Five things we learned: The Blue-Gold Game

25 Comments

In front of 27,241 fans eager for a fresh start, the Brian Kelly Era took its first snaps at Notre Dame Stadium. After five months of transition, questions, and worries, quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Nate Montana led their Blue and Gold squads respectively, and assured all of us that regardless of who coaches the football team, there are still quality players more than capable of playing winning football wearing gold helmets.

Played at a pace unlike anything we’ve seen at Notre Dame, Montana’s Gold squad got the best of Crist’s Blue team, winning 27-19 on a slightly wet day in South Bend. While neither offense looked particularly crisp and the defense kept things nice and vanilla, there were plenty of clues given by Kelly and his staff on what type of football team we can expect come this September.

Here’s what we learned.

1) The quarterback situation isn’t that dire.

Expect a huge sigh of relief in the Notre Dame football offices, as Nate Montana looked like a capable backup quarterback in Kelly’s timing-based spread offense. Montana started quick, hitting 9 of his first 11 throws, then rebounded from a poor stretch of football to finish 18 of 31 for 207 yards and three touchdowns. Montana missed a few reads and was late with the ball a few other times, but he certainly didn’t look like a deer in the headlights and seemed to be a decent option to back up starter Dayne Crist if the need arises.

As for Crist, the fact that he was able to participate fully in spring drills only four-and-a-half months after ACL surgery is miraculous. When Crist called himself a “quick healer” immediately after the Halloween knee injury, I assumed it was lip-service, but he backed it up with a spring that was imperative for his development in Kelly’s rapid-fire offense. In Crist, the Irish have a quarterback with indisputable raw skills, but a desperate need for refinement. He made some impressive throws today to tight end Kyle Rudolph, but also showed that his accuracy was well behind predecessor Jimmy Clausen’s.

Even Tommy Rees, the early-enrollee freshman who played in spot duty today looked quick and decisive during his limited snaps, delivering a nice mix of play-action passes and quick screens on time and accurately.

2) There’s little reason to worry about the running game.

Many thought the implementation of Kelly’s spread offense would mean the abandonment of the running game for the Irish. If the Blue-Gold Game is any indication, the running attack is alive and well. With Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray and Robert Hughes, the Irish have the most depth at tailback that they’ve had since the Holtz era.

All four backs showed themselves capable, with Wood and Gray stealing the show, both delivering highlight reel touchdown runs. Wood, who will retain his freshman eligibility, dazzled with 10 carries and 121 yards with two touchdowns, making it clear that he’ll be a factor on the field next season. His vision and burst reminded us why he was one of the top running backs in his recruiting class, and why Theo Riddick moved to wide receiver.

If you’re looking for a below-the-radar key to the Irish running game, look no further than offensive line coach Ed Warriner. Warriner is one of the elite coaches in college football when it comes to running the football out of a spread, one-back set, and it was clear that the blocking schemes and talented runners thrived today, just 15 practices after putting the system in place.

Another encouraging aspect of today’s scrimmage was the creativity seen in Kelly’s schematics. There were multiple gains on delayed counters that consistently hit for big plays, and it was a refreshing change of pace from the draws and stock playcalling that Charlie Weis’ running game usually employed.

3) This defense actually has play-makers.

It’s still difficult to figure out what went wrong last season with Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 scheme. But even in a vanilla base defense with hardly any blitzing, we saw that the talented recruits that Weis and his staff brought to South Bend have the ability to thrive when used properly.

Bob Diaco’s 3-4 base defense has little in common with the previous system, but is clearly a better fit for the athletes on the current roster, specifically on the edges, where elite athletes like Darius Fleming, Brian Smith, and Steve Filer can play in space. Filer was a presence today, leading the Gold team with 12 tackles and consistently over-powering the blockers assigned to him on the edge.  In the middle, it’s clear that the Irish have a star in Manti Te’o. Te’o was all over the field, contributing 8 tackles, many with violent collisions. He looked adept in coverage, made an interception on a tipped ball, and his pursuit sideline to sideline was impressive.

Another pleasant surprise was the play of the interior defensive linemen. Both Ian Williams and Brandon Newman knocked down passes, and Sean Cwynar was a headache for offensive linemen as he consistently broke through the line. While Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore’s health are crucial to the success of the Irish defense, Emeka Nwankwo and Hafis Williams showed the ability to step in and play if needed.

The final piece of the defensive puzzle will be the secondary. Gary Gray chipped in an interception on a tipped ball, Jamoris Slaughter was solid in coverage, and Harrison Smith had one of the hits of the day from his safety spot. Both Robert Blanton and Darrin Walls have shown they can be true cover corners, and the depth the Irish are building at safety with Zeke Motta and Dan McCarthy, along with the contributions of early-enrollee E.J. Banks will help the Irish compete on the bacd end.

4) Tai-ler Jones will be the first freshman to make an impact.

Jones, who enrolled early and is still only 17-years-old, looks like he’ll contribute early and often in Brian Kelly’s new spread attack. The son of former Irish defender Andre Jones had 59 yards receiving today and a nice touchdown catch between Dan McCarthy and Darrin Walls in the corner of the end zone. He looked quick and confident in his routes, showed a great burst and shake in the open field, and likely will be a great weapon for the Irish.

For the most part, all the early enrollees looked capable on the field, with Tommy Rees doing a nice job at quarterback, Chris Badger making some plays at safety, E.J. Banks getting plenty of action at corner and Spencer Boyd showing up as well. It’ll be interesting to see what Kelly’s philosophy is on playing freshman and whether he’ll try to preserve the eligibility of the guys in the secondary as well as Rees, who don’t look like they’ll break into the two-deep.

5) It is truly a new era at Notre Dame.

From the onset of today’s scrimmage, it’s clear that this Notre Dame team will be a complete transformation for last year’s team. The pace of the game today was astounding and from the sound of Coach Kelly he only expects it to get faster.

“If you thought today was fast, it’ll get a lot faster than you saw today,” Kelly said on the field after the game.”

Gone are the deep drops and long developing routes. There wasn’t a single fade pattern thrown to Michael Floyd or deep comeback route. The pace of the offense was frenetic, and it’s clear that the Irish will simply try to out-run and out-condition their opponents. Still, the weapons of the Irish offense developed by Weis will find a place in Kelly’s offense. The worries over Kyle Rudolph’s role were extinguished quickly today, with Crist finding his tight end early and often. The concern that a shotgun attack would turn the running game irrelevant was eliminated when quarterbacks regularly took snaps under center and handed the ball off to backs that found plenty of running room in the new system.

More importantly, it’s clear that this Irish football team will play far gr
eater attention to detail an
d be a product of a coach that’s spent 20 years honing his craft as a man in charge of a program, working with a staff that he’s spent years with. While the Blue-Gold Game certainly isn’t a precursor to certain success, it has to have left Irish fans feeling far more comfortable with the direction of their football team.

That’s about all anyone could ask for in the Blue-Gold Game. 

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

18 Comments

Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

Getty Images
16 Comments

By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Getty Images
30 Comments

Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

Getty Images
7 Comments

If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.