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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.

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