Game Day: The 84th Blue-Gold game

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The culmination of spring practice happens this afternoon as the offense takes on the defense in the 84th annual Blue-Gold game. (For those bristling about a lack of traditional scrimmage, what do you expect from a game that supposedly pits Blue vs. Gold and one team always wears white?)

With a winter blast hitting South Bend, the conditions might not be too spring like, but that won’t stop thousands of people from descending on Notre Dame Stadium, where they’ll get a look at a team that should be ranked among the best in the country heading into next season.

Before we get to the live-blog, let’s run through a few things I’m looking forward to seeing today:

Nick Martin vs. Louis Nix: One of these guys is not like the other. While Nix might have fifty pounds on Martin, the young center gets a nice status check after battling the All-American defensive tackle all spring.

Don’t expect this battle to last too long though, as I don’t see Nix getting too many reps in this game before Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco let frontline guys like Nix and Stephon Tuitt spend most of the game on the sidelines.

The Irish running backs: One of these guys is going to have a big spring game. What that means? Maybe not as much as you’d think. Last year, George Atkinson exploded onto the scene, showing a top-gear and explosiveness that had people looking forward to a breakthrough season. That didn’t happen.

This year, expect a guy like Cam McDaniel to impress. Whether that means McDaniel heads into spring with a real shot at edging ahead of Atkinson for the number one spot heading into training camp remains to be seen. I’m of the mind that McDaniel is closer to the No. 1 back than the No. 3 spot held down (for now) by Will Mahone.

That said — somebody is going to have to carry the ball this afternoon, especially with walk-on Tyler Plantz already out with an injury. Want to sound smart? Start laying odds on some action from a walk-on like Ryan Liebscher or Eric Lee. Someone’s name is going to come out of the woodwork to carry the load during the second half.

Will the Irish show any tempo offense? Sure, it might give Temple an early look at Everett Golson and company moving quickly, but after three years, it sure would be fun to see this tempo offense Brian Kelly continues to talk about.

With Golson behind center and a package of skill players with plenty of experience, it’d be fun to see how Bob Diaco’s defense reacts to an offense that just calls it and hauls it.

Bring on the werewolves! After being relegated to the background, we’re finally going to see Bob Diaco’s werewolves, better known as Austin Collinsworth and Jarrett Grace. Both players received the compliment from Diaco sometime over the past few years, a moniker meant to (I think) reflect the ability to play ferocious and attack on defense.

We will finally see Grace in the center of the defense, where he’ll do his best to fill Manti Te’o’s shoes. Collinsworth will spend plenty of time in the back end of the defense, where I think he’ll lock down the nickel back role played by Elijah Shumate last year. Collinsworth might give up a little size, but he’s one of those high IQ football players that need to find a way onto the field.

The kids will be alright. This will be our first real look at the early enrollee freshmen who got a jump-start on their college careers since they began classes in January. All reports have been incredibly positive, and it looks like each guy will play a significant role in the program sooner than later.

First let’s talk about quarterback Malik Zaire. While the plan is still to keep a redshirt on Zaire, his comfort in the system has to make the Irish staff feel much better about the loss of Gunner Kiel. Expect to see Zaire take a significant amount of second half snaps, hopefully getting some valuable experience running the offense in front of a Notre Dame Stadium crowd.

While Corey Robinson will be in street clothes, James Onwualu will likely get a lot of reps. The freshman from St. Paul, Minnesota has impressed so far this spring, and physically he doesn’t look like a high school senior playing with college kids the first time.

Mike Heuerman still needs to add some weight to his frame, but he should show an interesting element this afternoon — a tight end that’s capable of getting down the field and making plays in the passing game.

Lastly, Steve Elmer sure doesn’t look like a freshman offensive tackle. He’s got everything that it takes to be a really good one, and we’ll see that on display this afternoon. Elmer might be too valuable to keep on the bench this season, even with both starting tackles returning and Ronnie Stanley capable of playing swing man.

Who’s going to be this year’s Junior Jabbie or Kyle Budinscak? Neither of those names mean much to the average Notre Dame fan, but both Jabbie and Budinscak put on absolute shows in spring games of yesteryear. Jabbie, who never broke into the lineup as a running back, won the 2007 MVP after leading the game in rushing yards. Budinscak, who never had more than three sacks in a season, had five in the 2001 Blue-Gold game.

Looking for some below-the-radar players to break out? I’m going with Luke Massa on offense and Justin Utupo on defense.

 

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover