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Pregame six pack: Your guide to the Blue-Gold game

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As thousands of Irish fans descend on South Bend for the 82nd annual Blue-Gold game (and the first televised nationally — 2:00 p.m. ET on Versus — likely featuring yours truly), here are six tidbits, quick hits, fun facts or leftovers to get you ready for a Saturday of football.

1.Blue-Gold success isn’t necessarily an indicator of regular season performance.

If you’re looking for an idea of what to expect from the Blue-Gold game, it makes sense to look back at last year’s intrasquad game. Let’s take a look at what we learned from last year’s game and see if it translated to regular season success.

For every breakout performance like the one Cierre Wood had, there was a huge day by a guy like Nate Montana or walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin. After Montana’s 18 for 30 day, which included three touchdown passes, who’d have thought that it’d be Tommy Rees battling for the No. 1 quarterback job and Montana off in Missoula.

Steve Filer was a monster for the Gold team on defense, notching 12 tackles (2 TFL) while playing with much of the starting defense. That didn’t help Filer crack the starting rotation, relegated to another year on special teams for a third straight season. Meanwhile, starting opposite Filer, Darius Fleming didn’t register a tackle on the official score sheet.

There are going to be players that break-out during this year’s Blue-Gold game (as long as the weather lets them), but before we assume that means big production next year, let’s keep our expectations in check.

2. Let’s hope Mom and Dad brought their cameras, because some unknown running backs are going to be making some plays.

With Cameron Roberson out with a torn ACL, Jonas Gray limited and Cierre Wood already a proven commodity, get ready to see some guys totting the football that you’ve never seen. As we just mentioned, walk-on Patrick Coughlin turned some heads with some hard-running in the second half of last year’s Blue-Gold game, but if you want to win a prop-bet or two with your friends, keep your eyes on Derry Herlihy. The graduating senior from Houston, Texas came back to support the team after injuries wiped out an already thin depth chart, and he’s got all the makings of a 20 carry back as the game winds down in the second half.

Herlihy isn’t just a tackling dummy, he’s actually spent time on two Irish rosters, moonlighting on the Notre Dame club rugby team as it returned to the Division I ranks.

“Rugby’s a man’s game,” Herlihy said back in November. “It definitely toughened me up a bit. Hitting someone with pads on is a piece of cake after you do it without any pads.”

(We’ll see if he’s saying that after Saturday…)

Rounding out the walk-on depth chart will be Tyler Plantz, a sophomore from Frankfort, Illinois, who should also spent quite some time picking grass out of his helmet.

With Cam McDaniel coming back in the fall, and George Atkinson getting a look at tailback as well, this might be the last chance for a walk-on running back to make a name for himself. It may not help the Irish come the regular season, but it sure would be a great photo to show the grandkids.

3. It’s a recruiting extravaganza for the Irish coaching staff this weekend.

With the Irish stuck on two committed recruits, expect that number to climb in the coming days. Even though the weather won’t cooperate, the coaching staff will be balancing the Blue-Gold game with a slew of important recruits.

According to IrishSportsDaily.com, the Irish will be welcoming incoming freshman Jalen Brown, Davaris Daniels, Jarrett Grace, Conor Hanratty, Eilar Hardy, Chase Hounshell, Ben Koyack, Nick Martin, and Tony Springmann to campus.

As for the 2012 class, both commitments Tee Shepard and Taylor Decker plan to be on hand, as well as over a dozen more high-profile recruits, including speedster Ronald Darby, quarterback Maty Mauk, defensive tackle Tommy Schutt, and wide receiver Amara Darboh.

4. It’s the final day to end a position battle on the right foot.

Regardless of whether you’re neck and neck for a position like Danny Spond and Prince Shembo or a presumed starter like Carlo Calabrese, Saturday’s Blue-Gold game is the last chance to put a good rep on tape for the long off-season.

Calabrese spent a lot of time listening to his name being uttered by both head coach Brian Kelly and his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, two things that never feel good. It’s clear that the coaching staff, even though they’ve called Calabrese the starter opposite Manti Te’o, think the rising junior has a ways to go before he matures into the player that they need.

Some players need to take advantage of the spring game and use it as proof that the coaching staff found what they were looking for. Last year, Steve Filer’s 12 tackles weren’t enough to hold off Kerry Neal and Brian Smith at outside linebacker. And this year, while Spond and Shembo have slid in front of the senior linebacker, head coach Brian Kelly thinks he’s found the proper way to utilize the athleticism and pass-rushing skills of the Chicago native.

