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. 

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.