Blue-Gold game: Ten Irish players to watch


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.