“Steve Filer has had a great spring for us,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I think we found his niche.”

5. Irish fans, get ready for your first look at the Freshman Five.

It’s been so long since we’ve seen Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams making plays in San Antonio at the Army All-American Bowl, some Irish fans might need to pinch themselves when they finally see two of the best defensive recruits in the nation wearing the gold helmet of the Fighting Irish this Saturday.

With one offensive line sliding it’s way through the game, Lynch should have all he can handle when he’s matched up with Zack Martin or senior Taylor Dever and it’ll give the coaching staff a good idea of how ready Lynch is to compete come next fall. Even though Bob Diaco will keep things pretty vanilla on defense, expect to see Ishaq Williams engage in the pass rush as well.

One member of the green brigade is Brad Carrico, the Irish’s first commitment in the 2011 class, who has already shifted from defensive end to offensive line. Carrico’s massive frame (which is lighter after a nutrition regimen and time with strength coach Paul Longo) and quick feet make him a quick study at offensive line. Saturday we’ll see how he does with live ammo.

After hearing about Kyle Brindza’s prodigious kicking leg, Irish fans half expect him to kick the ball out of the back of the endzone on kickoffs. Brindza will likely get a few chances as well as an opportunity to battle for placekicking and punting jobs. For all the hoopla other recruits received, Brindza’s story might be the best, with the PARADE All-American enduring seven surgeries on his right foot by the age of 12 to repair a club foot that doctors thought might keep him out of sports completely.

No freshman will have a bigger spotlight on them than Everett Golson, who will likely take the lion’s share of QB reps as he squares off against Andrew Hendrix. (More on that now…)

6. Enjoy the four-headed quarterbacking monster while it lasts.

History tells us that while having four solid quarterbacks that could potentially win games is nice, it’s also incredibly fleeting. While Brian Kelly and his coaching staff might not be saying it, Saturday’s game could be incredibly important deciding the future of Notre Dame’s depth chart at the position.

Kelly has already stated that Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees aren’t likely to take many snaps, but they should spend a few series with the offense, plays that’ll be important for both Crist and Rees to show comfort and excel directing the Irish offense.

But the battle between Hendrix and Golson might be worth watching even closer, because if Golson pulls ahead of Hendrix exiting spring ball, the Irish coaching staff might be in danger of losing their No. 4 quarterback, a guy who’s probably the most talented QB on the roster.

There are plenty of ways this thing could play out, including some that see Crist taking off and playing in a system that better fits his game. Setting fictional scenarios aside, there aren’t too many examples where all four quarterbacks continue biding their time and waiting their turn, especially with the Irish courting blue-chipper Maty Mauk and top national QB Gunner Kiel, who has the Irish near the top of a very prestigious list.

Irish A-to-Z: Nick Watkins

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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With the Fiesta Bowl serving as a springboard, junior cornerback Nick Watkins looked primed to make a move into the starting lineup as he entered his third season in the program. But a spring injury that’s been slow to heal has put his season into purgatory, another uncertainty for the Irish secondary.

A talented coverman who took some time to come into his own, Watkins now waits on bone growth in an injured arm, a second surgery initiated to jump start things. But with the regular season bearing down on the Irish and Watkins’ availability unknown, his contributions are a huge unknown for Notre Dame’s secondary.

 

NICK WATKINS
6’0.5″, 200 lbs.
Junior, No. 7, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star, Top 150 recruit, Watkins stayed off the summer camp circuit and still wowed recruiting analysts. The Dallas native had one of the most impressive offer sheets of his recruiting cycle, picking Notre Dame over Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC and UCLA.

Brian Kelly compared landing Watkins to “getting a No. 1 draft pick” on Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making most of his appearances on special teams. Didn’t register any statistics.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, making one start against Ohio State and making eight tackles. Had one pass breakup.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Watkins fell out of the No. 3 job when Devin Butler beat him out for it, though took over before the Fiesta Bowl when Butler injured his foot in preparations.

Right now, Watkins is the third cornerback in a defense with a high-ceiling starting pair. I can’t think of a Notre Dame defense that hasn’t relied on their third cornerback, and think back to when we all worried how the Irish were going to get Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton onto the field. It’ll work itself out.

So Watkins will get the reps this season. Or at least the first shot at the reps, with Devin Butler and a trio of freshmen all right behind him. And if he’s going to stay on the field, he’ll need to fully embrace the mental side of the game. I expect Watkins to make major progress here, especially after the harsh realization that elite physical tools may make it easy to lock down receivers in high school, but in VanGorder’s system, knowledge is almost more important.

