Skip to content

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

Apr 12, 2014, 3:41 PM EDT

Malik Zaire Malik Zaire

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Irish A-to-Z: Scott Daly

    Jul 3, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT

    Purdue v Notre Dame Purdue v Notre Dame

    Anonymous long-snappers are the best kind of long snappers. And for the better part of two seasons, Scott Daly was exactly that. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at a man who is no longer anonymous.

  2. OL Parker Boudreaux commits to Notre Dame

    Jul 2, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT

    Rivals Rivals

    Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class added a big commitment from Florida offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux today. One of the country’s top interior linemen chose Notre Dame in a online video done in collaboration with Bleacher Report.

  3. Irish A-to-Z: Shaun Crawford

    Jul 2, 2015, 11:11 AM EDT

    Cleveland Plain Dealer Cleveland Plain Dealer

    Great football players come in all shapes and sizes. Incoming freshman Shaun Crawford will likely prove that. The diminutive cornerback comes to South Bend looking to make a big impact.

  4. Offseason Q&A: Clemson

    Jul 1, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT

    South Carolina v Clemson Getty Images

    When you look at Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule, it’s hard to skip past the Irish’s trip to Clemson. Returning to Death Valley for the first time since Joe Montana led a comeback victory in 1977, Brian Kelly’s squad will take on Dabo Swinney’s impressive team, the makings of a football game with College Football Playoff implications. Shakin’ the Southland’s Brian Lewis gets us up to speed.

  5. Irish A-to-Z: Te’von Coney

    Jul 1, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    Courtesy of Notre Dame Media Relations Courtesy of Notre Dame Media Relations

    While Jerry Tillery stole the headlines, fellow classmate Te’von Coney more than held his own this spring. The linebacker may have entered a packed depth chart at linebacker, but he solidified his place as a key cog in the future plans of Notre Dame’s defense.

  6. Irish A-to-Z: Nick Coleman

    Jun 30, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT

    Nick Coleman

    Hailing from the same high school that brought the Irish Malik Zaire, incoming freshman Nick Coleman looks to infuse the same type of unlikely toughness to the secondary that Zaire brings to the quarterback position. Irish A-to-Z rolls on.

  7. Irish A-to-Z: Amir Carlisle

    Jun 30, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    Amir Carlisle Amir Carlisle

    Irish A-to-Z continues with Amir Carlisle. The winding on-field journey for the fifth year senior ends in 2015.

  8. Irish get commitment from safety Spencer Perry

    Jun 29, 2015, 6:00 PM EDT

    Spencer Perry

    Florida safety Spencer Perry committed to Notre Dame on Monday, a week after visiting campus for the Irish Invasion camp. The move followed Perry’s de-commitment from in-state power Florida, taking the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder from a Gator pledge to a member of Notre Dame’s rapidly growing 2016 recruiting class.

  9. Irish A-to-Z: Daniel Cage

    Jun 29, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT

    Rice v Notre Dame Getty Images

    One of the last members of Notre Dame’s 2014 recruiting class was one of the first people to make an impact on the field. Defensive tackle Daniel Cage is next in Irish A-to-Z.

  10. Greg Bryant suspension tests offensive depth chart

    Jun 29, 2015, 11:32 AM EDT

    Notre Dame v Syracuse Getty Images

    News broke Monday morning that running back Greg Bryant will be suspended for the first four games of the season. As first-reported by Irish 247, Bryant will miss a quarter of the regular season based on the dreaded-and-ambiguous “violation of team rules,” thinning a running back depth chart that was already down to just Bryant, returning starter Tarean Folston and converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise.

  11. Irish A-to-Z: Jimmy Byrne

    Jun 29, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    via Twitter via Twitter

    Like the rest of his classmates along the offensive line, Jimmy Byrne spent 2014 learning the ropes and hitting the weight room. Redshirt off, Irish A-to-Z continues with the Ohio native.

  12. Irish land top 2017 TE Brock Wright

    Jun 26, 2015, 10:28 PM EDT

    Rivals.com Rivals.com

    Texas tight end Brock Wright has committed to Notre Dame, adding another elite recruit to the Irish tight end pipeline. Wright is a 2017 prospect who camped in South Bend last week for Irish Invasion.

  13. Irish A-to-Z: Devin Butler

    Jun 26, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT

    Purdue v Notre Dame Purdue v Notre Dame

    With KeiVarae Russell suspended and Cody Riggs hurt, Devin Butler got his chance to be a starting cornerback. It wasn’t necessarily a positive experience. We look ahead to an important season for the junior defensive back.

  14. Offseason Q&A: UMass

    Jun 26, 2015, 11:07 AM EDT

    Massachusetts v Vanderbilt Getty Images

    After a difficult three-game stretch to start Notre Dame’s season, the Irish will welcome UMass to South Bend, a game that was originally intended to match up former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his previous employer.

  15. Report: Irish might be adding OL Jurkovic

    Jun 25, 2015, 6:07 PM EDT

    An Irish Illustrated report says that Notre Dame might add a piece to the 2016 recruiting class, with touted offensive lineman and one-time Ohio State commit Mirko Jurkovic Jr. in the crosshairs.

  16. Irish A-to-Z: Greg Bryant

    Jun 25, 2015, 2:24 PM EDT

    North Carolina v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Greg Bryant has yet to play up to the 5-star status he entered South Bend possessing. Now for the good news: He’s got three more seasons to try.

  17. Irish A-to-Z: Chris Brown

    Jun 24, 2015, 4:44 PM EDT

    Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Getty Images

    Chris Brown enters his senior season in South Bend, still looking to build on a magical start. Irish A-to-Z rolls along, knowing that we’ve got a long way to go before the start of the season.

  18. Irish A-to-Z: Justin Brent

    Jun 24, 2015, 3:04 PM EDT

    Justin Brent, Devin Butler Justin Brent, Devin Butler

    There are good debut seasons. And then there are debut seasons like the one Justin Brent just had. Let’s take a closer look at the sophomore receiver as Irish A-to-Z continues.

  19. Offseason Q&A: Georgia Tech

    Jun 24, 2015, 1:43 PM EDT

    Justin Thomas, Synjyn Days Justin Thomas, Synjyn Days

    Last year, Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech team burst onto the scene, nearly wrestling the ACC championship away from Florida State in a primetime showdown. While the Yellow Jackets didn’t pull out the victory, they sprinted away from Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl and won by double-digits, capping off an 11-win season.

  20. OLB/DE Jamir Jones commits to Notre Dame

    Jun 23, 2015, 4:16 PM EDT

    Notre Dame v Syracuse Notre Dame v Syracuse

    Notre Dame’s quick-growing 2016 recruiting class is adding another familiar name. Rochester defensive end Jamir Jones, brother of starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones, committed to the Irish coaching staff on Tuesday, fresh off receiving his offer. He joins Julian Okwara—brother of Romeo—as younger siblings of Irish players in the 2016 recruiting class.