The good, the bad, the ugly: 85th Blue-Gold game

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And just like that, spring football is over. Even with a two week break in the middle, and dozens of stories to follow throughout the offseason, football is done until August… all in a blink of the eye.

Of course, that won’t stop us from sorting through these last 15 practices, especially Saturday’s Blue-Gold game. And with the offense cruising early before holding on for a 63-58 victory, there’s plenty to discuss after a fun Saturday of football.

Let’s get to the good, bad and ugly of the 85th annual Blue-Gold game.

THE GOOD

Quarterback Play. Sunday afternoon I spent two hours sorting through old Blue-Gold game box scores. I made it back to 1998, and didn’t another Blue-Gold game where Notre Dame quarterbacks didn’t throw an interception. That included standouts Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen. It included some not-so-standouts, too — with guys like Jared Clark, Zach Frazer, and David Wolke getting some playing time, too.

Much has been written (and for good reason) about the game Malik Zaire played. After being almost an afterthought — the guy between Everett Golson and Blake Barnett, Zaire reminded people that he’s a really good quarterback, something Brian Kelly has been telling us, though we’ve just been thinking it’s because he wants to create competition for Everett Golson.

Well, consider Saturday’s performance a good indication that there’s competition. While it’s still Golson’s job, Notre Dame won’t be held back because their back-up quarterback can’t get things done.

On second (and third) inspection, comparing Golson and Zaire on an apples to apples day isn’t necessarily fair. Golson faced some more complex looks defensively, and had the challenge of fielding some wayward shotgun snaps from emergency back-up center Mark Harrell. He settled down after missing a few early throws and looked just fine.

But it’s clear that Kelly’s optimism for the quarterback position, a view he’s shared from the minute the Pinstripe Bowl ended, is for good reason. The Irish are in great shape at the position — even if a two-deep is a little too thin for comfort.

The Running Backs. This trio of backs is probably the strongest we’ve seen since the 2001 trio of Julius Jones, Ryan Grant and Tony Fisher. (Debate below, this is a fun one.) While Greg Bryant’s 51-yard run gets most of our attention, the work Tarean Folston did in the passing game should have Irish fans very happy.

Cam McDaniel only played a cameo on Saturday, scoring an early touchdown while contributing a workman like 3.7 yards per carry. But he came through big with a few catches, including a very nice back-shoulder conversion for a first down.

 

Splitting these touches should be interesting. While McDaniel has earned Kelly’s trust, Folston can do everything well, and has an ability to make defenders miss that doesn’t exist with McDaniel. And as Bryant learns to run with patience until he sees a hole emerge, he’ll demand more and more touches.

Jaylon Smith. Even taking limited snaps, Smith had six tackles. Successfully shifting to the Will linebacker position this spring, Smith has the potential to put up massive numbers in Brian VanGorder’s system.

“He’s in a whole different level in terms of knowledge of our defense. Now he knows it from inside‑out and outside‑in,” Kelly said. “So he can play a number of positions for us. We can move him around, and he has an understanding of how to play this defense both inside‑out and outside‑in and that he had no knowledge of going into the spring. That’s a smart football player, and a guy that now is an asset to our defense in a manner that he never was before.”

The future is now for Smith, who made the game’s most impressive play when he tracked down and stopped Tarean Folston for a minimal gain, even though the running back had the corner on Smith.

RAPID FIRE… 

Nice job, Mike McGlinchey. We didn’t notice you much out there. That’s a very good thing.

Durham Smythe sure looks like he could be a good player. The Texas Longhorns loss is the Irish’s gain. I’m still really intrigued by Mike Heuerman. He’s not big enough, but he’s got the knack of a productive player.

Austin Collinsworth can lead the Irish in tackles all he wants, like he did Saturday. But if he gives up touchdowns like the one he did to C.J. Prosise, who left Collinsworth in his wake, it’s tough athletically to keep him in space.

Speaking of Prosise, that’s the type of game he needs to play more regularly. His touchdown catch and run looked like Golden Tate, only with a lower-half built from a tree trunk. Between Prosise and Amir Carlisle the Irish seem to have answers at the slot receiver position.

Walk-on Austin Larkin is an intriguing player. Taking snaps at inside linebacker until a talented freshman class enters, Larkin will likely get his chance on special teams.

How about that Irish pass rush? A hat trick of (fake) sacks by Romeo Okwara, and youngsters Andrew Trumbetti, Isaac Rochell, and Jacob Matuska getting in on the act. Chase Hounshell also got one, a nice reward for a healthy spring practice.

Welcome back, Elijah Shumate. There are still plenty of people who think he’s capable of being the starter at safety.

 

THE BAD

Call me a glass half full kind of guy, so here’s a rapid fire list:

Not the best day at the office for Kyle Brindza. But Notre Dame’s combo kicker punter is one of the best in the country, and he’ll never have to kick off the Irish turf again.

A few drops: I saw two from Ben Koyack and Chris Brown. Two veterans that can’t be part of the problem, but rather part of the solution.

A tough day at the office for the Irish’s cornerbacks. We didn’t see much of KeiVarae Russell on the field, but we did end up seeing Josh Atkinson, a few times in the wrong light. Jalen Brown was seen chasing as well. (I can’t blame Connor Cavalaris for getting beat long by Corey Robinson. He was actually in good position.)

It’s hard to call the wide receivers’ good day a bad day for the cornerbacks, but the broken coverage on Chris Brown’s big catch up the sideline isn’t a good thing.

Let’s hope Nicky Baratti‘s shoulder injury is nothing serious.

 

THE UGLY?

It was a 70 degree day in South Bend! Other than the shoddy field conditions, there’s not much to complain about.

In lieu of ugly, I will point out one thing that I’m not sure Brian Kelly is getting enough credit for. The sidelines were absolutely covered with former Irish players. Whether they were graduating seniors that were back in South Bend, or recent NFL players like Manti Te’o or Theo Riddick, the culture has certainly changed over the past few seasons.

Young alums weren’t the only monogram winners back on campus. Other (older) ex-players were back, and have continued to come back after some awkward years when Charlie Weis was in charge of the program.

There are some that still criticize Kelly for the way he “understands” Notre Dame and for his dalliance with the NFL after the 2012 season. It’s worth pointing out moments like this that show him in a different light as well.

 

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover