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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.

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

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rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

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rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.