Five things we learned: 83rd annual Blue-Gold game

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Tolstoy once said that spring is the time of plans and projects. On display for all to see today were Brian Kelly‘s plans and projects, with quarterback Everett Golson and running back George Atkinson stealing the show. The soon-to-be sophomores showcased their respective talents this afternoon during the 83rd annual Blue-Gold game, while also reminding us that they are still works-in-progress.

“Both of those guys are exciting, electric players,” Kelly said after the game. “But they are a heart attack for me.”

On the scoreboard, the defense defeated the offense 42-31. But the stars of the game were Atkinson, who ran for 124 yards on 15 carries and caught three balls for 54 yards, and Golson, who completed 11 of 15 throws for 120 yards and two touchdowns, while chipping in 25 yards on the ground. In a crowded backfield, Atkinson clearly stated his case for seeing the football more next fall. He also lost two fumbles, showing the dangers of youth as he contributed more than his fair share to the offense’s six turnovers, continuing last season’s fit of self-inflected mistakes. While Golson played mostly mistake free football, Kelly continues to work with his young talent to make sure he’s able to properly manage a football game.

Spring football games are just another practice for a coaching staff that gets 15 opportunities to work with their team in the offseason. But for fans clamoring to get that first peak at what’s to come in the fall, let’s look at the five things we learned during the Blue-Gold game.

***

It appears that it’s only a three-man race at quarterback.

Brian Kelly laid out his plans for the quarterbacking position earlier in the week,  rolling Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel through the game based on seniority. But when the Irish took the field under a perfectly sunny sky, Kiel stayed on the sidelines for the first half, only seeing action in the second half while the clock rolled.

After the game, Kelly explained that Kiel wasn’t ready to run the full allotment of the offense, and kept him out of the fray as the other quarterbacks competed against the Irish’s top defense. And while Kiel will have his opportunity to learn and compete in the fall, it’s clear that a perfect world will feature the Irish’s five-star prospect watching and learning.

“We can’t run everything with Gunner at this point,” Kelly said. “He just doesn’t have the knowledge base. So from that standpoint we gave him all the reps in the second half and got him an opportunity to really feel like he was part of the game.”

Kiel was five of ten on the day, throwing an interception to Chris Salvi on one of many throws that sailed high on him. While he very much looks the part of a starting college quarterback, barring a big step forward during summer workouts and fall camp, Kiel will enter the depth chart at No. 4.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Entering the third year of building his program, Kelly has the luxury of letting his freshman quarterback develop properly. The future of this program very well could be with Kiel behind center. But it likely won’t be in 2012.

***

With six offensive turnovers, today’s snapshot felt too much like a replay of last season.

Kelly has stated that the minus-fifteen turnover ratio was more upsetting than the 8-5 record. And after today’s scrimmage, the head coach once again railed on the mistakes made on the offensive side of the ball.

“We saw some errors that, unfortunately, are all too familiar,” Kelly said. “So I think there were some strides made, but clearly we’re not there yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Atkinson’s fumbles pushed aside for the moment, both Rees and Hendrix made mistakes with the football that can’t continue. For Rees, it was over-throwing a seam route that ended in the arms of an over-the-top safety. For Hendrix, it was trying to force a throw in a place it should’ve never gone. Both quarterbacks struggled with accuracy, completing less than 50 percent of their combined throws, failing to capitalize against a secondary that was playing largely without Bennett Jackson.

After a relatively clean 14 practices, the Irish quarterbacks threw threw interceptions on 48 attempts. That’s not good enough, especially with 2012’s difficult schedule ahead.

***

There’s still plenty to like along both sides of the line for the Irish. 

With quarterbacks open game for Irish defenders, the stat-line in the sacks column was kept conspicuously clean. That’s a credit to Harry Hiestand‘s offensive line, still playing without starting center Braxston Cave, but also because the Irish’s top pass rushing presence was visiting South Florida while his former teammates battled. A year after Aaron Lynch treated offensive tackles like matadors, there was little pressure on Irish quarterbacks then they dropped back to pass.

That’s not to say that the Irish won’t get after quarterbacks without Lynch. Fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt only made cameo appearances along the line while guys like Sheldon Day and Tyler Stockton saw a ton of time. Just as impressive was the effort by youngsters Anthony Rabasa and Jarrett Grace, who likely will be let loose in the pass rush next season. Kona Schwenke, voted most improved by the coaching staff after an impressive spring, should be able to replace Sean Cwynar as Louis Nix‘s running mate at nose tackle.

The Irish offensive line might be the best set of blockers this defensive front sees in the next calendar year. The Irish ran for 259 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry behind a group that substituted liberally. With a stacked backfield and limited receiving options, the Irish would do themselves well leaning on the line to power the offense. With a secondary also learning on the fly, the front seven should dictate the tone of the defense as well.

After struggling to fill a depth chart last season, there’s an embarrassment of riches in the backfield.

Last year, the Irish were worried about what they’d get from their running backs after Cierre Wood. While Jonas Gray stepped to the forefront, the Irish were thin in the backfield the entire season, having the shift Theo Riddick back to running back after Gray went down with a knee injury.

Turn the clock ahead and now the backfield is one of the undeniable strengths of the team. With Wood running for over 10 yards a carry this afternoon, Theo Riddick looking natural in the backfield, and Atkinson drawing oohs and aahs in the press box, Brian Kelly has more than enough to work with, even without injured back Amir Carlisle and incoming freshmen Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell.

The versatility of this position group might be the best thing it has going for it. With Chuck Martin rebooting the scheme, Irish backs will be just as dangerous through the air as on the ground. Riddick led the Irish with eight catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. Atkinson broke a big play on a pass as well. Carlisle was one of USC’s best two-way back last season, and he’ll move comfortably between the backfield and split wide.

The strategic benefit of Tony Alford coaching both backs and slot receivers forces the Irish’s offensive personnel to cross-train daily. We already saw Robby Toma get a carry this afternoon after only getting one all last season. With wide receiver still a big question mark heading into the season, creative personnel grouping between multiple tight ends and running backs could help alleviate any concern on the outside.

***

It’s only one practice, but a future with Everett Golson behind center could be coming.

The quarterbacking job is still likely Tommy Rees’ to lose. But for one afternoon, Irish fans had the ability to see what a dynamic playmaker Everett Golson can be in this offense. Golson was unquestionably the best performer of the four and his ability to make plays with his feet and flash a very big arm, help you understand why he’s always been such an intriguing prospect.

After the game, Kelly was quick to talk about the things that Golson needs to improve on, skipping over the undeniable ability that was on display for the 35,000-plus fans in attendance.

“We come at this from different perspectives,” Kelly said, slipping quickly past the two touchdown passes and nimble running. “The stats don’t mean anything to me. What I didn’t like was that he’s got to get the plays in quicker. He’s got to recognize the signaling. If I’m not out there getting guys set and making sure he knows what to play, we’re going to have flags thrown all over the place. So those things don’t mean as much to me as they do managing the offense. We’re making progress there, but we’re nowhere where we need to be.”

As the Irish head into summer workouts and team-run sessions, Golson will likely need to continue learning how to run a football team, something that Brian Kelly wants out of his quarterbacks. The record-setting high school quarterback that’s simply able to freestyle his way to a state championship is a guy that gets college coaches fired.

“The quarterback position is both art and science,” Kelly explained. “The art part he’s got down. It’s the science and the consistency, all of those things to be a championship quarterback.”

Kelly knows he’s got a project with Golson. As the Irish head into summer, it’ll be on Golson’s shoulders to finish the job and take control of the quarterback position.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills