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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.

 

 

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”