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.

 

 

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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With the announcement from fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins he will seek a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, it may seem the Irish cornerback depth is taking a massive hit. It was actually that depth that likely spurred Watkins’ decision.

The Texas native announced his decision to transfer Thursday afternoon on Twitter.

“When I decided to attend Notre Dame, my primary goal was to earn a degree from this prestigious University,” Watkins wrote, “and I’m proud to say that I’ll achieve that goal.”

Watkins started nine games in 2017 before knee tendonitis slowed him, giving now-junior Troy Pride an opening to take the lead role opposite junior Julian Love. Pride played well and has continued that progress this spring, knocking Watkins from a starting role. Furthermore, senior Shaun Crawford saw some time at cornerback this spring, rather than focusing solely on nickelback, creating even more viable competition at cornerback.

Thus, Watkins will head elsewhere after making 37 career tackles in 35 games with the Irish, including 29 tackles last season with eight pass breakups and one interception. Watkins missed all of his junior season with a broken arm. Since he will graduate before transferring, Watkins will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up.

Notre Dame will also have four more cornerbacks joining the fray this summer when incoming freshmen D.J. Brown, Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins and Tariq Bracy arrive.

The Irish roster still sits at a projected 87 scholarships for the coming fall, two over the maximum allowed by the NCAA.

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

Associated Press
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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.