Aaron Lynch Blue Gold

Five things we learned: The 82nd Blue-Gold game

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The good news? Notre Dame won, with the Gold beating the Blue 17-14. The better news? Nobody got hurt. The best news? The kids are going to be alright.

If you were looking to draw conclusions after the spring game, you might be out of luck. Like last year, the Irish didn’t play a defensive front that they planned on using this fall. Incumbent quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees spend more time with rain panchos on than helmets. And walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin nearly led both the Blue and Gold teams in carries, swapping jerseys early and often, a sign that the coaching staff wasn’t willing to take a chance getting either Cierre Wood or Jonas Gray injured.

Still, there’s plenty to be gained from the rain-soaked 82nd playing of the Blue-Gold game, which gave audiences a good look behind the curtain of a Notre Dame football program on the rise, thanks to the open-microphone Brian Kelly wore for Versus.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in the Gold team’s 17-14 victory, in front of 27,863 rain-soaked, die-hard Notre Dame fans.

1. Freshman Aaron Lynch might be the best pass rushing recruit the Irish have brought in… ever?

Don’t laugh. Sure, the talented freshman is a long way from going down in the Irish record books, and somewhere Beano Cook is chuckling about a preposterous statement like this. But looking back at the modern era of recruiting, there hasn’t been another player like Lynch to sign with the Irish.

Manti Te’o was a five-star everything, but he was a middle linebacker. Victor Abiamiri was a top-ten, blue-chip recruit, but he always profiled as a power defensive end. Nobody knew Justin Tuck would become one of the NFL’s most dangerous players when he signed as a long and lanky three-star linebacker out of Kellyton, Alabama.

Lynch dominated the Blue-Gold game, taking advantage of freshman like Christian Lombard and seniors like Trevor Robinson alike. He led the game with seven tackles, led the game with 1.5 tackles-for-loss, and certainly led the game in quarterback hurries, planting Andrew Hendrix on his back early and often.

Understanding that the expectations could get out of control, Lynch wasn’t made available to the media after the game. But the blogosphere is already abuzz about the 18-year-old’s performance, and even Brian Kelly struggled to temper his enthusiasm.

“He’s a good football player,” Kelly said. “The one thing that he did today is he went against our first offensive linemen, he went against Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever, and we thought that would tamp down the expectations, too. But I’d also like to give him credit for what he did.”

Quarterback Andrew Hendrix, the receiver of Lynch’s torment, was a little less diplomatic.

“I told him after the game that I can’t wait to see him do that to other quarterbacks,” Hendrix said. “It was pretty painful.”

What Lynch did was raise a bar that already started sky high. Something Irish fans (not to mention the coaching staff) have to be very happy about.

2. The Irish defense will be dynamic on the edge.

Taking away what Aaron Lynch did, it was a very good day for the edge of the defense. With Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Darius Fleming all but taking the day off, the defense built depth at defensive end, but more importantly had great performances from nearly every outside linebacker that took the field.

Danny Spond and Prince Shembo, both fighting for the starting ‘Dog’ linebacker position, had seven and six tackles respectively. Shembo did a nice job playing in space while Spond looked fluid in coverage and also made a tackle for a loss. Ishaq Williams made five tackles in his Irish “debut,” working effectively at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position with Fleming watching. And while Steve Filer didn’t fill up the stat sheet, he came off the edge hard as a pass-rusher, nearly notching a few sacks on some very mobile quarterbacks.

It’s remarkable to think that in one calendar year Kelly and his staff have taken one of the biggest liabilities on the roster and turned it into a strength. Again, we weren’t going to see anything Diaco and Kelly didn’t want us to see, but expect some dynamic rush packages on the field come autumn with guys like Lynch, Shembo, Fleming, Williams and Filer getting after the quarterback, maybe at the same time.

3. The Irish rushing attack will evolve in season two.

It’s no surprise that the leading rusher for both teams was a freshman quarterback. Andrew Hendrix bulldozed his way to two touchdowns, running for 42 yards on five carries while Everett Golson had a game-high 74 yards on 11 carries, dazzling fans with a highlight reel 23-yard scamper that evoked shades of Fran Tarkenton.

Kelly kept both young quarterbacks live, and each defense took its turn teeing off on the signal-callers. While the passing game for each was a work-in-progress, the Irish showed their ability to incorporate the quarterback into the spread-option game, something Kelly didn’t have the luxury of doing last year.

