Pregame Six Pack: Finishing spring practice strong

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With the quarterback battle taking center stage, Notre Dame’s spring practice focused on Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Yet Brian Kelly spent this spring making sure his team was improving heading into this September, where the Irish’s high hopes will either live or die.

Saturday afternoon’s spring game is just one of 15 practices leading into next season. But the Blue-Gold game is a rare opportunity for a progress report not just of the high-profile quarterback battle, but for a look at the state of the Irish roster, with each team playing at full strength as the offense battles the defense.

You have viewing options. It’ll be live on NBCSN. It’ll also stream live on NBCSports.com.

With most of our attention this spring stuck on the battle between Golson and Zaire, let’s take a run through the Pregame Six Pack, and take a look at some roster battles that may factor into the equation come September 5.

 

For Jarrett Grace, the hard part is finished. 

Earlier this week, the latest entry of Onward Notre Dame aired on NBCSN, and it featured linebacker Jarrett Grace. We’ve talked about his long road back to the field after a devastating leg injury in 2013. But Grace talks about it himself in some of the finest moments of the half-hour documentary.

On the field, Grace gives the Irish great flexibility at the inside linebacker positions. In the locker room, his return gives Notre Dame another true leader.

See for yourself the battles Grace faced as he fought his way back to the field.

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Blink and you might miss them. But safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate’s progress this spring is critical. 

No, you shouldn’t expect to see a bunch of big plays from Notre Dame’s starting safeties. That’s because with little depth behind Redfield and Shumate, there’s zero reason you’ll see the starting battery at the back of the Irish defense for the whole game. But after a big spring, Brian Kelly is talking like Notre Dame’s safety problems are a thing of the past, and that’d be very good news for Brian VanGorder’s defense.

In Redfield and Shumate, the Irish have two elite athletes to play safety. The two former top recruits are starting in front of a bunch of… well—a lot of question marks.

While Avery Sebastian has been on campus a few times taking notice of the defense, the third safety currently on the roster is a huge step behind the starting duo of Redfield and Shumate. With Nicky Baratti recovering from shoulder surgery and Drue Tranquill being held back because of an ACL surgery he’s recovered quickly from, the Irish depth chart this spring is thin.

So even if we don’t necessarily see the progress on the field on Saturday, the Irish coaching staff thinks the safety position has taken a huge step forward this spring, something that’s crucial to Notre Dame’s success in 2015.

 

What impact has Todd Lyght had over the cornerback play?

While the safety position took the brunt of the criticism, the Irish’s cover game suffered during November’s collapse last year as well. While Cole Luke had a breakout sophomore season, the loss of KeiVarae Russell was badly felt after Cody Riggs began having foot problems.

The battle opposite Luke this spring is one to watch, with rising sophomore Nick Watkins taking on soon-to-be junior Devin Butler. Last November, Butler made some highlight reels for a talented group of opposing wide receivers, not exactly where you want to see your number displayed.

Barring anything crazy, Russell will be back on campus this summer and back in the starting lineup. But while former Pro Bowler and Notre Dame All-American Todd Lyght’s first job was fixing the communication problems at the safety position, infusing some of his knowledge at a cornerback position that needed a confidence booster after a rough November was also on the docket.

The message seems to have been received. Watkins has worked his way even with Butler, the battle for the third cornerback job getting a jumpstart before talented freshman Shaun Crawford hits campus this June. Against a tough opponent—Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps—let’s see if the cover men can hold up.

 

Will we see Mike Sanford’s impact on the offense during the Blue-Gold game? 

Brian Kelly didn’t pull Mike Sanford from Boise State to just run Kelly’s offense. He brought him to shake things up. So while a televised spring game might be heavy on vanilla, it’ll be interesting to see if any of Sanford’s influence shows itself during this afternoon’s contest.

Sanford’s primary work this spring was coaching the quarterbacks. But after the Boise State offense took a journeyman quarterback and scored nearly 40 points a game, hopefully we’ll see some of that rub off in South Bend.

Focus on the running game. Last year, Jay Ajayi was one of college football’s biggest and best work horses. With three backs being shuffled through this spring, it looks like it’ll be an ensemble cast, but the commitment that Sanford showed to the run last season would do the Irish some good.

 

Can C.J. Prosise take a big spring and turn it into a big Blue-Gold game?

Nobody expected C.J. Prosise’s breakout this spring to be at running back. But the Irish might have found a new home run-threat runner at slot receiver.

Of course, fellow slot receiver Amir Carlisle was the former running back, Notre Dame’s starter in the season opener at the position in 2013. But Prosise is looking less like a contingency plan and more like a guy that’s going to play a significant role in the offense.

Kelly talked about getting him 10 carries a game while praising his natural talents at running back. Mike Denbrock called him one of the team’s best offensive players, period. After breaking off a huge 70-plus yard touchdown run last Saturday in the team’s biggest full-contact scrimmage, will we see the same from Prosise this Saturday?

 

What will Jerry Tillery do next?

At this point, what could Jerry Tillery do next to surprise us? Goal line quarterback, beating out Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones in the Irish Chocolate package? The early-enrollee freshman has been the talk of spring, working with the first-unit defense and displaying dominant traits that have many believing the 6-foot-6 defensive tackle is a star in the making.

Brian Kelly spent the early part of spring praising Tillery. Brian VanGorder and new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore have gotten in on it, too. So while they’ve also tried their best to tamp down some of those expectations, it’s too late: At this point, some of us are expecting a hybrid of Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt.

Tillery was set for the offensive line, a spot he’d have likely redshirted at while Ronnie Stanley manned the left tackle position. But with Jarron Jones extremely limited this spring and Sheldon Day held back, Tillery’s move to defense has been critical.

One of Notre Dame’s quirkiest and most interesting freshman—he took an official visit to Dartmouth and participates in recreational triathlons— is also one of the best.

 

In a crowded wide receiving depth chart, will another star rise to match Will Fuller? 

Last year we saw a record-setting season from sophomore Will Fuller. This year, Mike Denbrock’s hoping to find someone else to join him in the bright lights.

Senior Chris Brown seems to be rising to that challenge. After making one of the 2012 season’s best highlights against Oklahoma, Brown’s had just average production since then.

Tools wise, he’s got the ability to be much better than average. The former prep track star has elite speed. He’s got good size at 6-foot-1.5. And if it’s not Brown stepping to the forefront, there are plenty of other candidates.

Corey Robinson has been slowed this spring by nagging injuries, but should advance his game in his third season. Torii Hunter Jr. may have made headlines for moonlighting with the baseball team this spring, but Hunter has made his move on the gridiron, cross-training between the slot and outside positions.

Young freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes have had their chance to get into the depth chart. And if they don’t, freshmen Miles Boykin, Jaylon Guyton, CJ Sanders, and Equanimeous St. Brown plan on making their move come fall.

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?

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“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, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)