Everett Golson, Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Rochell

After chaotic spring, offensive roles can come into focus

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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.

Irish land commitment from blue-chip OL Liam Eichenberg

Rivals
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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.

 

Five things we learned: Gold 36, Blue 34

Malik Zaire, John Turner, Jarrett Grace
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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.

Stream the Blue-Gold game live

Everett Golson
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If you’ve come to the Inside the Irish blog looking to watch the Blue-Gold game, you’ve come to the right place.

You can stream the game live on the NBC Sports Live Extra—NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, and tablets – giving you a HD look at the Irish as they play the 86th annual spring game. It’ll kickoff at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online here.

 

A LINK TO THE GAME IS RIGHT HERE

 

You’ll get live audio from Brian Kelly and interviews from current and former players. It’s all part of live coverage from campus, with NBC’s broadcast booth built temporarily above the LaBar Practice field, giving us a truly unique—and much different—look at the Irish as the offense battles the defense.

 

 

 

Pregame Six Pack: Finishing spring practice strong

William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge
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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.

***

 

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.