Watkins is still every bit the prospect he was when he signed with the Irish. After a freshman season spent on special teams, he’ll be asked to take on more as a sophomore.

While he’s a key piece of the Irish future, Watkins can help Notre Dame win this year as well.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There aren’t many questions about Watkins’ physical abilities, other than the fact that he hasn’t found a way to make an impact yet. That’s understandable considering he was stuck behind KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, though a breakout season seems on the verge of being stuck in neutral as he tries to recover from a slow-healing broken arm.

With plenty of tools in the toolbox, Watkins feels like the type of player who can ascend quickly once he’s given the chance. But then again that ascent is predicated on earning that opportunity—no small feat when you look at the athletes the Irish have recruited.

Entering his third season of eligibility, the clock is ticking. His ceiling will be determined by how quickly he’s back on the field, or if the Irish staff ultimately decides to save a year of eligibility if that’s what’s needed.

 

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins—who Kelly said will be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

I’m no doctor—but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

While losing Watkins is a blow—especially with the length of these suspensions unknown—any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn

Walk-on WR Chris Finke awarded scholarship

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Amidst the chaos of a weekend where Notre Dame football players made headlines for the wrong reasons, a good story comes from the ashes. Walk-on wide receiver Chris Finke was awarded a scholarship. The diminutive slot receiver, currently running No. 2 behind CJ Sanders and also a potential returner for the Irish, earned the scholarship on Monday.

News came via social media, where a group of teammates—and the Walk-on Players Union—gave their congratulations.

The 5-foot-9.5, 180-pounder from Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio, has quick become a fan favorite. He’s also made himself a Brian Kelly favorite, earning mention last year for his steady hands and moves as a punt returner and this season for his work in the slot.

“He’s Robby Toma with more speed,” Kelly said during fall camp.

(Never mind his inauspicious introduction to BK, as described by the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel.)

Finke took to social media after the news spread on Monday night with the following comment:

“Grateful. Can’t thank the coaches, staff, my teammates, family, friends, and the Good Lord enough!”

Here’s more instant reaction from teammates past and present.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn 247
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It didn’t take long after Donte Vaughn arrived on campus to know that the Irish landed a special prospect in the Memphis native. A long-limbed, athlete with the body of a safety and the cover skills of a cornerback, Vaughn’s freshman season might have pivoted with the dismissal of Max Redfield.

With the Irish short bodies at free safety, it’s reasonable to think the staff will cross-train Vaughn to fill a hole. But even if they don’t, Vaughn is too good to keep off the field as a freshman, a skill-set and attitude that’ll allow Brian VanGorder and Todd Lyght to lean on Vaughn if the situation calls for it.

 

DONTE VAUGHN
6’2″, 200 lbs.
Freshman, No. 35, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, All-USA Tennessee, 6A All-State, Liberty Bowl All-Star game MVP. Offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. Long, learn and recruited as a corner, Vaughn is a huge get out of a big program in Memphis.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

One look at Notre Dame’s roster and you begin to realize that the Irish don’t have another cornerback that looks like Vaughn. It’s the reason linebacker James Onwualu said this about him:

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That type of athleticism and physical profile gives Brian VanGorder a unique weapon and one that’ll likely be utilized far more when Cole Luke is gone and the Irish need someone to play on the wide side of the field in coverage. Until then, Vaughn’s going to be a wild card—with the potential to sub in when the Irish go nickel or dime, and maybe even help replace Redfield as the Irish look to a very young secondary to replace him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Even without the boneheaded arrests from the weekend, Vaughn was going to play. But with uncertainty surrounding Ashton White and Redfield’s dismissal, this likely moves Vaughn into the plans against Texas—a jump that not many saw coming, even with his impressive skill-set.

Someone is going to come out of the woodwork and step into an important role in the secondary. We’re already counting on that from Devin Studstill. Put Vaughn in that category for me, a player I expect to finish the season as a key building block for 2017.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti

 

Life after Max: Notre Dame’s options at safety

Studstill 247
Irish 247
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In the days after Notre Dame returned from Culver Academy to kick off training camp, head coach Brian Kelly went out on the ledge and praised Max Redfield.

“He’s been that guy that everybody was hoping for out of high school,” Kelly said.

A little more than a week later, Redfield’s career at Notre Dame is over.

Done in by the same maddening decision-making that kept Redfield from reaching his potential on the field—Friday night’s antics, with Redfield the lone senior with four underclassmen, puts an end not just to his career at Notre Dame, it puts Redfield’s life at a crossroads.

There is no amount of talent that allowed Kelly to keep Redfield on the roster. And as the Irish move on with no proven depth at a safety position that’s relied upon to be the last line of defense, the Irish now look to some unusual spots to find a dependable player that the former five-star recruit could never become.

With Texas just two weeks away, here are a few options worth considering:

 

1. Start Devin Studstill. 

The true freshman pushed his way into the mix during spring practice, far from any type of motivational ploy by the Irish coaching staff. He’s a smooth athlete, a capable tackler and intelligent defender who understands the concepts Brian VanGorder is asking for from his back end defenders.

Studstill has battled a nagging hamstring injury during camp but is back in action. He’s also the only true positional fit that’s close to capable of stepping in for Redfield without some major schematic adjustments.

He’s still a freshman—and that means the Irish will have to live with some of the mistakes that come when you’re seeing and doing things for the first time. But Studstill’s been the free safety of the future since he stepped onto campus. So the timeline is accelerated, but it’s long been the plan.

 

2. Find a way to play Drue Tranquill next to Avery Sebastian. 

Sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian was kept in the program for a reason. And if this isn’t the perfect opportunity to lean on a mature player who could bail the Irish out of problems, I’m not sure what is.

No, he’s not the perfect fit for the position. Nor is Tranquill. But if Notre Dame needs two low-mistake defenders in the secondary along side their talented cornerbacks, they could do a lot worse than playing Tranquill and Sebastian on first and second down before bringing in a nickel or dime package depending on the situation.

Multiple reporters came out of last week’s open practice praising Sebastian’s toughness and capable play at safety. While he’s yet to be able to stay healthy for any of his college career, he’d do the ordinary things well—something this team desperately needs.

Putting Tranquill, a 230-pound safety, next to Sebastian, a 5-foot-10 (on a good day) hammerhead, limits a team that wants to play a lot of man coverage. But if you’re looking to find dependability, you could do worse.

 

3. Give Donte Vaughn a look at safety. 

Notre Dame thinks they have a future cover corner in Vaughn, whose length and athleticism has people thinking big things about the Memphis native. But with the cornerback depth chart well stocked and the safeties raw and thin, there’s no harm in repping Vaughn at free safety.

The only thing harder than throwing a freshman in at free safety is doing it to a freshman who switched positions less than two weeks before the opener. But Vaughn isn’t your ordinary freshman, as senior James Onwualu attested to last week.

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That work ethic will serve him well. So will cross-training this week at safety with Studstill.

 

4. Keep cross-training and developing. 

Just because a player isn’t ready week one doesn’t mean they won’t be able to contribute. And the Irish coaching staff recruited a variety of shapes and sizes when they restocked the secondary in the last recruiting class, and we’ll now see how quickly they can find a way into the mix.

Expect Jalen Elliott to get an early look. While the staff thinks he’s a future strong safety, Elliott is talented enough to compete at both safety positions—and the door is open for him to do that. He’ll be one of the first guys taking back-up reps now that Redfield is gone.

D.J. Morgan, another talented safety out of a Southern California powerhouse program, will need to show he can physically hold up as a safety in the open field, but he’s got the length and size to play. That high level experience in high school should certainly make the transition to the college game easier.

Football players might be your best bet, too. While Julian Love has been taking two-deep reps at nickel corner, there’s an opening at safety and Love’s high school tape showed an athlete that could do any job. Nobody will confuse him with a prototype at the position, but if he can think his way through the job, he’ll have a shot.

 

5. Don’t panic. 

Notre Dame’s secondary has taken blows like this with Kelly at the helm. And even if you’d argue that Redfield was the one of the least-replaceable starters on the defense, there’s no reason to be throwing the towel in after one of the worst evenings in recent off-field history at Notre Dame.

But remember this: An August injury to a presumed starter and the dismissal of a blue-chip recruit before he ever took the field, forced a freshman running back to convert to cornerback. Then KeiVarae Russell started all 13 games on a team that played for a national title.

At safety that season a redshirt freshman converted wide receiver started 11 games after spending spring outside of the two-deep, with Matthias Farley stepping in at safety and picking up the slack after Jamoris Slaughter went down.

The Irish have recruited better than most programs in the country and have kept the emphasis on finding defensive backs who can play in this system. Even if the timetable has accelerated, there’s a plan in place.