Pregame Six Pack: Blue vs. Gold

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Notre Dame’s spring practices will come to a close on Saturday with the annual Blue-Gold game. For the first time in what feels like a decade, there doesn’t seem to be a major storyline playing out in front of our eyes.

There is no quarterback controversy, with Everett Golson holding down the No. 1 job and Tommy Rees serving as the veteran backup. There is no cloud hanging over the head coach, with Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick putting the final touches on a contract extension. And while the Irish will need to replace an All-American on both sides of the ball, there’s confidence that the sums of the parts will do just fine filling the individual shoes of Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o.

With the action set to be broadcast on NBC Sports Channel at 1 p.m. EST Saturday, let’s run through the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the offense takes on the defense.

1. With depth still not ideal, it’s going to be Offense vs. Defense on Saturday afternoon.

With some depth issues along the offensive line, Kelly decided to go with an offense vs. defense format for Saturday’s televised scrimmage. It’s the same scoring system that led to the defense beating the offense 42-31 last year, and will likely produce another high scoring affair.

For those unfamiliar with the set-up, here’s how the scoring system will be broken down.

OFFENSIVE POINTS:
6 points for a touchdown (1 point for PAT kicks, no rush allowed).
3 points for a field goal.

DEFENSIVE POINTS:
4 points for a defensive stop before offense crosses the 50.
2 points for a defensive stop after offense crosses the 50.
7 points for a turnover before the offense crosses the 50.
3 points for a turnover after the offense crosses the 50.
1 point for holding the offense to a field goal.

Last year, the offense turned the ball over six time, even with a running clock in the second half. Let’s see if they can clean things up this spring.

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2. It’ll be a little shy of all hands on deck Saturday.

For a spring that’s been filled with its share of heavy hitting and full contact, the Irish walk into Saturday’s scrimmage with a pretty healthy roster. But Kelly walked us through the players that would be sitting out the Blue-Gold game.

Dan Fox, ILB – Shoulder
Bennett Jackson, CB – Shoulder
Nicky Baratti, S – Shoulder
Chase Hounshell, DL – Shoulder
Amir Carlisle, RB – Collarbone
Corey Robinson, WR – Elbow
Tyler Plantz, RB

Outside of Hounshell’s labrum tear, which will keep him out for the 2013 season, all injuries are expected to be healed before the start of summer camp.

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3. Even though we won’t see Carlisle and Robinson this Saturday, it was an impressive spring for both players.

Irish fans will have to wait a few more months before getting a look at Amir Carlisle. The former USC running back, who received a waiver that granted him immediate eligibility in 2012, still sat out the season after lingering nerve damage slowed down his recovery from a broken ankle suffered on the eve of spring practice.

Carlisle suffered another injury setback this spring when he broke his collarbone during one of the team’s first padded practices, casting a doubt over whether or not he’ll ever be able to withstand the wear and tear that comes playing running back.

Kelly didn’t seem to have that concern. And Carlisle proved more than a few skeptics wrong by practicing almost immediately after surgery. He even put pads on for the team’s final workout, though will be held out of Saturday’s game.

“Amir Carlisle was in pads today, but we will not put him in a contact situation,” Kelly said. “He tried to talk himself into that, but we’re not going to let him.”

Holding Corey Robinson back from the Blue-Gold game will be a disappointment for Irish fans hoping to see for themselves the moves that turned more than a few heads this spring. Robinson, a below-the-radar recruit who many expected to need some seasoning, has looked more college-ready than anyone expected.

Kelly talked about the type of role Robinson can have next season for the Irish.

“He’ll be a role player, kind of like Chris Brown was,” Kelly said. “Chris helped us win a game against Oklahoma. That’s how you have to look at Corey Robinson. No, he’s not a finished product yet. He’s got to get stronger. But he does have a skill set. When you throw that ball near him, he comes down with it. So I think there’s a place for him in our offense, but he won’t be a featured guy.”

With an offense that struggled to produce points in the red zone last year, a six-foot-five (and growing) receiver with hands like Spiderman can’t be a bad thing.

4. We’ll see how ready the newcomers are on the Irish offensive line.

It’s a big day for the young offensive lineman on the Irish roster, with Harry Hiestand getting a nice long look at his depth chart. We already know that Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard are going to be in the starting lineup. What remains to be seen is who gets to next two jobs.

It appears Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty have the inside track at center and guard. But it’s a great opportunity for guys like Matt Hegarty and Mark Harrell to make a move, and young tackles Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer to show that they’re one of the best five, potentially pushing Lombard inside to guard.

Against one of the best defensive lines in the country, it’ll be one of the toughest assignments of the year for the offensive line. But before four new freshman make their way onto campus, it’s one last piece of game tape to show the coaching staff.

***

5. With Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter gone, let’s see how the kids play at safety.

While the Irish secondary unfortunately had to say goodbye to Jamoris Slaughter far too early, this will be the first time we see the safeties without its two veterans leading. Last year, it was Motta who played traffic cop, getting the defense in alignment and holding down the fort. This year, that appears to have fallen into Matthias Farley‘s hands, with Elijah Shumate all but anointed by Kelly to be the other safety across from him earlier this week.

Just don’t tell Bob Diaco that.

The Irish’s star defensive coordinator wasn’t ready to heap praise on the talented rising sophomore, who has impressed the Irish staff, but still must have a ways to go.

“I wouldn’t say so, no,” Diaco bluntly said, when asked if Shumate was one of the spring’s stars. “Elijah we’re pleased with. He’s a very talented player. But he’s a long ways away from functioning and driving our defense. Light years away.”

That kind of tough love and honesty isn’t all that surprising from Diaco, who has always been brutally candid. But it also goes to show you how vital the safety position is in the Irish defense.

Since reloading the depth chart in recruiting, the position is now filled with players Kelly and Diaco hand picked for the system. And while it appears Farley has locked down one starting job, there will be others that see the field, with Shumate working as the No. 1 field safety by default.

With this spring a huge determining factor for the depth chart entering fall camp, keep an eye on a few guys battling to work their way into the rotation.

Austin Collinsworth is back and healthy after a lost season to injury. Eilar Hardy seems fully recovered from a serious knee injury that robbed him of some confidence and athleticism. Both have shown themselves useful this spring. Nicky Baratti will also force his way back into the conversation when he’s healthy.

Chuck Martin and the Irish offense will take some shots down the field on Saturday. With Bennett Jackson sitting, let’s see how the young secondary reacts.

***

6. In Notre Dame Stadium, natural grass is still greener… for now.

On the heels of Notre Dame and NBC’s ten-year extension, athletic director Jack Swarbrick spent some time with the media yesterday. In between ducking questions on scheduling and the announcement date of Brian Kelly’s new contract extension, Swarbrick calmed the nerves of traditionalists, when he said field turf was staying out of Notre Dame Stadium.

“I see nothing in the near term that would move us away from natural grass,” Swarbrick said. “Down the road as we contemplate the future of the facility, finding more ways to use it is important,” Swarbrick said. “Might turf be a dynamic in that? It may. But alone, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

If you enjoy reading between the lines of the always cagey Swarbrick, the sentence “contemplate the future of the facility,” might be one worth digging into. That could mean renovations, remodels, Jumbotrons, or private suites.

But until then, the improvements made by the field turf crew have been enough to stave off a change to an artificial surface.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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.