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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…)

Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators

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You didn’t hear? Notre Dame plays Notre Dame tomorrow. Here, let’s make this easy.

WHO? Notre Dame’s first-string offense against its first-string defense, and the Irish second-string defense against the second-string offense.
WHAT? It’s called the Blue-Gold Game, but there are two flaws to that title. One team will be wearing white, not gold, and while it is structured as a game, it is really nothing more than the 15th and final spring practice.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 22, 2017 A.D. Yes, I am worried you might mistake this as occurring more than 2,000 years before the time of Christ.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you can’t make it there, tune in to NBC Sports Network.
HOW? Oh, not going to be at a TV? NBC still has you covered at this link: ndstream.nbcsports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

With those essentials out of the way, let’s pull a few quotes from this morning when new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko addressed the media. Hopefully, these might provide some general context for what to learn from tomorrow.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

Elko on how much of his defense he has successfully installed this spring:
“We’ve gotten close to 50 percent of all of it up and running. We’ve spent a lot of time defending this offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward. That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve has to come.”

Elko on the most notable defensive improvements:
“We’re disrupting the football better. We’re leveraging the football better. We’re playing harder.”

Elko on what fans should look for from the Notre Dame defense Saturday:
“I hope they see a defense that is flying around. I hope they see a defense that is disrupting the football. I hope they see a defense that has their eyes in the right spot and is executing at a high level. All those things that we’re preaching aren’t going to change tomorrow. It’s not going to be different. It’s not going to be different when we line up against Temple.” (more…)

Four defensive positions to watch in Notre Dame spring game

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Entering spring, question marks riddled Notre Dame’s defense. What is a rover? Who will play on the defensive line? Do the Irish have enough big bodies to fill the defensive line? What about athletes at safety?

Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network on the NBC Sports App) will provide fans a glimpse at some of those possible answers.

What four defensive players/positions should fans be most focused on? Let’s start with that much-discussed, about-to-finally-be-seen rover position, a focal point in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.

ROVER: Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal
The lessons learned here this weekend should be applied more to the position than to the individual players. Senior Drue Tranquill and junior Asmar Bilal will both contribute at the safety-linebacker hybrid position, though it increasingly sounds like it is more linebacker than safety.

Theoretically, the rover provides the defense additional flexibility when compared to a traditional linebacker. Tranquill, for example, is plenty well-built at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, but he still provides better coverage abilities than a third linebacker such as junior Te’von Coney might. Bilal, at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, offers a bit better coverage option than a Coney or sophomore linebacker Jonathan Jones would, and much better run-stopping tendencies than a safety such as sophomore Devin Studstill’s. At least, that is the theory.

In practice, what will the rover’s primary assignments be? Admittedly, this may change on a week-to-week basis depending on an opponent’s strengths, but Notre Dame’s offense should present many looks and opportunities for Tranquill and Bilal to showcase the position’s unique nature. When the Irish offense trots out three receivers and a tight end like graduate student Durham Smythe, the rover will need to either cover Smythe, sophomore “slot” receiver Chase Claypool or account for the possibility of a running back coming out of the backfield. One way or another, the rover will be tested.

In that hypothetical, it is more likely one of the senior linebackers—captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini—covers the running back, leaving the unenviable option of Claypool or Smythe (or any one of Notre Dame’s other tight end options) for the rover.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow

For the sake of sample size, hopefully the Irish coaching staff puts one of the two in blue and the other in white, rather than symbolically designating them as 1A and 1B by keeping both in white. That roster alignment—usually seen as an “OR” on the depth chart in the fall—may be more accurate, but it would be more worthwhile to see a full set of snaps from each. Especially considering how Kelly has touted Bilal as the likely option against run-based teams, perhaps placing him on the second-unit defense this weekend could present a worthwhile experience, facing a solid backup offensive line blocking for either junior Dexter Williams or sophomore Tony Jones.

DEFENSIVE END DAELIN HAYES
Yes, the sophomore gets his own entry on this list looking at four positions. He has, after all, seemingly secured a starting position as the rush-side/weakside defensive end. Throughout the spring, only praise has followed Hayes’ name when mentioned by Kelly or any other coach, but they also caution with discussion of his need to understand more fundamentals. (more…)

Kelly on Blue-Gold Game format and expectations, physical WRs and more Notre Dame construction

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The annual spring Blue-White Game just doesn’t have the same ring to it as Blue-Gold Game, does it?

Whatever the colors may be, Saturday’s final spring practice will feature a scrimmage of Notre Dame’s first-string offense (in blue) versus its first-string defense (in white) and the second-string defense against the second-string offense, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. Rather than an arcane scoring system, it will simply be a game, though quarterbacks and special teams will not be exposed to contact.

“This will be an extremely competitive situation with the ones going against the ones,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s 13th spring practice Wednesday.

