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. 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.