What we’ve learned: Offense

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We’re roughly one week into fall camp, with the Irish finished with their first two-a-day practice on Friday. There’s been a little bit of everything so far: Injuries, departures, surprises, and position battles as camp gets under way.

Let’s take a quick swing through the offensive position groupings and get everyone up to speed.

QUARTERBACK:

The biggest story of camp will also be the defining position battle of the season. With Tommy Rees suspended for the season opener against Navy, the door is wide open for either the Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix eras to begin. Early returns have been mostly neutral, though I’d be hard pressed to see a way that Everett Golson doesn’t end up the starter when the Irish take the field in Dublin. He’s just too intriguing of an athlete, with too diverse of a skillset not to give the first shot.

Still, contrary to what some fans suspect, it won’t be just lollipops and rainbows after the Irish offense rids itself of Rees. While the junior quarterback has taken mostly mental reps while head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin get Golson and Hendrix up to speed, Friday’s practice featured an openly fired up Kelly, who openly challenged someone to step up and take charge.

“You don’t have Tommy to bail you guys out,” Kelly said, according to a source. “One of you need to step up! We are going over there to win!”

While there’s no plan to use Gunner Kiel this season, the talented freshman has taken great strides since spring in his ability to grasp the offense. With better than expected speed and a big arm, Kiel still is on track to be the quarterback of the future.

RUNNING BACK:

It appears that the only thing that’s going to hold back senior running back Cierre Wood is some medical paperwork. After two days of red tape held up the Irish’s returning rusher, Wood is back and ready to lead a talented group.

The biggest news out of the running back depth chart has been the decision of Cam Roberson to retire from football after a debilitating knee injury made playing up to speed next to impossible. This outcome wasn’t entirely unexpected to Roberson or the coaching staff, but it’s always difficult to see an injury cut a career short.

Theo Riddick has impressed during his move back to running back, which interestingly might help him play the hybrid position better than he did when he was a wide receiver. George Atkinson presents another intriguing option, the biggest back in the depth chart while also possessing some of the most impressive speed in college football.

USC transfer Amir Carlisle is working back from a broken ankle suffered before spring practice. He’s an incredibly talented runner with blazing speed, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Irish plan on using the sophomore who earned immediate eligibility after filing for a hardship waiver.

It’s tough to imagine a scenario where Will Mahone works his way onto the field this season. With the depth in front of him, it makes sense to preserve a year of eligibility.

WIDE RECEIVERS

While Kelly has sounded confident that veterans John Goodman, TJ Jones and Robby Toma will anchor the position grouping, he’s made a point of throwing his talent trio of freshmen receivers into the rotation immediately.

Slot receiver Davonte Neal is almost a sure bet to contribute early and often, with the college-ready talent owning a solid grasp of football and an elite set of skills. Chris Brown might also find his way into the role of deep threat wide receiver, with the Carolina speedster being everything advertised after Kelly talked his ability up at Signing Day. Justin Ferguson also has great size, checking in at 6-foot-2, 195-pounds, and might work his way onto the field as well.

Davaris Daniels, after not playing during his freshman season, is the X Factor of the unit. He’ll likely get every chance to win a starting job, but even if he doesn’t he’ll be counted on to make plays and help a passing game that could be in a state of transition with a new quarterback likely leading the way this season.  Getting something out of Daniel Smith would be a bonus for this staff, as the local South Bend product has struggled to stay healthy for most of his career, but possesses some red zone size that’s much needed at the position.

TIGHT END

Senior All-American Tyler Eifert will undoubtedly be the leading man in the Irish aerial attack. But his supporting cast has taken a bump with the loss of junior Alex Welch. Counted on to be a part of key depth that’ll allow the Irish offense to be more versatile, Welch’s knee injury will in all likelihood cost him the season.

Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack are two intriguing sophomore prospects. Niklas’ size and athleticism are pretty unique. At 6-foot-7, 260-pounds, Niklas is a few hamburgers away from being an elite left tackle, but with good speed, solid hands, and an ability to run in the open field, the Irish might have another star tight end on the roster after moving Niklas from the defensive side of the ball.

That’s not to say that Koyack is a slouch. At 6-foot-5, 253-pounds, the sophomore is another massive athlete, and after a promising freshman season, expect Koyack to make a bigger dent in the stat sheet this season.

Jake Golic will slide into the rotation after Welch’s injury. It wasn’t too long ago that his brother Mike was considered nothing more than emergency depth, so there’s a chance that during his senior season, Jake will end up answering the bell if his number is called.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Braxston Cave looks to be on his way back from a difficult foot injury. The fifth-year center is one of the team’s emotional leaders, and has the potential to put together a very good season anchoring the offensive line. He has every chance to be the Irish’s best center since All-American Jeff Faine.

The left side of the offensive line looks strong with Chris Watt and Zack Martin anchoring the guard and tackle positions for the second straight season. With the departure of Jordan Prestwood, depth may be of some concern, where talented freshman Ronnie Stanley looks good, but not quite ready for primetime.

On the right side of the line, it’s looking like Christian Lombard has cemented the right tackle job with Mike Golic running with the first team at right guard. Sophomore Nick Martin will battle Golic for the job at guard, while Tate Nichols is the next man in at tackle. If there’s an injury among the starters expect Nichols to work in at right tackle, and the younger Martin to show some flexibility in his ability to kick inside or out.

The next generation of Irish offensive linemen still need to make strides during this season before Kelly or offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will feel comfortable inserting them into the rotation. Matt Hegarty, Bruce Heggie and Connor Hanratty all can provide depth on the inside of the line, while Mark Harrell has done a nice job in his first week, holding his own in one-on-one drills.

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)

Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators

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You didn’t hear? Notre Dame plays Notre Dame tomorrow. Here, let’s make this easy.

WHO? Notre Dame’s first-string offense against its first-string defense, and the Irish second-string defense against the second-string offense.
WHAT? It’s called the Blue-Gold Game, but there are two flaws to that title. One team will be wearing white, not gold, and while it is structured as a game, it is really nothing more than the 15th and final spring practice.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 22, 2017 A.D. Yes, I am worried you might mistake this as occurring more than 2,000 years before the time of Christ.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you can’t make it there, tune in to NBC Sports Network.
HOW? Oh, not going to be at a TV? NBC still has you covered at this link: ndstream.nbcsports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

With those essentials out of the way, let’s pull a few quotes from this morning when new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko addressed the media. Hopefully, these might provide some general context for what to learn from tomorrow.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

Elko on how much of his defense he has successfully installed this spring:
“We’ve gotten close to 50 percent of all of it up and running. We’ve spent a lot of time defending this offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward. That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve has to come.”

Elko on the most notable defensive improvements:
“We’re disrupting the football better. We’re leveraging the football better. We’re playing harder.”

Elko on what fans should look for from the Notre Dame defense Saturday:
“I hope they see a defense that is flying around. I hope they see a defense that is disrupting the football. I hope they see a defense that has their eyes in the right spot and is executing at a high level. All those things that we’re preaching aren’t going to change tomorrow. It’s not going to be different. It’s not going to be different when we line up against Temple.” (more…)