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.

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

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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?

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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

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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

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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.