Five things we learned: 85th annual Blue-Gold game

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What a difference a year makes. As the Irish offense sprinted out to a gigantic lead before holding off the defense in a 63-58 victory, Brian Kelly’s promise of a new look offensive attack seems right on track for 2014.

Just months after Notre Dame took the field with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix atop the depth chart, Notre Dame’s offense looks completely transformed. That’s what happens when you have the right quarterbacks for your system.

With Everett Golson and Malik Zaire now the stewards of the Irish attack, Kelly’s prized possession looks to be poised for a breakout season, finally resembling the unit that Kelly rode to prominence when outscoring opponents at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

 

Things were far from perfect. And a vanilla defense and favorable rules made it feel like the defense was playing with one arm tied behind its back at times. But heading into the offseason, a successful spring practice was capped off with an impressive offensive performance.

Let’s find out what else we learned during the Blue’s 63-58 victory.

***

It’s still Everett Golson’s offense, but Malik Zaire is ready to compete. 

If you were looking at this Notre Dame football team for the first time, you’d have likely lost a friendly wager if guessing which quarterback was the veteran with starting experience. Right out of the gate it was Malik Zaire that looked composed and fully comfortable running the offense, not Everett Golson.

Zaire played an exceptional first half, completing 15 of 19 throws for 259 yards and two touchdowns. He completed a nice vertical route to Will Fuller that set up a touchdown. He showed the ability to throw on the run. He even showed off an excellent fastball as he forced a slant into a tight window to Amir Carlisle for a short yardage touchdown.

Unable to properly show off his athleticism and foot speed, Zaire still was capable of making defenders miss, and then punish them by completing passes outside the pocket. Those skills make him far more capable as a No. 2 quarterback than Hendrix was last year, while armed with athleticism that makes for a defensive nightmare.

There’s still work to be done by the young quarterback, who caught many by surprise when he declared himself ready and willing to win the starting quarterback job. But after seeing Zaire in action on Saturday, many Irish fans finally understand what makes the rising sophomore so confident.

***

After a lost 2013 season, Greg Bryant plans on making the most of his second freshman season. 

Saturday afternoon didn’t start all that smoothly for Greg Bryant. The third running back to take the field after Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston, Bryant struggled to break loose on his first few carries, stuffed in the backfield and held at bay by the Irish defense. But Bryant just kept chipping away, showing patience before breaking a nine yard run and gaining 11 yards on a pass reception before halftime.

But the Bryant Irish fans have waited to see broke loose in the second half, when his 51-yard run became the biggest play of the game. Bryant’s long run featured just about everything Irish fans wanted to see: A great cut to get north and south, power accelerating through the hole, open field vision that turned a nice gain into a big run, and havoc wreaked in the open field.

 

Bryant finished the day as the Irish’s leading rusher, carrying 12 times for 101 yards. After hearing Kelly and Tony Alford talk about the power and vision Bryant had showed the coaching staff this spring, Irish fans saw it for themselves. And while Cam McDaniel looked reliable and Tarean Folston still looks to be the most comfortable back on the depth chart, Bryant will be a difference maker in this offense in 2014, even if it’s a year later than most expected.

***

It’s hard to take much from the defensive performance. But the pass rush certainly showed promise. 

When Alex Flanagan asked Brian Kelly how much new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was showing his offense, the Irish head coach chuckled. That was probably as telling as anything we saw on the field Saturday afternoon. And while the Irish passing attack racked up 388 yards in the first half, the defense showed glimmers of hope, especially in the second half.

But for all the worries expressed this spring, the one place where things seemed better than expected was the pass rush. While the official statistics for sacks should be taken with a huge grain of salt considering quarterbacks were untouchable, defensive end Romeo Okwara played a very nice game. The converted outside linebacker had three sacks in the box score, and brought excellent pressure off the edge of the Irish defense.

Okwara wasn’t the only one. Ishaq Williams started the game with an impressive pass rush that likely would’ve resulted in a sack. Andrew Trumbetti and Isaac Rochell, two young players who could play a factor in the Irish pass rush also notched sacks, joined by Chase Hounshell and Jacob Matuska.

