Final Questions: Notre Dame vs. Alabama

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.  — After a wait that felt almost biblical, Notre Dame and Alabama will finally play for the BCS National Championship. After over 40 days of breaking down match-ups, digging deeper into opponents, and hypothesizing about one of college football’s dream match-ups, it’s time to play the game.

Let’s run through some final questions:

Who will win the line of scrimmage?

If there’s one battle that’ll likely tell the story of this game, it’s the war in the trenches. Can Notre Dame’s offensive line hold up against Alabama’s stout front? Can the Irish defensive line hold up against the Crimson Tide’s vaunted offensive line?

In what will likely feel like a heavyweight fight, seeing these two powerful fronts battle will be the key match-up.

Will the Irish secondary continue to limit big plays?

For a group that’s spent the entire season playing great football, there are still an awful lot of questions about Notre Dame’s secondary. But Zeke Motta, Matthias Farley, KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson have quietly gone about their business. And played really good football.

Talking to that quartet on media day, there was a quiet confidence among the group. Bennett Jackson talked about playing a physical brand of cornerback, all with his shoulder in a harness. KeiVarae Russell gave me a thousand-watt smile when asked about his interception against Marqise Lee, and his, “Oh, hell yes,” attitude.

Notre Dame will need a big game out of Motta, who will be needed in run support. And they know that the Tide will likely test the Irish secondary vertically early, hoping to bust talented freshman Amari Cooper lost. Can the back-end of the Irish defense continue to limit the big plays?

Can Notre Dame run the ball?

With their coming out party in the second half against Miami, the Irish run game has been dominant this season, racking up solid statistics against a schedule filled with teams stingy against the run. But this will be their biggest test of the year, and their toughest opponent to date.

How the Irish use their trio of talented runners will be key. But getting something out of the ground game, and keeping a balanced offensive attack, will be critical. While Theo Riddick might be the guy that takes the lions share of the carries, both Cierre Wood and George Atkinson have the ability to break long runs, and the Irish will need to break off one or two if they hope to win.

Can Everett Golson play mistake free football?

Everett Golson has seen plenty of big stages. But tonight is a different story. Golson’s evolution has been tremendous, and he’s going to need to take a big step forward against the Tide if the Irish want to be crowned national champs.

Brian Kelly is confident in his quarterback and his ability to make plays both in and out of the pocket. And Golson is going to have to find the right mix of smarts and aggression, knowing when to take chances and when to show patience. This Alabama team is the No. 1 defense in the country, and they take the ball away better than last year’s dominant outfit. Golson staying clean in the turnovers category is crucial.

Will the Irish rise to the moment?

Preparing a team for one game is a difficult proposition. Putting together a game plan for six weeks is never easy. But this team feels confident in their preparation, and Notre Dame is loose and ready to play.

But will the Irish play their best on the game’s biggest stage? That’s the million dollar question.

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?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.