Everett Golson

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.

 

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: