Five things we learned: Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14

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If you could boil down one game to encapsulate a season, you might have something that looks like the Champs Sports Bowl. During Notre Dame’s 18-14 loss, the Irish turned just about every conceivable emotion for a football fan on its head– ecstasy to agony, confidence to frustration, bravado to helplessness.

At times, the Irish looked like the BCS contender many thought they were entering the season. The defense absolutely overwhelmed Florida State’s offensive line, beating quarterback E.J. Manuel to a pulp while limiting the Seminoles to single-digit rushing yards for much of the game. Offensively, the Irish cobbled together just enough in the second quarter to control the line of scrimmage, running Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, targeting Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, even mixing in the running of Andrew Hendrix with the passing of Tommy Rees.

Then the game flipped, and as it did too often this season, the snowball built, and the Irish tumbled out of control. The Irish weren’t able to overcome three interceptions, two coming in the Florida State endzone. The secondary that played so well swarming to the football failed to do its job when the throw went over its head. And after having what looked like a comfortable 14-0 lead, the Irish gave up the final 18 points of the game, turning a potential ninth victory against an impressive opponent into a logic-defying fifth loss of the season.

“The turnovers were again a large reason for us not to be able to win this football game,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “It’s been the case all year. It started at South Florida, and continued to show itself throughout the entire year.”

This football team showed us what it was all season, and then proved it one last time on Thursday night, making the same mistakes that doomed the Irish all year. Let’s find out what we learned during the Champs Sports Bowl, the crushing finale to one of the most frustrating seasons the Irish have played in a very long time.

***

The Irish will never be a successful team if they can’t solve the quarterbacking situation.

There aren’t many teams good enough to turn the ball over three times and beat a good football team. Notre Dame proved that, one-upping themselves by having Rees throw two of the interceptions in the end zone while Hendrix set up the Seminoles deep in Irish territory when he hit Florida State linebacker Nigel Bradham in the chest. Any aspirations the Irish had to be an elite football team went down the drain with the team’s quarterback play, and three crucial interceptions against the Seminoles put the focus straight on that issue for head coach Brian Kelly.

“It’s nice to be able to talk about a Notre Dame football team that plays championship defense, because they did that today,” Kelly said. “Now we’ve got to get our offense to obviously play at that level as well. That will be the next step for our football program. Getting our offense to play at the same level that our defense is evolving to.”

Even if Rees went out and threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns, the competition at quarterback would’ve been open heading into spring practice, and Rees’ struggles against another elite defense adds yet another data-point for those who don’t believe the sophomore quarterback has what it takes to lead the Irish back into the elite of college football.

Kelly sticking with Rees for much of the bowl game shows you that while Tommy still makes maddeningly bad decisions interspersed with some impressive throws, Kelly thought he was the best guy to protect a fourteen point second half lead. But for those thinking that just because Rees was the guy for the Irish throughout the 2011 season he’s the guy for next year, fear not.

“I’m going to evaluate everything that I do and how we do it,” Kelly said. “Because the offense just has to get better.”

Expect all three quarterbacks on the roster to get a shot at running this offense. And while Andrew Hendrix certainly has a skill-set that uniquely qualifies him to take over, the guy that has the most potential still hasn’t taken a snap. In Everett Golson, Kelly has the prototype triggerman for what he needs to run his optimal offense. Whether he’s ready to run the show or not remains to be seen.

The quarterback position got derailed in the season’s opening minutes, and ironically Dayne Crist’s undoing initially wasn’t his own, but rather Jonas Gray’s goalline fumble. From there, the senior quarterback was tentative, missing more throws than he made, and making a critical red zone mistake before going scoreless and into halftime down 16 points in his one half of football.

We’ll never know what Dayne Crist would’ve done if he came back out after halftime. But there’s good reason to believe that whoever was playing quarterback was gap filling for Golson or Hendrix, two guys better suited to run the offense. Even with an Irish win and flawless quarterback play, this would’ve been the top story of the spring. But the Irish collapse behind center tonight all but assured it.

***

After playing aggressively for most of the first half, calling off the dogs killed the Irish defense.

When Lou Holtz questions your strategy, you know you’ve got reason to be second-guessed. But even Dr. Lou was wondering why the Irish stopped blitzing in the second half, giving E.J. Manuel time to throw the ball and an overwhelmed offensive line time to catch its breath.

After spending much of the first half running for his life, Manuel settled down and had a nice second half, completing a few deep circus catches over Irish cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, pulling the Seminoles back in a game that they were dominated in for much of the evening.

After going up two touchdowns, it seems that the Irish were content to go back to their base defense, forcing the Seminoles to earn their yards and they guarded against the big play in zone coverage. But by allowing Manuel time to breathe, they enabled the FSU offense to make the big play, with wide receivers Bert Reed and Rashad Greene catching touchdowns to lead the Seminoles back and Kenny Shaw giving the secondary fits as well.

It’ll be lost in the shuffle, but safety Jamoris Slaughter played his best game in an Irish uniform from a hybrid linebacker position, racking up two sacks as the Irish pass rush pressured FSU relentlessly. Aaron Lynch also dominated the team he almost played for, adding 1.5 sacks and spending much of the evening chasing Manuel down in the backfield. Stephon Tuitt rallied back from an illness that derailed the end of his season to play another excellent game, giving the Irish front seven some really impressive building blocks for next year.

Holding the Seminoles to under 250 yards is a good day at the office and placing the blame for this loss on the defense is particularly foolish, especially considering that Bob Diaco‘s troops put up half the team’s points with a forced fumble by Manti Te’o and scoop and score by safety Zeke Motta. But after two seasons at the helm of the Irish defense, Diaco will need to evolve this defense next season, taking advantage of the horses he has up front, especially when he won’t be able to lean on a veteran secondary.

***

With Michael Floyd departing, the Irish are going to have to find offense from somewhere.

After making a circus catch on a jump ball in the corner of the end zone for his 37th career touchdown catch, Michael Floyd‘s Irish career ended on the sideline when his teammates needed him the most, unable to get back into the game after suffering an injury securing the ball after beating talented FSU cornerback Greg Reid for a ball that seemed destined for Reid’s hands.

The senior wide receiver, who broke the game’s first big play with an early 41 yard punt return that set the Irish up in FSU territory, seemed dinged up before the touchdown catch, after a big collision on the Seminoles sideline with safety Lamarcus Joyner, who collided with Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, sending his teammate out for the game with an apparent knee injury.

“He’s just an incredible competitor,” Kelly said of his star receiver. “This is my 22nd year and I’ve had great players, guys that have gone on to have great careers in the NFL or doctors and lawyers, you remember the guys that overcome. The guys that compete and battle. He did that today.”

Floyd didn’t play the best game of his career, limited to just five catches for 41 yards, dropping a deep ball that could’ve gone all the way early in the game and being overthrown on another deep throw where he had his man beat. But Floyd’s departure from the field in the game’s final quarter gave Irish fans a grim look at what this offense will look like without it’s star receiver.

It might be hard to recognize for Irish fans, but Floyd is the only receiver on the roster that keeps defenses honest. The Seminoles secondary didn’t seem concerned with anybody other than Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert, with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver the number one priority for a secondary that suffered multiple injuries in the game. Yet without Floyd in the game, the Irish couldn’t take advantage of the depleted secondary, and it was John Goodman acting as the deep threat for Rees, targeted in the endzone on the game’s defining interception.

Reinforcements are coming, with Deontay Greenberry one of the most important commitments on the Irish board right now and the Irish still in the hunt for some blue-chip, college ready talent. But after watching four years of the Irish’s most dominant wide receiver in school history, the Irish offense will need to find someone to fill the very large hole Floyd leaves behind.

***

Tyler Eifert has a tough decision to make.

With Floyd graduated and heading to the NFL, the spotlight is now on tight end Tyler Eifert to decide whether or not he’ll return for his senior season at Notre Dame or follow in the footsteps of Kyle Rudolph and exit Notre Dame after three seasons and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft.

Eifert led the Irish with six catches and 90 yards in a losing effort, taking a few bruising hits while making tough catches for big gains from both Rees and Hendrix. The solid performance capped off a season with 63 catches — and Irish record for tight ends and the best season in the NCAA — while also being named a Mackey Award finalist. Reports say Eifert has heard he’s graded out as a second or third round player, not as good of an assessment Rudolph received last year, but good enough to make the decision difficult for Eifert and his family.

Talking to the Chicago Tribune after the game, Eifert knows he’s got a choice to make.

“I mean, there’s not much more information I can get to make a decision,” Eifert told the Tribune. “I think I have pretty much everything I need. It’s just a matter of what I personally want to do and figuring it out.”

