. I’m more confident in myself because I know the plays better. Coach Kelly tells me that if you believe you’re the best player on the field, nobody can stop you.”
Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool saw the drive as a pivotal one, with Jones’ ability to run the ball opening up the passing game and making things easier for the offense.
“[Junior] Jafar [Armstrong] went down and Tony took the lead and put us on his back,” Claypool said. “He took the load, and because of that, he made all our jobs a lot easier.”
Senior quarterback Ian Book wasn’t surprised at Jones’ ability to step up, he said he sees his contributions continuing in the future.
“For Tony, it’s all about preparation,” Book said. “That kid works so hard day-in and day-out. I’m super happy seeing that work pay off. I knew that if his name was called he’d be ready, and I’m really proud of him. He’s going to be a good back for us.”
Kelly also attributed Jones’ big night to a successful offseason and growing more comfortable in his role in the backfield.
“He knows exactly what we’re asking from him,” Kelly said. “There were times last year when he wasn’t certain what his role was, and that caused him anxiety at times. He knows exactly what his role is and he’s been excellent at fulfilling that.”
Jones wasn’t the only weapon in the arsenal for the Irish on Monday night. Book rushed for 81 yards on 14 carries, including a 37-yard run to open the game.
Sophomore Jahmir Smith was a presence in the red zone, powering in for two touchdowns close to the goal line.
Jones spoke highly of Smith, saying he believes that the Irish running backs have the potential to be a force going forward.
“[Smith] balled out,” Jones said. “He’s a load to handle, and you know he balled out and he helped me. He’s grown in the passing game and the running game, and he’s doing all of that now. We can be a 1-2-3 punch, really.”
That “1-2-3 punch” will depend on the health of Armstrong, whose status remained unclear after the game.
“We don’t know that it’s serious,” Kelly said. “We’re not sure that it’s a groin injury. He was telling us that it was more in the midline. He’s being examined by the doctors. He was moving around okay, and we’re hopeful that it’s not something that puts him out very long.”
Even in injury, however, Armstrong proved to be a vital part of the running back corps. The junior was a vocal presence on the sidelines after departing from the game.
“[Armstrong] was being a leader for us and even when he went down, he really wasn’t ‘down,’” Jones said. “He was giving me tips on my runs and telling me stuff I was doing wrong and stuff I was doing right. He was just being a good leader for us.”
After a strong start to the season, the Irish running game has a week off before getting another chance to showcase itself. Whether or not Monday night was a sign of things to come, Jones was clear: “The sky’s the limit.”