BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 21:  A general view of Fenway Park before the game between the Boston College Eagles and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on November 21, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Shamrock Series likely to skip 2017

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Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series is about to take a break. The yearly staple—set for San Antonio in 2016—is likely to take a year off as the Irish prepare to move into the fully-renovated Notre Dame Stadium in 2017.

With the $400-million Campus Crossroads project expected to be finished by then, athletic director Jack Swarbrick discussed the value of keeping a seventh home game on campus, eschewing the annual neutral-site game.

Swarbrick spoke to ESPN’s Heather Dinich at the College Football Playoff’s spring meetings:

“In all likelihood we will not do one in ’17, because that’s the opening of the Crossroads and we want to maximize the number of home games, but we anticipate doing it in subsequent years,” Swarbrick said. “It’s been phenomenal. We have a lot of people who annually target that game and make it one where they get together with former classmates and really plan their years around it. It’s been good.”

Notre Dame’s schedule has been a subject of much debate. After former athletic director Kevin White‘s troubled 7-4-1 scheduling paradigm made it difficult to find partners (especially throughout conference realignment), Swarbrick took over the athletic department and adjusted the Irish’s scheduling parameters. The result was, surprisingly, one less home game—leaving potential revenue on the table while keeping the Shamrock Series in place.

That decision highlights some of the benefits of the barnstorming tour that’s historically in Notre Dame football’s DNA. It’s also allowed Irish fans to have iconic experiences, Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field, last year’s Fenway Park visit, all stemming from the unorthodox decision to play Washington State in San Antonio way back in 2009.

“I wasn’t sure we could brand it successfully, that it would develop its own identity, so that’s probably been the biggest surprise in that it has done that more than I thought it would,” Swarbrick told UND.com back in 2013. “I knew given our national following, and the commitment of the university in so many ways, I knew logistically and operationally it would work great but to what level it would be embraced was my concern.”

Expect the Shamrock Series back in 2018. But a 2017 slate that expects visits from headliners like Georgia, Michigan State and USC will benefit from a seventh home game.

The good, the bad, the ugly: The Blue-Gold game

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (34) breaks away from Josh Barajas, left, and Max Redfield on a touchdown run during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP
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With the spring game in the rearview and a successful Blue-Gold weekend in the books, it’s time for another edition of good, bad, and ugly. Full disclosure: No column is more subjective. Nor is there any column more difficult to write.

Football writing ain’t exactly Nietzsche. So when singing the praises of Torii Hunter or Jay Hayes, you’re also singling out a lost snap by Nick Coleman or Alex Bars. That’s the double-edge sword of intersquad scrimmages, when wins and losses are basically the same as losses and wins. (I feel like Yoda just writing that sentence.)

But jumping to conclusions after two 12-minute quarters and a second-half running clock that disappeared in the blink of an eye? It’s never stopped me before.

So let’s perfect the swan dive as we go head first into the last competitive football we’ll see until the Irish take the field against Texas.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter Williams & Justin BrentThe third and fourth running backs on the roster sure didn’t look like guys who couldn’t crack the two deep. And after watching both Williams and Brent make some nifty plays, it’s hard to think that they won’t at least find a couple touches for each of them.

Williams is more likely a player in contention for a game-to-game role. Brent, who redshirted last season so still has three years of eligibility remaining, could be a dominant mop-up time performer, blowing up Cam McDaniels’ sterling 2012 season where he dominated games when the result wasn’t in doubt and the offense needed to churn through clock.

Both Williams and Brent showed some nice flashes, each catching their head coach’s eye.

“I thought Dexter ran extremely hard,” Kelly said. “I was pleased with Justin Brent.”

Brent made a nice play on a scramble drill when Malik Zaire evaded a blitzer then threw a 50-50 ball that Brent attacked for a big gain. Williams only averaged 3.3 yards per carry, but carried the load and showed the type of burst and decisiveness you want from a back running inside zone.

Remember when third and fourth backs in the spring game usually had a jersey that was three-sizes too big and a Bengal Bouts nickname that usually played off a Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out underdog? Well Williams and Brent certainly aren’t those guys.

