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.

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.