“Obviously for me, and what I’m used to, it’s a comfort level in terms of play-calling,” Kelly said. “But we’re going to make it work whoever the quarterback is. I think it’s pretty clear that we saw that they had the ability to do both, and that’s pretty exciting when you’re in the spread offense.”

On a windy and wet day, it’s hard to judge where any quarterback is throwing the football. But both Golson and Hendrix had flashes of rock-solid play, with Hendrix’s two-minute drill at the end of the first half giving him the opportunity to unleash a couple of big-time throws. Golson had a sloppy fumble and turnover, but he also showed a comfort level in the pocket and in the spread that most early-enrollees couldn’t imagine.

Running the ball with the quarterback — regardless of what quarterback is on the field — will be an added element in the Irish offense. But also expect to see a big jump in production from Cierre Wood, who took great strides in his first spring as the starting tailback.

“I like the way Cierre looked,” Kelly said of his running back. “Confident in running the football is the way I would describe him. He was confident and decisive in his decisions. If he couldn’t hit it at the front door, he was going to bend it back.”

Wood only had seven carries, but his 39 yards came in chunks. Expect bigger things out of the running game both from Wood and No. 2 Jonas Gray.

4. The Irish defense finally has the physicality of a BCS-caliber defense. 

If you were looking for big collisions, I offer you Louis Nix’s tackle of walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin. Working through multiple blocks, the 345-pound freshman defensive tackle put a very large shoulder into Coughlin, popping the backs helmet off his head and knocking him into next week.

Nix is an abnormally large defensive tackle and looks the part of an NFL’er right now. Keeping him in the game continues to be the biggest challenge for the coaching staff.

“Louis Nix, our concern is how long can he play at that level?” Kelly said. “Because when he’s out there, he’s a pretty good football player. He was today. We’ve just got to continue to develop his work volume.”

If it looks like Notre Dame’s defense is bigger than seasons past, it’s because it is. Consider that the projected starting 2011 defense, even with one less defensive lineman, is 205 pounds heavier than the 2006 defense. (Numbers courtesy of JRT)

2011 (3-4 alignment)          2006 (4-3 alignment)
Louis Nix, 345                           Trevor Laws, 283
Ethan Johnson, 300                 Derek Landri, 277
Kapron Lewis-Moore, 295        Victor Abiamiri, 270
Darius Fleming, 250                Chris Frome, 262
Prince Shembo, 250                Joe Brockington, 220
Manti Te’o 255                          Maurice Crum, 220
Carlo Calabrese, 245               Travis Thomas, 209
Zeke Motta, 215                       Chinedum Ndukwe 210
Harrison Smith, 214                Tommy Zbikowski, 210
Robert Blanton, 196                Ambrose Wooden, 193
Gary Gray, 195                         Mike Richardson, 188

Total: 2,755 lbs.                       Total: 2,550 lbs.

If you’re looking for a reason to believe that the Irish can play dominant defense, here it is. Three NFL sized defensive linemen? Check. Big, strong, physical linebackers? Yep. In the past, it was the front-seven of the Irish defense that didn’t physically stack up. Not anymore.

5. After a few quiet weeks, the Irish struck gold in recruiting.

Even with weather most elite recruits would run from, the Irish coaching staff got a major commitment from Maryland’s Ronald Darby, who some are calling the fastest recruit Notre Dame has signed since Raghib Ismail. Darby was joined by commitments Nicky Baratti and long-snapper Scott Daly, all three priorities for the Irish coaching staff.

Both Darby and Baratti are listed as athletes by the major recruiting websites, but Darby walks in as a cornerback and Baratti as a safety. Daly is a 6-4, 230-pound long snapper, a position the Irish almost brought in last recruiting cycle, even with tight numbers.

Darby spent most of his time on the sidelines with fellow Irish commitment Tee Shepard, giving the Irish a cornerback duo that any college would take. With more than a dozen other prospects on campus this weekend, recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin and player development head Dave Peloquin continue to bring in elite recruits, with Darby having offers from Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan (among others) while Shepard turned down USC, Miami, Auburn and Alabama for the Irish.

If last year’s position of need was defensive end, this year’s roster needs an infusion in the secondary, and Shepard, Darby and Baratti are three great additions.

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Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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

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

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

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

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

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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