Pregame Six Pack: 85th annual Blue-Gold game

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Welcome back to football. And what easier way back into it than a guaranteed Irish victory. After a long offseason, Notre Dame fans near and far will get their annual spring checkup on their favorite football team. What they’ll see? Well, that might not be that simple.

Everett Golson is back, a long journey completed after last taking the field as the presumed starter in the 84th annual Blue-Gold game. He’s joined by Malik Zaire on the scholarship depth chart, with both signal callers expected to get an extended look on Saturday.

What will Brian Kelly choose to show? That’s not entirely clear, either. After talking up an up-tempo attack and the evolution of the offense to a full-scale spread attack, it’s hard to expect Kelly to show off too many of the cards up his sleeve, especially with a national broadcast and a hungry fanbase that’ll dissect every snap taken.

But why sweat the small stuff? After one of the worst winters in memory, there’s football in Notre Dame Stadium, with a live blog hosted here and the game available to view both on NBC Sports Network and on NBCSports.com starting at 12:30 p.m. EDT. (Here’s an early-bird link to the game.)

Here’s your pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the Irish do battle for Blue-Gold glory. 

***

First off, let’s take a look at the rules.

You might need an accounting degree to understand this year’s scoring system. But let’s start with the easy stuff.

The first half will be close to real football. Each quarter will be two 12-minute periods, with normal clock rules. The second half will be running time, with the quarters set for 15 minutes each.

The offense’s scoring system is as follows:

Field goal: 3 points
Touchdown: 6 points
Extra Point: 1 point
2-point Conversion: 2 points
Big Chunk Pass (20+ yards): 2 points
Big Chunk Run (15+): 2 points
Two consecutive first downs: 2 points

This is how the defense scores points:

Defensive Stop Before 50-yard line: 4 points
Defensive Stop After the 50-yard line: 2 points
Turnover Forced Before 50-yard line: 7 points
Turnover Forced After 50-yard line: 3 points
Forces a Field Goal (Make or Miss): 1 point
Three-and-out: 2 points

Make sense? Good, you can explain it to me during the live blog.

***

Irish fans excited to see Brian VanGorder’s defense? Don’t get your hopes up. 

Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator will be on display this Saturday, Irish fan’s first opportunity to see the changes Brian VanGorder made to Bob Diaco’s system. Some will be obvious: Expect to see the Irish mostly in four-down sets. Some will be most subtle: Nickel and Dime sub-packages could be plentiful.

But for those expecting to see VanGorder throw the kitchen sink at the Irish offense, don’t hold your breath.

For the first time in five seasons, the Irish will head into the season with the advantage of having VanGorder’s system a mystery to opponents. What tape do you study? A season under Gene Chizik at Auburn? Rex Ryan’s defense will the Jets? Old film from the Atlanta Falcons? Even older tape from the beginning of the Mark Richt era at Georgia?

The first conversation I had with former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was a month after the new coaching staff’s first spring game in South Bend. When I asked him how his defense played, he carefully responded, “They did a nice job doing what we asked them to do.” I kindly asked him to explain. Diaco then confided that they played a scheme that they’d never play again, simply for the purpose of not giving anything away.

Don’t expect the attitude to change, especially with a young, unproven personnel group.

***

Thanks to a razor thin depth chart, we should see plenty of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. 

The quarterbacks will be off limits. But thanks to a scholarship depth chart that’s exactly two deep, we should see plenty of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire on Saturday (and walk-on Charlie Fiessinger). This is hardly Golson’s triumphant return, with a scrimmage far from making this “finished business.” But the rising senior will be in his first game-like situation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the South Carolina native wants to put on a show for the fans.

The same can be said for Zaire. After providing one of the rare highlights in last year’s Blue-Gold game with a nice touchdown pass, Zaire won’t have the opportunity to fully take advantage of his skill set if he’s off limits, but he’ll need to show full command of the offense put into his hands.

We just talked about the fact that Brian VanGorder might not throw the type of exotic blitzes he’s known for at the Irish offense on Saturday. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t doing it this spring.

I want our quarterbacks to see it all,” Kelly said earlier this week. “They have seen more exotics, more things than they will see next year at any one time, and it’s difficult on them. It’s really hard on them, but I’d rather have it be difficult, so when I go into that meeting, we have great meetings that we can teach off of and learn off of, and get better at. Our quarterbacks understand that.

