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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.
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.
* 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.
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 Cage, Jay 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.
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.
Spring practice is in the books. The Blue-Gold game is history. (Not here, we’ll talk about that thing all week…)
So after a frantic few months in the Gug, the focus of Notre Dame’s rebuilt offensive staff can change from planning practices to… planning—well, just about everything.
Brian Kelly‘s three-headed monster atop the offensive meeting room can stop and breathe for a bit. With new OC and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford still unpacking his things in South Bend, the man charged with turning the room upside down can now go about officially finding his place in a room that’s likely—and understandably—plenty cluttered right now.
The 2015 calendar year has been a whirlwind for Sanford. A new job, a new son, a new house in a new city—not to mention learning a new offense.
So while we’ve spent most of our time wondering about playcalling duties next fall and Mike Denbrock‘s role in the offense now that he’s associate head coach, Kelly spent some time after the Blue-Gold game clarifying how things will look moving forward, pumping the brakes on any official gameday duties with over four months before the Irish take their next meaningful snap.
“I said this I think when we were here [introducing Sanford], that his focus right now is we’ve got two very, very good quarterbacks,” Kelly explained on Saturday. “His focus is on our quarterbacks right now and learning the offense and that’s job one. The next job will be obviously continue to grow and learn the offense so there’s play calling opportunities there. Mike Denbrock right now is running the entire offense. Those are his calls and his decisions to make.”
For some, that news is a shocker and feels a little bit like walking back on the bold declarations both Kelly and Denbrock made after Sanford’s move to South Bend became official. But logistically, the objectives of the spring and where Notre Dame’s offense needs to be next fall are two incredibly different things. So credit Kelly (not to mention Sanford and Denbrock) for understanding that and getting the entire offensive staff and personnel to buy in.
Job one for Sanford was the most important one of any staff member working for Kelly: Engaging both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Make them both believe they could and should win the starting job, while also making them better quarterbacks.
We heard about the lengths Sanford went to do that, grading and breaking down every practice snap. We also saw some of that progress on Saturday from both quarterbacks.
Golson displayed much better technique in the zone-read game with vastly-improved footwork and depth in the pocket while also protecting the ball as a runner. He made quick decisions and some solid throws moving the chains. After a head-scratching opening throw by Zaire, the challenger did all you could ask of him, dropping a dime on a perfect deep throw to Will Fuller while carrying the load as a runner and ball carrier.
Just as important, after 15 practices, you have to feel like the odds of both Golson and Zaire spending next season as Notre Dame quarterbacks got considerably better, Task A, B and C for Sanford if we’re being honest about spring’s true objectives.
“Mike [Sanford] really is somebody capable of doing all of those things, but not at this time. His focus right now is working with the quarterbacks. And so when we put a timetable on it, right now I’m more ready to be the play caller until all these guys are in a position where they can take more of a role offensively. That’s just a matter of where we are right now because most of Mike’s time has been developing the quarterbacks.”
Sanford’s got four months to learn the offense and settle into his role—whatever that may be on Saturday. Until then, it was all about making sure both Golson and Zaire improved.
In their first televised dress rehearsal, things went well. On a Saturday where Alabama’s offense turned the ball over six times in their spring game, the Irish’s only turnover came when Kelly told safety Max Redfield the play in advance.
So settle in, coaches. Because come Texas on September 5, that’s when things will start counting.
While the Blue-Gold game captured most of the headlines this weekend, the biggest victory for Brian Kelly was over Urban Meyer on the recruiting trail. On Sunday, touted Ohio offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg committed to the Irish, just hours after leaving an unofficial visit to Columbus.
In Eichenberg, some believe the Irish have one of the country’s top players. 247 Sports views him as the No. 17 overall player in the country. While Rivals’ current evaluations only have him a 3-star talent, Eichenberg has an elite offer list, choosing Notre Dame over programs like Alabama, Florida State, Michigan and Miami.
The Cleveland, St. Ignatius product took to Twitter to announce his decision:
Eichenberg is another big recruiting victory for Harry Hiestand, who out-dueled Meyer and offensive line coach Ed Warinner for Eichenberg—one of the state of Ohio’s top offensive linemen. Notre Dame already has Ohio’s No. 1 lineman in the fold, tackle Tommy Kraemer, and Eichenberg turned down a serious recruiting pitch from Meyer this weekend to decide to spend his next four years in South Bend not Columbus.
Kelly made the news unofficially official via Twitter, putting an exclamation point on a weekend that showcased the Irish’s strength along the offensive line. That style of play and coaching from Hiestand, was a big part of Eichenberg deciding to commit to Notre Dame, according to Tom Loy of Irish 247.
“I’d say Coach Hiestand played a large part,” Eichenberg told Irish 247. “Along with him being a great coach and having many years of experience, he truly cares about his players. He knows what it takes to become the best offensive lineman.
“He didn’t annoy me or direct message me [on Twitter] every day. We just talked every other week and sometimes he would come visit me at school. The hand written letters honestly meant a lot more than some people may know. Thinking about having the opportunity to play for a coach who sculpted Zack Martin gives me chills.”
Eichenberg is a key building block as the Irish look to reload along the offensive line this recruiting cycle. He’s Notre Dame’s sixth commitment in the 2016 class.
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.