While schemes stayed very vanilla, a few big plays by the offense also likely would’ve been erased had the quarterback been live. An overload blitz by Michael Deeb had quarterback Malik Zaire dead to rights. Joe Schmidt came off the edge to notch a sack that wasn’t counted. And if those blitzes landed, imagine what some of the more exotic looks would have done.

Of course, all of this is pretty fuzzy. Harry Hiestand’s offensive line was split into two units, with Golson taking some sketchy snaps from Mark Harrell, while being protected by reserves like John Montelus and Hunter Bivin.

So while the question marks will exist well into fall camp, seeing Golson and Zaire break from the pocket so often means the pass rush did its job.

***

After years of fighting to keep a natural surface in Notre Dame Stadium, Jack Swarbrick announced that a synthetic surface is being installed inside the house that Rock built. 

Far too often, the natural grass inside Notre Dame Stadium became part of the story. Whether it was overgrown to slow down a USC team, or a leading tackler thanks to faulty footing, the playing surface inside the stadium has been too much of a factor in recent years.

That will no longer be the case.

During the first half of the Blue-Gold game, athletic director Jack Swarbrick told NBC’s Alex Flanagan that a synthetic surface was being installed in Notre Dame Stadium. That process will begin after graduation weekend, with the installation complete by mid-August.

In a formalized release prepared by the university, Swarbrick explained the school’s rationale:

“We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field,” Swarbrick said in the statement. “However, the reality is that in two of the last three seasons since we moved Commencement to the Stadium we have been unable to produce an acceptable playing surface. That, combined with the likely impacts of future construction at the Stadium, led me to conclude that we would continue to struggle to maintain a grass field that meets the expectations of our student-athletes and fans as it relates to appearance, performance and safety.

“Synthetic turf will assist our game preparation because our team will be able to play and practice on the same surface. We will also be able to utilize the Notre Dame Stadium field for practices on home football Fridays and other occasions, whereas that is currently unrealistic. Additionally, this change allows us to eliminate the risk to players posed by the asphalt perimeter that has to be maintained around our current field.”

While some traditionalists will balk at the decision, putting the Irish on a playing surface that’s already being utilized on their indoor and outdoor practice facilities makes too much sense. After running feasibility studies and consulting with the Green Bay Packers and Michigan State, the decision to put in an artificial surface — likely FieldTurf — makes too much sense.

After upgrading the athleticism across the roster, too often the Irish were the team penalized by a slow and sloppy track. Expect that to change next season.

***

How Brian Kelly decides to distribute the football is anybody’s guess. But the Irish skill positions are filled with weapons. 

Suspended wide receiver DaVaris Daniels watched his teammates from the sideline. What he saw was a depth chart that’s much more competitive than the one he left. Notre Dame’s depth at wide receiver and running back was on display Saturday afternoon, with Golson and Zaire connecting with 14 different receivers. After struggling to find personnel to support four wideouts last season, 10 different players caught two passes or more.

Brian Kelly has made it clear that he still believes Daniels is his No. 1 wide receiver. But the competition to see the field behind him will be fierce. Junior Chris Brown completed an impressive spring with five catches for 105 yards. Corey Robinson added to his personal highlight reel with another long catch. On what looked like an off-day for Will Fuller, he still averaged more than 20 yards a catch.

Probably the most promising development this spring was the work accomplished at the slot receiver position. CJ Prosise showed impressive athleticism and speed when he accelerated away from Austin Collinsworth and broke open for a 39-yard touchdown. Sprinter speed at 220-pounds makes for an intriguing option. Amir Carlisle also looked at home in the slot, catching a tough touchdown throw from Zaire, and streaking wide open on a vertical route that Everett Golson missed on.

Tight end Ben Koyack dropped an easy catch, but paced the position with three catches. Our first look at Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe showed promise, with both youngsters catching two balls.

With the running backs catching eight balls, including five from Tarean Folston, it was clear that the emphasis on improving the screen game paid dividends. After all but disappearing in the passing game last year, Folston, McDaniel and Bryant all looked smooth catching the football.

Finding a replacement for TJ Jones is still one of the offseason’s main objectives. But if the Blue-Gold game is any indication, a group effort might be more than successful.

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.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.