Five things we learned: Gold 36, Blue 34

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On a perfect day in South Bend, Notre Dame capped off spring practice with a perfect Blue-Gold game.

No injuries. Productive play from quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. And with Notre Dame Stadium in the middle of a transformative renovation, the LaBar Practice Fields were transformed to house a national broadcast audience and a few thousand fans and a fun scrimmage that ended when fourth-string quarterback Montgomery VanGorder was sacked on a two-point conversion play as the running clock expired.

The late defensive stop gave the victory to the defense, allowing the Gold to storm from behind and win 36-34. While the scoring system still doesn’t make much sense, let’s go over the five things we learned as Notre Dame closed spring football.

 

Malik Zaire made the big plays. But just as important—Everett Golson made the ordinary ones. 

One look at the stat sheet points towards Malik Zaire’s big day and the edge going to the young quarterback. The rising junior ended his day 8-of-14 for 137 yards and two touchdowns, including the throw of the afternoon, a beautiful 68-yard touchdown bomb to Will Fuller.

But for as good as Zaire was making big plays, Golson showed that he could make the ordinary ones, key to the fifth-year senior’s development behind center and the overall health of Notre Dame’s offense.

With playcalling skewed towards Golson running the zone-read game, the veteran quarterback played a clean first half, troubled only when the second-team offensive line was tasked with protecting him. In the first half, Golson completed just half of his 12 passes, but he made all the right decisions, while also showing better fundamentals protecting the football as a runner and showing poise in the pocket.

There’s no doubting Zaire’s playmaking ability. As a runner he was a beast to stop and averaged 10 yards a carry (a number that would’ve been higher had Justin Brent not been called for a holding penalty). But his first throw of the game was terribly ill-advised, a jump ball down the middle of the field nearly intercepted by Matthias Farley. His accuracy on short throws was suspect. But it’s hard to argue with the results, an offense that moved the chains with Zaire behind center.

Now the interesting part begins.

With Golson and Zaire back, you can’t blame Brian Kelly for honestly thinking his top-two behind center are better than any in the country, Ohio State included. But that only works if both quarterbacks are back. With Golson looking the part of a quarterback not going anywhere but the starting lineup, the Irish will enter 2015 with two quarterbacks worth of starting.

Football cliches tell us that’s a bad thing. But Notre Dame’s head coach, offensive coordinator and anybody else inside the program will tell you much differently.

 

Notre Dame’s offensive line will be the strength of the team. And likely will help form the offense’s identity. 

Harry Hiestand has spent the last few years cherry-picking top offensive line talent on the recruiting trail. That showed itself on Saturday, with the first-team offensive line dominant against the Irish defense.

The offensive line looked like the top overall unit on the roster. With bookends like future first-rounder Ronnie Stanley and road-grader Mike McGlinchey, the Irish have two people movers who can hold up on the edge. While Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson still mix and match at left guard, whoever ends up joining Nick Martin and Steve Elmer on the interior will be a part of the best Irish offensive line in recent memory.

With Golson playing with the starting offensive line, the Irish only threw the ball twice on their first two possessions—the running game doing the rest. Whether it was a quarterback keeper or C.J. Prosise, Greg Bryant or Tarean Folston in the backfield, the identity of the Irish offense—at least on this Saturday—looked closer to the unit that went toe-to-toe with LSU, not the pass happy finesse group we saw at times in 2014.

While Mike Sanford praised the second-team and depth behind the starters last week, that group was a work in progress. Hunter Bivin struggled at tackle and Sam Mustipher didn’t have a clean game snapping the football. But Hiestand’s starting group looked the part of an elite unit on Saturday, ready to move into 2015 as one of the nation’s premier units.

 

CJ Prosise looks natural as a running back. 

We wondered if the C.J. Prosise we heard so much about this spring would show up during the Blue-Gold game. While he didn’t take a touchdown the distance, he was easily Notre Dame’s most dynamic runner.

Prosise led the Irish in rushing, his 12 carries going for 64 yards. Just as important, he looked natural running both inside and out, the only big shot taken in the backfield after Zaire carried out a long fake that left Prosise in a collision with linebacker Greer Martini.

After opening spring as an experimental running back, Prosise closed the 15 practices as a legitimate weapon in the backfield.

As the fourth quarter rolled on, Kelly talked with Dan Hicks and Doug Flutie about just how impressive Prosise has been this spring.

“He’s got electric speed. The thing that showed to me, was the way he put his pads down on the sideline,” Kelly said. “He’ll run over you as well. He not only has that great speed, he has instincts he has toughness, he was a real find for us this spring.”

After the game, Kelly was more succinct. “He’s a guy that you’re gonna fear.”

While the Irish will welcome freshmen backs Dexter Williams and Josh Adams this summer, the most dynamic newcomer at running back was the guy who led the Irish in yards per catch last season as a slot receiver.

 

Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate looked the part of established safeties, a very good sign for the Irish defense. 

Bunched near the top of the stat sheet for the Irish defense, Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate statistically validated what we’d been hearing all spring. Namely, you’d notice this duo. And not for the wrong reasons.

After seeing both safeties nearly banished to the doghouse late last season, Redfield and Shumate looked rock solid at safety for the defense on Saturday. Both were active, combining for 11 tackles. Redfield even spoiled the game’s biggest trick play, going up and intercepting Everett Golson’s long-bomb aimed at fellow quarterback Malik Zaire.

“Max Redfield continues to show why he’s going to be a big player for us defensively,” Kelly said after the game.

Without any broken coverages or communication breakdowns, the two most important players at one of the roster’s thinnest positions held their own on Saturday. That cements a big spring at a safety position that’s key to the Irish’s success.

 

Entering his sixth season guiding the program, Notre Dame’s depth is as good as it’s been in the last 20 years. 

Brian Kelly hasn’t spent six years at a football program since he was at Grand Valley State. And after moving quickly from Central Michigan and Cincinnati, Kelly’s extended time in South Bend has allowed him to build a roster deeper than any we’ve seen since Lou Holtz was roaming the sidelines.

With Notre Dame bumping up against the 85-man scholarship limit, we got a rare look at a stacked depth chart in the Blue-Gold game, usually fielding teams patched together by walk-ons and players performing double-duty along the offensive line.

At linebacker, returning MVP Joe Schmidt watched rising sophomore Nyles Morgan display ridiculous athleticism while he also cheered for roommate Jarrett Grace. After having no answers last spring at inside linebacker, the Irish are stacked with them.

Morgan ran with slot receiver Amir Carlisle on a jet sweep and then held his own in coverage on a go-route against running back Greg Bryant. That as a 237-pound linebacker who had just tweaked his ankle and needed it re-taped. Paired with All-American Jaylon Smith and converted wide receiver James Onwualu, there won’t be many better or more athletic starting lineups in America.  Depth will also be a strength. Greer Martini was productive. So was freshman Te’Von Coney, who made four tackles.

Along the defensive line, Jerry Tillery looked the part of a star-in-the-making, while other youngsters like Jay Hayes, Grant Blankenship, Andrew Trumbetti and Jhonny Williams were all over the field. That let Jarron Jones get healthy and Sheldon Day play just a cameo this afternoon, keeping the nucleus of the front four healthy.

At wide receiver, youngsters Corey Holmes and Justin Brent made big plays, forcing their way into the conversation after spending most of last season on the sidelines. We saw the depth (albeit unestablished) at tight end where Nic Weishar made a big catch at the end of the game and Tyler Luatua played big minutes as well.

And after years of seeing walk-on quarterbacks take significant snaps in the Blue-Gold game, Deshone Kizer got plenty of work in the second half, his last before incoming freshman Brandon Wimbush joins the quarterback room.

Expectations are sky high for 2015, just one calendar year after watching a hot start turn into a nightmare November. While Golson’s status still remains up in the air, what’s set in stone is a football team with enough talent to accomplish anything.

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)