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.