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Blue-Gold game: Ten Irish players to watch

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The 85th annual Blue-Gold game is set to kickoff Saturday at 12:30 p.m. EDT. While the game format has yet to be finalized, one thing (other than an Irish victory) seems to be certain: We’ll get a very good look at the future Irish squad.

For those in attendance, the weather looks like a rare spring day that’ll bring sunshine. For those of us watching on the NBC Sports Network, they’ll have an opportunity to pause and rewind, utilizing their DVR to get one last look at Notre Dame football before Labor Day weekend.

Don’t expect Brian Kelly to reveal too many secrets. Nor will he give too many minutes to proven starters (blink and you might miss KeiVarae Russell, Sheldon Day or Jaylon Smith.) But for emerging players on the roster, Saturday is a very important opportunity to leave a mark on the coaching staff.

RELATED: Watch the game online via NBC Sports Live Extra

So while the playcalling might be vanilla and the game clock will be running much of the second half, consider these 10 players to watch in Saturday’s Blue-Gold game.

 

MALIK ZAIRE
QB, Sophomore

While most of the attention this spring has been on Zaire’s intention to win the starting job, Saturday’s scrimmage serves as a key progress report for the Irish’s backup quarterback. The rising sophomore showed his first bit of promise at this time last year, throwing for a nice touchdown in an otherwise sloppy Blue-Gold affair.

But Zaire will need to show more than just glimpses of competency. He’s going to need to show the type of offensive comprehension that essentially makes him the offense’s second most important player, as Zaire’s ability to master the offense will likely dictate how wide open the playbook will be for Everett Golson as well.

One thing to watch for: Let’s see how Zaire does as the triggerman to the Irish’s option attack. We’ve seen glimpses of his slick skills in UND.com practice videos, but an efficient operator in an up-tempo spread option game could give the Irish the curveball they’ve been looking for in the red zone.

 

ROMEO OKWARA
DE, Junior

After being a jack-of-all-trades reserve outside linebacker, Okwara has used this spring to make the transition to defensive end. The North Carolina native is entering his third year playing in the Irish program, and while he’s still a teenager, the clock is ticking for him to make an impact.

The skillset is there. Long, powerful and explosive, Okwara is the type of athlete that looks the part of a dominant defensive end. But he’s got a long way to go from a technique perspective, and going up against Ronnie Stanley, Mike McGlinchey and the Irish’s other talented offensive tackles is a good test.

One thing to watch for: Don’t expect to see anybody lay a finger on either Irish quarterback. But Okwara should have the opportunity to pin his ears back and rush hard off the edge, something we still have no clue if he’s capable of doing. Okwara’s going to be asked to beat opponents’ best offensive tackles. Let’s see if he can beat the Irish’s talented group, first.

 

GREG BRYANT
RB, Sophomore

There might not be a player Irish fans want to see more than Bryant. After only getting a handful of touches before a knee injury prematurely ended his freshman season, Bryant is back with a vengeance this spring, one-third of a three-headed running back group that the former blue-chip recruit seems committed to leading.

At his best, Bryant has the ability to be a dynamic presence in both the run game and passing attack. He’s the most powerful back on the roster, and also might be the most natural pass catcher as well. We’ll likely get our first look at Bryant the punt returner as well, with the sophomore a candidate to replace TJ Jones as the team’s primary returner.

One thing to watch for: We’ll likely see Bryant get his share of carries. But even if Kelly and Mike Denbrock are doing their best to keep opponents from seeing the unknown commodity until the season begins, expect to see a wrinkle of Bryant in the passing game as well.

 

MIKE MCGLINCHEY
RT, Sophomore

That McGlinchey has taken over the right tackle job says quite a bit about the Philadelphia native. The largest man on the Irish roster, McGlinchey has all the upside in the world, but he’s being asked to learn on the fly. His ability to be a quick study has helped the Irish put three tackles on the field, with Steve Elmer shifting inside to left guard.

Both Harry Hiestand and Kelly marvel at the prospect that McGlinchey can become. We’ll get our first extended look on Saturday, when he’s asked to anchor the right side of the line.

One thing to watch for: How will McGlinchey plays within the nuances of offense? Does he hold up well against a speed rush? Can he deal with power techniques? Is he an effective run blocker? With butterflies likely fluttering before his first live televised game, playing with sound technique will be important.

 

MAX REDFIELD
S, Sophomore

Brian Kelly all but forced Redfield into the starting lineup against Rutgers. The move of Matthias Farley to nickel back all but assures he’ll stay there under Brian VanGorder’s watch as well. On Saturday, we’ll get our first look at Redfield’s progress, with the hopes that he becomes the center fielder and dynamic safety the Irish have missed desperately since Harrison Smith graduated.

