Five things we learned: The Blue-Gold Game

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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. 

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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