Talking through the Blue-Gold game

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With the Blue-Gold game set for Saturday afternoon on NBCSN, spring practice comes to an end with a rare opportunity to see Notre Dame faceoff against itself in a live scrimmage.

As Everett Golson and Malik Zaire go live against Brian VanGorder’s defense, we’ll get to see what 15 practices working with Mike Sanford looks like, as the offensive triumvirate of Sanford, Mike Denbrock and Brian Kelly figures itself out.

There’s so much to talk about as spring comes to a close. So I tracked down JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago and we talked a little spring game.

KA: What was your initial reaction to QBs being live? I’m trying to think back to the last time that’s happened. Ever?

JJ: I can’t remember QBs being live in a spring game, though my knowledge is limited to my time at Mizzou and the last four years with ND. They’ve been having Golson/Zaire be live during scrimmages this spring, and since this is a glorified scrimmage, it makes sense.

KA: Still, it’s a looong way removed from the hope-and-pray, don’t get within 10 feet of a red-jersey’d Dayne Crist. To that point — going live, and being televised. How vanilla do you expect the offense to be?

JJ: They usually go vanilla in these — no need to showcase anything Texas could pick up on. That being said, definitely watching for Golson’s ball security when he does take off and Zaire’s accuracy. Mike Sanford said earlier this week he’s worked with Zaire on tightening up his base when throwing, which should make him more accurate.

KA: After seeing Zaire out-play Golson last year in the spring game, what’s realistic to expect out of this game? Do you think their performance will weigh heavily on ultimately determining who the starter is versus Texas?

JJ: It’s just one practice, so no, I don’t think it’ll carry extra weight. Kelly made mention of it today — Golson hasn’t had a good spring game since he’s been here, while Zaire has had two good ones. Obviously, that hasn’t really changed either player’s standing.

KA: I also think this will be the first time where you can actually go apples to apples with Zaire and Golson. To be fair to Everett, he was facing blitzes and defensive schemes last year. Zaire’s big numbers came when he likely would’ve been sacked (on one throw) and against a really vanilla defense.

Moving away from QB — any position groups or battles interest you? I’ll throw one at you: The pass rushing DE spot, with a group led by Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.

JJ: I’m interested to see just how much blitzing BVG’s group does given it’s just the spring game. But on the pass rush — it’s going to be a collective effort, and there isn’t going to be a Stephon Tuitt type racking up sack after sack. Okwara’s a great answer to the trivia question: Who led Notre Dame in sacks last year?

Easy to forget he led the team with 4. How about the safeties? What are you looking for from Redfield and Shumate?

KA: And it’s the lowest grand total for a sack leader since Ethan Johnson in the long-hoped forgotten Tenuta years. As for the safety duo, I’d just like to see some general competence. I’m being honest with what we’re going to see — I just don’t think it’s going to be anything close to what we’ll (hopefully) see in the fall, and I don’t know why Redfield or Shumate should get more than a cameo. You absolutely don’t want those two getting hurt, as they’re plan A, B and C at the position.

JJ: Yep. They’ve been the subjects of awfully high praise from Brian Kelly & Brian VanGorder this spring. We’ll get an extended look on Saturday to see how worthy of it they are.
KA: What do you make of that praise? Is it closer to “Kona Schwenke has pulled even with Louis Nix this spring” or is it legit — a la Joe Schmidt last spring?

JJ: I’d wager it’s somewhere in the middle. On one hand, BK & Co. don’t want to risk ruining their confidence by publicly challenging them (like he has with Justin Brent), but on the other hand…Redfield was a five-star recruit and Shumate a four-star. They’re talented players who, if they can ever figure out the communication aspect of the position, can be a strong duo. And according to the coaches, they’re figuring out that communication.

KA: I think they’re both going to be very good players. I just think the light comes on a little later for safeties, and luckily for this duo that they haven’t been pushed by any young talent, as it’s literally not on campus yet.

What do you expect to see out of C.J. Prosise this Saturday? A dark horse RB candidate continue to emerge?

JJ: He’s the guy I’m most interested in watching. He ripped off a 75-yard run during the scrimmage we watched last Saturday and Mike Denbrock said Monday he’s “as good a player as we’ve got on the offensive football team right now.” I’m not sure he’s quite up to the Theo Riddick comparisons, because Riddick was as tough a runner as you’ll find, but he could be a sneaky good weapon that’s awfully tough to cover this fall.

After all, Prosise did lead Notre Dame in explosive plays last year. (More trivia!)

KA: ND’s leading rusher (YPC) and receiver (YPC)!

I tend to think he’s going to be a lot more explosive than Theo, who basically just got Reggie Bush tossed from Detroit — take that Bush Push! But think about what Prosise’s numbers would’ve been if he hadn’t dropped that 60-yard TD against Rice early in the game?
Is Prosise the Percy Harvin this offense — or ND fans — have been coveting from this offense? If I’m patting myself on the back for my Will Fuller is going to explode call (had him going for 1,000 yards) then Prosise is my guy this year, though I feel like I’m not alone.

JJ: I don’t think we can crown him Percy Harvin — the former No. 1 recruit in the country — but he’s a guy who has really good vision and quickness with the ball in his hands. Should Notre Dame have thrown to him three times with the game on the line at FSU? Prooooobably not. But he’s a guy who can really be a factor between the 20’s.

KA: Good point. I had forgotten that happened.

So let’s stay on Red Zone to wrap this up.

If we’re being honest with ourselves — or are reading between the lines, especially from Mike Denbrock’s comments this spring — I feel like we can kind of guess how this offense is coming together. Golson will be the guy asked to carry the passing game. Zaire will be the guy asked to punch it in or keep the running/power game moving, with the option to hit the home run throw over the top. Are you on the same page?

JJ: If both quarterbacks are still here on Sept. 5, yeah. So in this scenario, Golson is the starter and Zaire subs in for goal line spots where he can read-option opposing defenses to death.

JJ: I do wonder if going with Golson carries more risk than Zaire, though. There’s gotta be the allure of “if we can cut his TOs in half, we have a Heisman candidate” with Golson, but with Zaire, you operate a run-based offense that doesn’t turn the ball over much but maybe isn’t as dynamic as one led by Golson. It’s not an easy call.

KA: Doesn’t that depend on what type of defense ND is going to field?

JJ: Absolutely.

KA: For all the credit Zaire got for the LSU win — and he deserved it — it was Golson on the field driving the Irish for the win at the end and the D on the field turning Leonard Fournette into Techmo Bowl Bo Jackson

JJ: Yep. Going conservative on offense would put a lot of pressure on a defense that was awfully flawed last year. The defense will be better with so many guys returning and better depth, but how much better?

KA: I think the D is going to be closer to the first-half unit than the second-half one, though. Personnel is just too talented.

KA: The best I saw this defense play was the first half of the Florida State game. Bottle that up and figure out how to get that on the field for 12 regular season games and it’s a great unit (plus, adding KeiVarae Russell will be a nice luxury).

KA: Okay, some quick ones about Saturday:

Offensive MVP?

JJ: Tarean Folston.

KA: I’m going with Everett Golson.

Defensive MVP?

JJ: Is it a cop-out if I say Jaylon Smith?

KA: If you think he’s playing for more than one series, no cop-out.

JJ: valid point.

KA: I’m at the same position — but going with Greer Martini.

JJ: I’ll go with Isaac Rochell then.

KA: Victor: Offense or Defense?

JJ: /flips coin…

Offense.

(The spring game is brought to you by Whose Line Is It Anyway, where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.)

KA: I agree — Offense it is, based mostly on the strength of the 2nd string OL, who dominate the second half.

We’ll close with this: Spring football is over, and it was one of the most highly anticipated since the 4-way QB battle leading up to the 2012 season. Did it live up to your expectations?

JJ: My expectation was that there wouldn’t be much clarity on the QB situation emanating from the Gug by Saturday…so yeah, it lived up to that. If I had to bet, Golson starts Sept. 5 against Texas, but get back to me in August on that one.

KA: Feeling the same way. But credit Mike Brey for helping BK keep the QBs off the national radar.

JJ: Who would’ve thought basketball could ever take precedence over football at Notre Dame, even if only for a week or two?

KA: It sure was fun. They managed to get me to watch college basketball. The surprise of the spring.

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?