Redfield has been asked to learn a new system this spring, with VanGorder and Kerry Cooks going back to square one with a very young secondary. But the five-star talent has game-breaking ability that is needed at a position with few certainties, and any learning curve needs to be in the rear view mirror.

One thing to watch for: The best safeties are the ones that show up everywhere. VanGorder’s attacking defense should set Redfield loose against both the run and the pass. Let’s see if he’s able to make a big play in both phases.

 

JOE SCHMIDT
ILB, Senior

We’ll finally get our chance to see the linebacker who has turned into the talk of spring practice. Schmidt will anchor the No. 1 defense on Saturday, a spot he’ll likely hold heading into fall camp. And after being one of the first to soak up VanGorder’s revamped defense, Schmidt will likely be set loose sideline to sideline tasked with making plays.

One thing to watch for: There are two types of spring breakthrough performers. The first are players whose game takes a huge step forward. The second are players that a coaching staff pushes forward, crediting the player while desperately hoping he makes an impact in the fall.

Everything suggests Schmidt has played his way into the starting lineup. But until we see him in action, there’ll be a healthy dose of skepticism about the former walk-on being the tonic desperately needed at a thin position.

 

DURHAM SMYTHE / MIKE HEUERMAN
TE, Sophomores

Neither of the sophomore tight ends on this team saw a minute of action last year. Now this duo will be thrust into the lineup, with only Ben Koyack at the position until reinforcements come this summer

Saturday will be our first good look at a rather odd couple. Smythe has drawn the attention and kudos of his head coach, with Kelly challenging the Texas native to continue to make strides in the weight room. The same needs to be said for Heuerman, who looks like a glorified H-back on the field, but could be a weapon in the passing game.

Heuerman brings a body type and skillset that hasn’t been in South Bend for a while. And Kelly’s praise and early returns give you reason to think that Smythe might be the next in a long line of good tight ends.

One thing to watch for: Will Mike Denbrock utilize his tight ends differently than Chuck Martin? Obviously the loss of Troy Niklas and Alex Welch turns this position into a different asset. But getting a look at both Smythe and Huerman’s ability to get downfield should be fun to watch.

 

TORII HUNTER JR.
WR, Sophomore

A freak leg injury cost Hunter his freshman season before he ever arrived on campus. Now we’ll get our first look at the talented Texas wide receiver, who is fighting his way into a very deep receiving corps.

How Hunter works his way onto the field remains to be seen. Brian Kelly has already stated that he feels good about his slot receiver position with Amir Carlisle and CJ Prosise. Outside receivers Will Fuller and Corey Robinson have impressed this spring, with Chris Brown supplying veteran leadership. Add in newcomer Justin Brent and Hunter, and you begin to wonder how the reps will split up… especially when DaVaris Daniels returns this summer.

One thing to watch for: Hunter will likely get a chance to develop chemistry with Malik Zaire, a partnership that probably existed on the scout team and with the reserve offense all spring. Against a thin secondary that’ll likely have quite a few walk-ons playing, Hunter should have the chance to put up big numbers in his “debut” for the Irish.

 

JARRON JONES
DT, Junior

The Irish’s move to a four-man front lessened the burden on Jarron Jones. No longer tasked with directly filling Louis Nix’s shoes, Jones will line up next to Sheldon Day on the interior of the Irish defensive line, playing an attacking role after learning the art of holding the point of attack on the fly last season.

VanGorder spoke earlier this week about the need for Jones to continue to hone his craft and learn the art of his position. But he also acknowledged the knack Jones has for being productive, something that we saw flashes of last season and a habit that’s continued this spring.

One thing to watch for: There are high hopes for Jones, now that he’s settled into being a defensive tackle. Let’s see if he’s able to make some plays in the backfield on Saturday against a tough offensive line.

 

EVERETT GOLSON
QB, Senior

Any list wouldn’t be complete without Golson, who will be back on the field at Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since his suspension. Let’s not kid ourselves. We won’t see all that much from Golson and the offense, with any new wrinkles offensively kept for next season. But the Irish need a field general running their offense, and there’s no one better than Golson for that job.

After serving as a very athletic game manager in 2012, Golson needs to be the conductor of the Irish offensive orchestra, a group that’s in desperate need of more production. Seeing sparks of that Saturday will have many fans feeling better about the offense heading into summer.

One thing to watch for: After throwing downfield early and often last year with Tommy Rees, the Irish offense should be even more capable of doing so with Golson under center. It’s no secret that Kelly likes his receivers to go vertical. Let’s hope we see a few deep balls delivered by No. 5, with the idea that they put up very large chunks for the Irish offense.

 

 

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: