The good, the bad and the ugly: The 86th annual Blue-Gold game

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And spring games are always a double-edged sword.

A great run by a running back? (What kind of tackling was that?) Dominant play by the offensive line? (Start the worries about the defensive front.)

Watching the Blue-Gold game from 30,000 feet, it’s hard not to see a football team that’s among the deepest and most talented of the last 20-plus years. We saw two quarterbacks that can move the offense by various modes of transportation. We saw Will Fuller look like an All-American. Three running backs with skill to burn running behind a rugged offensive front.

Defensively, the depth and speed of the unit looks much different than the one that couldn’t stop Northwestern. Jaylon Smith and Nyles Morgan ran sideline to sideline while the young talent along the defensive line looked far from the group that spent last November on roller skates.

Sure, there are worries. When Brian VanGorder’s defensive front put just one linebacker in the box the results weren’t much better than the last time we saw this defense without Joe Schmidt. And when the Irish offense wanted to run the ball early in the scrimmage they faced little opposition, marching down the field to open the game twice without much trouble.

Let’s go back through the Blue-Gold game, as we run through the defense’s (somewhat manipulated) 36-34 victory.

 

THE GOOD

 

Nobody got hurt. That Brian Kelly made both of his quarterbacks live in the first half and lived to tell about it is a very good thing. Because if anything happened to either Everett Golson or Malik Zaire during the spring game, Kelly would’ve had to answer some very difficult—and fair—questions.

Keeping both quarterbacks in play for the first half made sense, especially if they were both going to be running heavy doses of zone read. But talk to people outside the Notre Dame bubble and watch the eyebrows raise when you explain that the Irish head coach was going to let his defense hit, tackle and sack his two-headed quarterback monster.

Make no mistake, Kelly was gambling. And it paid off. The closest thing to an injury looked to come when Nyles Morgan tweaked his ankle early in the game’s opening drive. But he was back on the field chasing offensive players in no time.

Notre Dame fans are prepared for the worst, perhaps still cringing from Ron Powlus’ broken collarbone in the practices leading up to the 1993 season. But avoiding any major injury this spring is by far the best news of the offseason.

 

C.J. Prosise. If you’re looking for the best example of Brian Kelly recharging his program with competition, look no further than Prosise’s performance this spring. We spent so much time talking about the quarterbacks that the two-headed running back position just took a charge from the team’s starting slot receiver, solidifying Kelly’s mantra that the best eleven players will play.

“I think as we continue to move forward, he’ll get every opportunity to take over a starting position, whether it’s at wide receiver or whether it’s at running back,” Kelly said. “So I’m going to play the eleven best players, and whoever the eleven best players are are going to be on the field. So I’m not going to paint him into any particular position or category. If he’s the best running back, he’s going to start. If he’s the best wide receiver, he’s going to start.”

All three backs played well. But Prosise’s speed was a difference-maker and the type of spark you want to see from the Irish offense.

 

The Offensive Line. Notre Dame’s starting five bullied the Irish defensive front early in the game, converting a 3rd-and-4 after Steve Elmer started the game with a false start and not stopping until they scored multiple touchdowns.

While there were some struggles on the edge with Hunter Bivin at left tackle and some rough snaps from second-team center John Montelus, Kelly was complimentary of the position group that’ll be the heart of the 2015 team.

“I think for me it was pretty clear that we’ve got a very good offensive line,” Kelly said. “They’re going to be able to control the line of scrimmage in most instances and we’ll continue to go to our strength, which we believe is up front.”

Ronnie Stanley looked the part. Nick Martin was at home at center. Mike McGlinchey and Steve Elmer paired with Quenton Nelson (and Alex Bars) to form a great nucleus, backed up by a strong group that Kelly believes is as talented as any he’s coached.

“I think it’s the deepest,” Kelly said, when asked to compare this line to others he’s coached. “So I think you probably go 7, 8 is really the difference here. And I thought what was really revealing to me today is that when the quarterbacks flipped, it was hard to tell whether it was the first offensive line or the second offensive line. Usually you know when the second offensive line is in there.”

 

The Young Receivers. Justin Brent got noticed for something he did on the field, a much different start to his second season in the program than last year. And Corey Holmes showed off a pair of hands that’ll show themselves to be quite useful in 2015 if he can get on the field.

Torii Hunter Jr. took a big hit after snaring a great throw from Everett Golson. Putting that trio with the established group of Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle gives the Irish plenty of depth, before getting to C.J. Prosise… and a talented group of incoming freshmen.

Kelly talked about the plays made by the young receivers as being a big piece of Saturday’s success.

“I was pleased that some of the younger receivers caught the ball. Corey Holmes caught the ball when he needed to. Justin Brent caught the ball when he needed to. I was pleased there,” Kelly said.

 

Max Redfield & Elijah Shumate. Sure, Brian Kelly tipped off Redfield that “The Inebriated Irishman” was coming, giving the safety a jump-start on Golson’s long heave to Zaire that Redfield turned into a momentum changer. But Redfield looked like a coach running the back of the Irish defense, a change from the confused kid on the backend doing his best not to get lost.

Paired with Elijah Shumate, the starting safety duo was rock solid, with Shumate looking strong tackling inside the box and at home in space. Kelly went out of his way to tip his cap to the work Redfield did this spring, one of the main defensive objectives heading into the offseason work.

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

 

Quick Hits:

* Quarterback Mechanics: Score a big point for Mike Sanford, as he’s cleaned up the mechanics of the zone-read footwork that we saw clearly during the broadcast. Golson kept his depth in the backfield much better, and the drop-step he used seemed to keep his eyes looking at the defense much better.

* Greg Bryant: He didn’t steal headlines like he did last spring with a big play, but Bryant ran decisively and downhill, moving the pile early and catching the ball as well. Don’t forget about him this fall.

* James Onwualu: Another guy you might be counting out, Onwualu made a nice TFL and fit in just fine inside the Irish’s starting defense.

* Jerry Tillery: At the point of attack on 3rd-and-Goal, Tillery made a nice play keeping the Irish offense out of the backfield.

* Really liked the hands by Corey Holmes and Justin Brent. Good to see them both make big plays.

* Don’t feel bad, Nick Watkins. You won’t be the only DB to get beat 1-on-1 by Will Fuller this season. I think Watkins is Notre Dame’s No. 3 cornerback, with Shaun Crawford at No. 4 and Devin Butler a very good option at No. 5.

But that assumes KeiVarae Russell returns as Batman and Cole Luke plays Robin.

* Greer Martini continues to be a productive football player. I like when he’s on the field—especially when he planted Prosise on the zone-read fake.

* So it only took DeShone Kizer to solve the holder issues. Kudos to Tyler Newsome for making the extra points, too. Now about that punting…

* It’s tough to look much better running the football as a quarterback than Malik Zaire. The combination of natural running skills and sheer power are a handful.

* Saying that about Zaire, I really thought Everett Golson looked more in control of the offense. I want to see them both play a lot next year.

* A tip of the cap to the NBC Production Team and Notre Dame’s Game Day Operations crew. That was no small feat making this game happen—and televising it no less—and it was hardly noticeable that anything was out of the ordinary on Saturday.

 

THE BAD

Consider this one big cop-out, but I just didn’t see anything that had me overly worried. So let’s just lump these together and run through it.

* What happens at left tackle if Ronnie Stanley goes down? I’m not sure Hunter Bivin is the answer, so you might see Alex Bars as the sixth man along the offensive line.

* If Malik Zaire wants to win the starting QB job, he can’t make the throw he did to open the scrimmage. That’ll get him standing on the sideline mighty quick. Bad, bad decision there.

* I’m not convinced that Notre Dame’s defensive line is ready for primetime. Mostly at defensive end, though the early push up front was lacking as well. But I’m reserving judgment until I see Jarron Jones lineup up next to Sheldon Day. Then depth players like Tillery, Daniel CageJay Hayes and a healthy Jon Bonner will be able to serve as reinforcements, not leading men.

Put the duo of Jones and Day between Isaac Rochell and either Andrew Trumbetti or Romeo Okwara and I’ll likely say something different. But will somebody rush the passer from this group?

* When I see people whose opinion on Notre Dame football start to discuss Joe Schmidt‘s place in this defense, I start to wonder if they’ve been eating paint chips.

Schmidt is a starter on this defense. Period. Whether that’s at Will or Mike, that’s still up for debate. But I just don’t see Jaylon Smith coming off the field, especially as the Irish look for a pass rusher. That could be Smith’s job moving forward.

From there, I’m not 100 percent sure that Nyles Morgan can captain the ship without a sturdy co-pilot like Schmidt. And Jarrett Grace‘s recovery doesn’t sound fully complete, making him more likely to play a role like Ben Councell did last season rather than a true starting spot.

Here’s Kelly talking about the linebackers after the spring game, specifically where Smith lines up.

“The different sub-packages will determine where [Smith’s] playing, and we feel like we’re in a position now when we’re in our base defense, he’ll be inside. When we get into some of our sub-packages, we can choose where he plays. He can be on the outside, he can be on the inside depending on what we want to do. I think we’ve firmly established that we can move him around. He becomes a player now after this spring that within our sub-packages we can move him inside or outside, that’s pretty clear.

“Jarrett Grace has established himself as a middle linebacker that can come in and help us in a number of different situations. He’s smart, he gets guys lined up, he gets himself lined up and he can play. Nyles Morgan continues to get better and better, and Joe Schmidt now is going to get a chance now to probably play both Mike and Will. So just gives us more depth at those positions where at times you know last year we were really thin.”

Kelly talked about opponents being able to take Smith out of the game last year by running away from him. By the end of the season, they were taking his speed away by running right at him, not necessarily the traits you want from a Will linebacker.

 

THE UGLY

When we’re taking the time to talk about Brian Kelly’s facial hair, you know we’re out of things to talk about. But BK’s a better candidate for the clean-shaven look, especially as he goes out on the talking tour these next few months.

Adios, goatee.

 

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

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.