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: Greer Martini

    Jul 22, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT

    Greer Martini

    The founding member of the 2014 recruiting class, linebacker Greer Martini enters a football program that looks decidedly different than the one he committed to back in July of 2012. Irish A-to-Z continues as we look at the freshman inside linebacker.

  2. Irish A-to-Z: Nick Martin

    Jul 21, 2014, 3:22 PM EDT

    USC v Notre Dame Getty Images

    No, he’s not his brother. But center Nick Martin should solidify his standing as one of the top centers in the country in 2014. After an injury ended his debut season in the starting lineup early, Martin returns healthy after knee surgery, giving Notre Dame a key anchor in the middle of Harry Hiestand’s offensive line.

  3. Irish A-to-Z: Tyler Luatua

    Jul 21, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

    Rivals.com Rivals.com

    After losing Troy Niklas and Alex Welch from the depth chart, Notre Dame needed to restock a position that’s been very kind to the Irish over the past few years. Irish A-to-Z continues with freshman tight end Tyler Luatua.

  4. Irish A-to-Z: Cole Luke

    Jul 20, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT

    Keenan Reynolds, Justin Utopo, Cole Luke Keenan Reynolds, Justin Utopo, Cole Luke

    A year after contributing as a freshman, Cole Luke’s assignment will be a bit more ambitious in 2014. One of three cornerbacks who is expected to play major minutes, Irish A-to-Z continues with the sophomore cover man.

  5. Irish A-to-Z: Christian Lombard

    Jul 19, 2014, 5:01 PM EDT

    Christian Lombard

    One of four graduate students on the Irish roster, Christian Lombard feels like he’s been a part of the Notre Dame football program for a long time. As one of Charlie Weis’ earliest commitments in the 2010 class, Lombard has seen coaching changes, position switches and injury challenges in his five years in South Bend.

  6. Irish A-to-Z: Ben Koyack

    Jul 19, 2014, 3:24 PM EDT

    New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame Getty Images

    After two underwhelming seasons in South Bend, Ben Koyack finally emerged as a legitimate threat late last season. And with Troy Niklas’ unexpected departure to the NFL, Koyack has a chance to be the next in a line of impressive tight ends playing on Sundays. The Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at Notre Dame’s starting tight end.

  7. Weekend notes: Football just around the corner

    Jul 18, 2014, 5:51 PM EDT

    New York Post New York Post

    As we head into a beautiful July weekend, the beginning of football is closer than you may think. Let’s take a tour around some of the better articles I read this week.

  8. Irish A-to-Z: DeShone Kizer

    Jul 17, 2014, 3:04 PM EDT

    Toledo Blade Property of the Toledo Blade

    With just two other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, incoming freshman DeShone Kizer begins his college career a bit closer to the playing field than any head coach would like. Our latest in Irish A-to-Z looks at Notre Dame’s quarterback from the 2014 recruiting class.

  9. Irish A-to-Z: Jarron Jones

    Jul 17, 2014, 12:27 PM EDT

    Matt Cashore - USA Today Matt Cashore - USA Today

    Injuries to Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke gave Jarron Jones his shot at a new position. The rising junior took advantage of his opportunities. Our next installment in Irish A-to-Z takes a look at Notre Dame’s new starting defensive tackle.

  10. Irish A-to-Z: Torii Hunter Jr.

    Jul 16, 2014, 6:06 PM EDT

    Hunter Jr

    When Notre Dame added Torii Hunter Jr. to the roster on Signing Day 2013, the Irish did more than just add another famous father to the family section at Notre Dame Stadium. Our next installment on Irish A-to-Z looks at a rising sophomore who is healthy after entering Notre Dame with a major injury.

  11. Notre Dame releases design updates for FieldTurf

    Jul 16, 2014, 5:17 PM EDT

    Few football programs need a press release to discuss the markings on their home football field. But after months of wonderment by certain segments of the Irish football fanbase, the athletic department gave us an early “look” at what the new synthetic playing surface will look like when Notre Dame takes the field this fall.

  12. Irish A-to-Z: Chase Hounshell

    Jul 15, 2014, 12:43 PM EDT

    Hounshell

    Entering his senior season, Chase Hounshell’s career has been defined by what’s kept him off the field, not his performance on it. Our next installment in Irish A-to-Z looks closer at the Ohio native who has battled back from multiple shoulder injuries.

  13. Golson’s return to Elite 11 takes him full circle

    Jul 15, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT

    Notre Dame Football Spring Practice Notre Dame Football Spring Practice

    Everett Golson spent part of last week as a counselor at the Elite 11 quarterback camp, held at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. And while he earned rave reviews for his work on the playing field as an instructor, he also earned more than his fair share of kudos for his maturity off of it.

  14. Irish A-to-Z: Corey Holmes

    Jul 14, 2014, 6:15 PM EDT

    Orlando Sentinel Orlando Sentinel

    While TJ Jones is gone, Notre Dame might have signed a receiver that looks and plays an awful lot like him in incoming freshman Corey Holmes. Irish A-to-Z continues with the incoming freshman receiver from Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the elite programs in the country.

  15. Irish A-to-Z: Kolin Hill

    Jul 13, 2014, 8:45 AM EDT

    Instagram Instagram

    One of the last players on Notre Dame’s radar during the 2014 recruiting cycle was Kolin Hill. Our next installment in the Irish A-to-Z series takes a look at the incoming freshman from Texas.

  16. Irish A-to-Z: Mike Heuerman

    Jul 12, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    Heuerman

    After spending 2013 on the sidelines, opportunity comes to Mike Heuerman in 2014. With Troy Niklas a surprise entrant in the NFL Draft and the departure of veteran Alex Welch to Miami (Ohio), Heuerman and fellow sophomore Durham Smythe are the next men in for Brian Kelly and the Irish offense.

  17. Irish A-to-Z: Matt Hegarty

    Jul 11, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT

    BYU v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Matt Hegarty’s football career almost ended when a stroke suffered during a November practice in 2012 revealed two small holes in his heart. Healthy again and a key contributor late in 2013, our next stop on the Irish A-to-Z train takes a look at the New Mexico native and his road back onto the playing field.

  18. Watch Lists: Brindza, Day, Koyack and Martin join club

    Jul 11, 2014, 8:59 AM EDT

    Kyle Brindza, Ben Turk AP

    Watch List week continues with more Irish veterans recognized for their potential 2014 season. In addition to Everett Golson, KeiVarae Russell and Jaylon Smith, four more Irish players found their names on awards lists, with Kyle Brindza, Sheldon Day, Ben Koyack and Nick Martin being tabbed.

  19. Watch: Notre Dame Stadium FieldTurf install in progress

    Jul 10, 2014, 9:47 AM EDT

    A new time-lapse video released by Fighting Irish Digital Media and UND.com gives us an update on the FieldTurf installation going inside Notre Dame Stadium.

  20. Irish A-to-Z: Jay Hayes

    Jul 10, 2014, 9:26 AM EDT

    247Sports 247Sports

    Notre Dame scoured the country for recruits as they prepared for life after Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. Our next A-to-Z installment looks at Jay Hayes, the incoming freshman defensive lineman looking to replace them.