“What they’re seeing is really some 500-level stuff. It’s all good stuff, and I’d rather have it that way than have them line up like ducks and then we get to the fall and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen that, coach. 
It’s hard, it’s made for some tough meetings, but I think it’s really good teaching in the spring. I’d rather be teaching in those meetings than just saying this is pretty easy.”

***

Even after a disappointing slide to four losses, Brian Kelly is still viewed among the elite. 

It’s that time of year where arbitrary lists and rankings get plenty of attention. Or at least this one should. Athlon released their rankings for all 128 college football coaches and as you may or may not have expected, Brian Kelly was close to the top.

Kelly slotted in at No. 9 in the rankings, falling in just behind Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (who if it weren’t for a play called Little Giants, would be winless against the Irish head coach.)

Here’s the top 10:

1. Nick Saban
2. Urban Meyer
3. Steve Spurrier
4. Bob Stoops
5. Art Briles
6. Bill Snyder
7. Jimbo Fischer
8. Mark Dantonio
9. Brian Kelly
10. Gus Malzahn

Stanford’s David Shaw comes in at No. 12, Louisville’s Bobby Petrino at No. 16, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald at No. 18, Arizona State’s Todd Graham at No. 19. Michigan’s Brady Hoke is No. 38 and USC’s Steve Sarkisian is No. 44. That’s a lot of coaching talent on next year’s schedule.

***

 What in the name of Junior Jabbie? Will we actually learn anything on Saturday?

For every revealing spring game there’s a breakout performer like Junior Jabbie, the anonymous back-up running back who burst onto the scene like a supernova, but never appeared again. There are plenty of chances for that to happen this year, with a stable of walk-on running backs likely carrying the ball in the second half and Charlie Fiessenger probably running the second half show as well.

But a quick look back at last year’s game revealed some interesting tidbits. First, the special teams were a mess. Second, the running game was still trying to figure out exactly what it was.

Mostly, the feeling at the game was one different than most. The Irish were settled. They were coming off a 12-1 season. They had their starting quarterback ready to take the next step.

It’s different,” Golson told Alex Flanagan after the game. “But along with that comes responsibility. One of the things I’m trying to do this year is lead this team.”

Obviously, the trap door hadn’t opened yet. But expect a more business-like performance on Saturday, even if we won’t know what any of this actually means.

***

Even with changes on his staff and roster, Kelly seems all in. 

Earlier this week, CBS Sports’ Jeremy Fowler sat down with Brian Kelly and picked the head coach’s brain. In a wide ranging conversation where Kelly talked about Declan Sullivan (Kelly delivered the keynote at the memorial fund’s annual dinner), Kelly also talked about some lighter things.

A growing duel over surfboards in offices with Bob Stoops, and a recent foursome at Augusta National with Tom Brady (no big deal, Charlie Weis isn’t the only Notre Dame coach that gets to hang with the Patriots)!

Kelly opened up about things big and small about life at Notre Dame.Do yourself a favor and read the entire article, but here are a few snippets that I found very interesting:

Kelly talked with Brady specifically about the workload that exists in the NFL.

As if that four-putt somewhere on Amen Corner wasn’t humbling enough for Kelly, who shot 91, Brady asked Kelly if players today understood the difficulty of making an NFL roster. Most of them have “no idea,” Kelly realized.

“They are putting in 10 hours a day,” Kelly said of NFL players. “Right now, college guys are putting in maybe 10 to 12 hours a week [because of NCAA rules].”

Kelly’s evaluation of this team also was worth noting, a distinct difference between the team that could have three first round draft picks.

“It’s not really a top-heavy NFL Draft pick team, but this might be our most talented top to bottom,” Kelly told Fowler.

Perhaps Kelly’s most revealing detail was just how important he feels the quarterback is in his system. After noticing how quickly Florida State was able to turn the tables with Jameis Winston (and the fact that Kelly himself rode a young quarterback to the BCS title game), he talked about the essential nature of a good quarterback in college football.

“It’s all about the quarterback,” Kelly told Fowler. “Manage the pocket. He’s got to have answers.”

We’ll get our first extended look as to whether Golson and Zaire have those answers on Saturday afternoon.

CB 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.