If Eifert returns for just his third season of competition, the Irish will have a proven offensive weapon to build around, and someone to keep defenses honest. He’ll also have a chance to work on his physicality, the area of his game that likely drags his draft grade down a round or so. If he doesn’t, the Irish might look to see if Mike Ragone‘s eligible for an injury hardship waiver and a sixth year, or work quickly to get freshman Ben Koyack and sophomore Alex Welch ready for action, with no tight end currently on the recruiting radar.

Unwilling to make any proclamations after a difficult loss, Eifert has to make a decision before the January 15 deadline.

“I’d like to figure out what I’m doing as soon as I can,” Eifert told the Tribune, “but it’s not really a decision to rush.”

***

After rolling into last offseason with momentum, it’s time to batten down the hatches and get to work.

The unprecedented forward momentum the Irish took into last year’s offseason didn’t propell the Irish to 2011 greatness. So perhaps a stinging ending to a frustrating season will help refocus a football team that absolutely needs to do better at the little things that differentiate a 8-5 football team from one that finds itself in a BCS bowl.

Fans will always grumble and question whether the men in charge are the right ones for the job. Back-to-back 8-5 seasons likely add members to that bandwagon, a group that always has strength in numbers among the Notre Dame faithful. But Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are going nowhere, and while they’ll face lower approval ratings than they had last offseason, they need to continue their dogged chase to transform this football team.

“We know what we need to do,” Kelly said. “We’ve already talked about it. The players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done.”

After transforming a defense that destroyed Charlie Weis’ career at Notre Dame, Kelly will look at the flaws of his offense. Hired as an offensive innovator, Kelly will now look to improve a unit that played the bowl game short its offensive coordinator and will likely be filling the hole from within.

“We have to get our offense better,” Kelly stated. “When I say better, I’m not talking about the way our guys compete, I’m talking about, we turn the ball over. And we cannot win football games at the highest level if we continue to turn the ball over. The coaches have to get better. The players have to get better. And we need to solve this issue if we’re going to be an elite football team.”

While the next three months will be dedicated to fixing problems that doomed this football team, the next 35 days will be dedicated to finishing strong on the recruiting trail. After identifying the frailty of his defensive front seven, Kelly’s built a unit that can stack up with the rest of the BCS contenders.  Now it’s time to upgrade the deteriorating skill positions on the team, bulking up both the wide receiving and defensive back coffers with hopes that the staff has identified game-ready talent that’s able to step in and compete.

Once again the vultures will swirl above the football program, wondering if Brian Kelly is the right man for the toughest job in college football. That’s what happens when you lose football games the way this team did, and give away a bowl game to a traditional rival like Florida State. But after getting ahead of themselves in a season lost to maddening inconsistencies, the Irish will have five perfect examples (USF, Michigan, USC, Stanford, and Florida State) of why they need to keep focusing on the task ahead instead of what’s behind them. It may be hard for those of us watching on television or the stands, but for a football program with a singular goal, the frustration of 2011 will likely power this group into 2012.

Wimbush’s mechanics, Notre Dame’s receivers shine in Blue-Gold Game

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The 64-yard touchdown pass to Miles Boykin in the Blue-Gold Game will be memorable, and with good reason, but Brandon Wimbush’s shorter completions — such as a 12-yard gain to Alizé Mack, a 10-yard reception by Chris Finke and a seven-yarder to Cole Kmet — hint at even more promise for Notre Dame in 2018.

A year ago, the rising-senior quarterback missed those underneath crossing routes, hitting the checkdowns in the shoelaces, if at all. During Saturday’s conclusion to the spring practices, Wimbush finished 19-of-33 for 341 passing yards and two touchdowns, leading the Irish offense to a 47-44 victory over the defense.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have maintained the party line of an open quarterback competition this spring between Wimbush and rising-junior Ian Book, but Kelly acknowledged the writing is on the wall after this spring.

“It’s pretty clear that Brandon went out and got a chance to go with the first group and Ian played with the second group,” Kelly said. “That’s not etched in stone, but that’s the way they have been trending.

“I don’t think there was anything today that changed that, but we know Ian Book can win for us.”

By no means did Book play poorly in the intrasquad exhibition, but Wimbush’s marked improvement in his accuracy and mechanics essentially ended any competition talk for the summer. Book threw for 292 yards on 17-of-30 passing with one touchdown, an 85-yard touchdown pass to rising-junior receiver Chase Claypool to open Saturday’s scoring in which Claypool dismissed a tackle attempt from rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford with nary a concern, in part because Crawfrod’s ball-hawk instincts kicked in and he went for a strip as much as for a tackle.

Claypool led the receivers with six catches for 151 yards and two scores, while rising-senior Miles Boykin added three catches for 132 yards and the aforementioned touchdown.

“We weren’t an explosive passing game last year,” Kelly said. “Miles changes that complexion. He’s very difficult to defend, and if you do, you have to roll a coverage up on him. You’re going to take a safety and borrow a safety. We think that’s going to give us the kind of running game that will be extremely effective, as well.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Already embedded above, Boykin’s shedding of fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins to pull in Wimbush’s pass, while maintaining enough balance to get to the end zone, showcases much of what could make Boykin a true all-around threat in 2018. He showed his leaping ability and overall athleticism in the Citrus Bowl dramatics/heroics. He also has the speed to get a step on a quality cornerback like Watkins, giving Wimbush the opening to launch toward.

While praising Wimbush’s short-game Saturday is pertinent and accurate, ignoring his ludicrous arm strength would be a mistake. From his own 27-yard line, Wimbush did not take a step into the throw, basically heaving it from his back foot, and still sent it 56 yards through the air on target to Boykin at the opposite 17-yard line.

RUNNER-UP PLAY OF THE GAME
The folly of an intrasquad scrimmage is every success comes as another teammate’s failure. Boykin’s and Claypool’s touchdowns did not result from blown coverages. In each instance, the cornerback had close coverage, but the receiver simply made an outstanding play.

Rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford may have gotten turned around a bit finding Book’s throw, but once Claypool came down with it, he simply broke Crawford’s tackle and headed toward the end zone.

“[Crawford] played, honestly, really good defense,” Claypool said. “He was right there with me. He never gives up on the play, which is what I love to see from the defensive guys. … No other defensive back really offers his hidden ability and his coverage ability with his speed.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
In the days to come, more time will be spent looking at rising-sophomore Avery Davis’ public debut as a receiver/running back hybrid who happens to spend some time at quarterback. In fact, pondering those possibilities will undoubtedly be a recurring theme of the summer. His performance Saturday guaranteed as much.

Davis took 11 carries for 30 yards with a long rush of 11, adding two catches for 24 yards and completing two passes, on two attempts, for 26 more yards. He may have never found the end zone, but his fingerprints were all over the game, including a five-yard reception in the flat from Wimbush, another example of the starting quarterback properly diagnosing and hitting the easy throw, taking the yards where they are available.

“Avery is kind of a multi-dimensional guy,” Kelly said. “He can do a little bit of everything for us. [Davis and rising-sophomore Jafar Armstrong] give us more versatility than just having the two backs and the freshmen at that position. What we saw from them in the spring kind of showed itself today. Both of them are going to be productive.”

Armstrong, another running back/receiver hybrid, took five carries for 48 yards including a 25-yard touchdown, and had one catch for 21 yards.

Between the two of them, Notre Dame opens up a much larger inventory of possibilities within its playbook, and creates opportunities to rest the backfield mainstays.

STAT OF THE GAME
Rising-junior safety Jalen Elliott recorded an interception in the spring finale for the second April in a row. Between the two interceptions, no Irish safety managed such a takeaway. On top of that, Elliot missed another interception earlier, letting one bounce right off his hands. For that matter, so did Watkins.

In a game with 65 pass attempts, some are going to find defensive backs’ hands. Throughout 2017, the Notre Dame safeties tested that hypothesis, seemingly averse to attacking the ball in the air. By pulling in one interception and breaking up a pass, as well, Elliott offered a glimmer of hope that trend may change. Those two pass breakups would have been nearly half of the five managed by all Irish safeties in 13 games last season.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Rising-senior running back Dexter Williams is known for his speed. His playmaking ability is why he sees the field despite deficiencies as a pass blocker and receiver. When he breaks away, he is not supposed to be caught.

Unless the defender chasing him from across the field is also a track star, at which point, rising-junior cornerback Troy Pride had little difficulty at all.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
Last spring, Wimbush played well enough, but not much better than that. He threw for 303 yards on 22-of-32 passing, finding the end zone only on foot. Kelly remembered it well.

“Last spring, I told him I went home, I didn’t feel so good about the way you played,” Kelly said. “I think I’m going to go home feeling a whole lot better today.”