Just like blue-and-white may not sound as catchy as blue-and-gold, Kelly will be looking past the individual performances many fans might focus on beginning with the 12:30 p.m. ET kickoff. (Watch on NBCSN or the NBC Sports App)

“We’re not playing Temple this weekend, so really continuing to stick to the process for our players, talking to them after practice, making sure that they finish strong,” Kelly said of his primary concerns for the weekend. “We started well three months ago. I want to finish strong, and when I say finish strong, it’s really not about production in the game. It’s about the process, so I want to make sure that, for example, there’s an attention to detail with all the position groups. Now that they’re in a competitive situation, that they raise their level of focus.”

Though its time may be limited due to NCAA practice regulations and the crowd only about 30 percent of what it will be when the Irish face Temple on Sept. 2, Kelly expects his team to treat the scrimmage much like a game.

“[I want to make sure] that they’re a gritty team, that they keep fighting, that there’s no quit in this team, no matter what the circumstances are, even though it’s a Blue-Gold Game,” Kelly said.

“It’s more about the process. That’s really important at this moment, more so than what [junior quarterback Brandon] Wimbush’s numbers are or how many carries a guy gets and what his yardage is. I’m not really into the production as much as what’s really important right now, that they continue to stay on course relative to the process.”

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

One thing both Kelly and the fans may be intrigued by will be the receiver alignments. Kelly expects the three starting receivers to be juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin, and sophomore Chase Claypool. The emerging consistency of the latter two provides Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chip Long increased flexibility. (more…)

Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

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Inevitably, Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game’s most exciting moments will come when a young receiver breaks loose for a long touchdown or an unproven defensive lineman makes plays in the offensive backfield on consecutive snaps. Those will be the tidbits fans take with them to nurture their optimism over the spring.

The more informative aspects of the final spring practice, however, will be whatever can be gleaned from the offensive and defensive schemes. With a new defensive coordinator focused on turnovers and a new offensive coordinator preaching tempo, the Blue-Gold Game will offer the best looks yet at how those concepts have taken hold.

Following the spring’s 13th practice Wednesday, Irish coach Brian Kelly said defensive coordinator Mike Elko had successfully installed his base defense.

That base defense’s success will hinge on its ability to create turnovers. Should the Irish offense commit a few in the weekend exhibition, it may be considered as much a positive sign regarding the defense’s growth as a negative indicator of the offense’s sloppiness.

“The most important thing is the scheme in itself is the fundamentals of football,” Kelly said April 7 of Elko’s approach. “Being in the right place to be timely in taking the football away. It’s being in the right gap. All the fundamentals that we’re talking about that we lacked at times.”

Saturday’s pseudo-game environment should present a good evaluation of those fundamentals. While it will fall short of the pressure of playing in front of a sellout crowd in September, it will certainly provide more of an atmosphere than any of spring’s practices have. Especially with an inexperienced defensive line facing Notre Dame’s rather experienced offensive line, the ability or inability of the former unit to hold its own within the new scheme will be far more projectable intel than sophomore Daelin Hayes’ individual performance.

“We’re going to be a smarter, more disciplined football team. That, I think, is going to put us in position to be schematically a better football team,” Kelly said. “Without having to create and be exotic, we can be a football team that takes the football away and is a better football team because we’re just fundamentally in a really good position each and every snap.”

HOW DOES THE OFFENSE HANDLE ITS OWN TEMPO?
On the other side, offensive coordinator Chip Long’s greatest influence on the scheme may be its pacing. Though largely operating within Kelly’s playbook, Long intends to expedite the Irish tempo.

Long coached under Todd Graham at Arizona State from 2012 to 2015. Presumably, he carried forward some of Graham’s philosophy from those four seasons. Earlier this month, Graham expressed some dismay about how many teams utilize fast-paced play.

“I think a lot of people nowadays might as well huddle up,” the Arizona State head coach said on the Associated Press Top 25 podcast. “All they’re doing is just [tempo for the sake of tempo]. We’re not that. We want to push the pace, but there’s a way you do that. You don’t just hurry up. You have to manage tempo. I’m talking about managing snaps.”

Graham then turned to some numbers which could be useful in gauging Notre Dame’s success with a quicker-paced scheme.

“If you turn the ball over, you’re going to play five less snaps on average,” Graham said. “For every three-and-out, you’re losing two to three snaps.”

Naturally, those snaps then become defensive snaps, putting your defensive unit at risk both in terms of exhaustion and in opponents’ scoring chances. Graham sees value in tempo, but only if it comes with possession. Utilize the tempo to create a mismatch, not simply to try to tire out your opponent.

“When we call a play, we want to get the ball to our best guy on their less guy,” Graham said. “When we come up and there are less numbers over here, we’re going to run it over here… (more…)