UNRLEATED TO THE ACTUAL GAME …
Even a cynic has to acknowledge the genuine happiness displayed by fifth-year left guard Alex Bars about being named the fourth Notre Dame captain early Saturday morning after a team vote Friday.

“I was just elated,” he said. “I was so happy. Highest honor I’ve ever received.”

Bars did not bother to tell his family about being named captain, instead focusing on the exhibition at hand and letting the natures of modern technology inform them in good time.

SCORING SUMMARY
No, let’s not detail how the defense scored 44 exhibition points, even if one of them came from a supposed sack by rising-sophomore tackle Darnell Ewell. Instead, let’s be rational and simply note the offensive tallies:

Book to Claypool, 85-yard touchdown. Justin Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 28-yard field goal.
Yoon 40-yard field goal.
Jonathan Doerer 20-yard field goal.
Armstrong 25-yard touchdown run. Doerer extra point good.
Wimbush to Boykin, 64-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Dexter Williams one-yard touchdown run. Yoon extra point good.
Wimbush to Claypool, six-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 46-yard field goal.

Blue-Gold Game Primer: Who, what, when, where and why

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WHO? Notre Dame’s offense (Blue) against its defense (Gold).

WHAT? Spring games are often misconstrued as actual games. They are, in all of reality, the 15th and final practice of spring. Thus, the time on the field cannot exceed two hours, and the second half will consist of only two 12-minute quarters with a running clock.

WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, and this should, again, have a strict two-hour time limit, so do not arrive late if genuinely wanting to watch.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, hosting its first Blue-Gold Game without construction afoot since the Campus Crossroads project began following the 2014 season.

NBCSN will broadcast the game, which will also be available at NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

WHY? A cynic might wonder why the 15th practice is opened to tens of thousands of fans and held in Notre Dame Stadium at all. The obvious reasoning is two-fold. Giving the public a look at the team and any possible progress does not endanger the fall’s game plans as some might fear. Instead, it engenders good will and creates a buzz around the football program during a slow period, rather than stretch from January to August with nothing but silence and a few recruits signing National Letters of Intent.

Secondly, and more importantly, those tens of thousands of pairs of eyeballs offer another litmus test for each of the players, especially the young and inexperienced. There is no reason to think rising-junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg might struggle with that kind of pressure, but there is equally little reason to think he will thrive in it. By no means will today’s atmosphere be comparable to Sept. 1’s, but it is closer to that than a normal practice would be.

MEANINGLESS STAT: Actually, all Blue-Gold Game stats are meaningless. Last year, Ian Book threw for 271 yards on 18-of-25 passing, adding a touchdown with no interceptions. Meanwhile, defensive end Daelin Hayes reached the quarterback three times.

During the actual 2017 season, Book threw for 456 yards on 46-of-75 passing, matching four touchdowns with four interceptions. Hayes notched three sacks in 13 games.

The point is to remind all not to focus too much on today’s stats, but instead notice schemes, orders of appearance and designed alignments.

BY HOW MUCH? In a game with offensive scoring as usual and defensive scoring hinging on touchdowns (six points), forced turnovers (three points), three-and-outs (three points), an overall stop (two points) and tackles for loss (one point), the edge may actually fall on the defense’s side, and not only because it returns nine starters, compared to the offense’s six.

Consider, even when the offense scores a touchdown, the odds are the defense logged at least one tackle for loss on the drive, making the touchdown drive a net-6 for the offense. Meanwhile, whenever the defense forces a stop, it gets those two points plus another likely tackle for loss. Every two such possessions match each offensive touchdown. Three-and-outs and forced turnovers should quickly create a margin of victory.

And yes, that was approximately 125 words too many spent on handicapping this intrasquad scrimmage.

SOME PREDICTIONS: Book will star. Notre Dame’s safeties will make two interceptions, leading to a summer of unearned hype. Rising-senior receiver Chris Finke will score a touchdown.

AND IF YOU WERE CURIOUS … The Shirt will be green this year, as was announced Friday evening.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Wimbush’s accuracy, finally five offensive linemen & Jay Hayes’ destination
As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety
Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions
Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Football announces Blue-Gold Game format
How improvement in the Irish secondary will look
Brock Wright on track
It’s not just coaches that make big bucks
2018 NFL Draft narrative busters
Dear NFL: Go ahead and get rid of the kickoff

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?