 

Shaun Crawford. Rewatching the game, I came to appreciate even more what Crawford was doing. It felt like there was a level of disgust in Crawford’s play, the limitations of a green jersey forcing him from making a few big plays after he had diagnosed them early and had to wait around and avoid doing what comes naturally for him.

Playing on the edge and out of nickel isn’t preferential. Right now, he seems good enough to start opposite Cole Luke, and he’s already pushing Luke to be better. That’s a testament to just how unique he is athletically Crawford is. There has been no shortage of gushing about him, crazy when you consider:

a) He’s yet to take a snap in a real game.
b) Nobody is mentioning he’s 5-foot-8.

 

Alex Bars. I was happy that Bars was able to finish off spring at right tackle, the proper home for him all along. That he made it through the spring game without being exposed or suffering a setback with his foot and ankle is a victory by in itself.

The line makes better sense with him at right tackle. It allows the Irish to plug in Hunter Bivin or Colin McGovern on the inside. It allows the Irish to get even bigger across the front, a far cry from a group that played for the national title that looked like “five guards.”

 

Kevin Stepherson & Torii Hunter. A freshman and a senior were the two most intriguing pass catchers featured in the game. And they both play similar positions.

What’s that mean? Finding a way to move Hunter all over the field so Stepherson can grasp just one job. Kelly talked about that challenge postgame.

“We’re going to take it slow with [Stepherson], and find what’s best for him,” Kelly said. “It’s harder inside, because there’s so many more variables in terms of what he has to do and adjust his routes. He’s probably better suited to be on the outside.

“Then if he’s on the outside what do you do with Torii? I think Torii has more experience where we can flop Torii around more so with not swapping KJ around. I don’t want to move him all over the place.”

We’ve seen a lot of promising freshmen wide receivers arrive in South Bend. None have been able to make an impact under Kelly. But with a leg-up thanks to early enrollment—not to mention, three jobs vacating—putting Stepherson into a specific role should help him break the mold.

“We’ve got to really figure out what we want to do with him and stick with that and say, this is where you’re going to play next year,” Kelly said.

 

 

Limiting scores and big plays on defense. 

Torii Hunter needed one hand for a 50-yarder. Kevin Stepherson got loose for 25-yards, and Justin Brent made a nice play for a 28-yard gain when Malik Zaire got outside. But other than those three plays, the Irish defense didn’t give up anything overly back-breaking and managed to keep the offense in check.

That was most noticeable in the running game. There wasn’t a ton of emphasis on getting the ground game going, but it certainly didn’t look easy out there. That’s a big step in the right direction, following up good plays with not-easy opportunities for the opponent.

 

Tyler Newsome. Last spring game, Newsome’s shaky punting had some of us (read: me) worried that life after Ben Turk might not be grand. Well last season’s solid debut erased that. And this spring game, Kelly named Newsome the MVP. The rising (redshirt) sophomore showed off a rocket leg kicking both directions, pinning the football inside the 20, multiple kicks of 50+ yards and excellent hair as well.

Notre Dame’s sophomore specialists are a strength.

 

THE BAD

Navigating this quarterback dilemma. We’ve talked about the decision Brian Kelly has to make. And it’s not going to be easy. Not necessarily because he could be picking the wrong horse in a two (plus)-horse race, but rather because of the human ramifications that come along with making a decision like this.

I find it hard to see how a choice like this doesn’t split the locker room. I also find it hard to believe that even a trio of brains as wise as Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford can a way for this to work mixing and matching components, though I think that’s the best way to keep everybody at least close to happy.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m super intrigued by the duo of Kizer and Zaire both playing. It’s a way better scenario than anything Ohio State tried last year, and it’d be a complete nightmare to game plan for, especially on just a week’s notice.)

Kelly said quite a bit late this spring about the state of this battle, and he’s never shied away from saying it’ll go into the fall. More and more that feels like the best sign that he’s doing everything he can to let Malik Zaire have a fair shake, knowing it’s hard to ask a guy who missed 90 percent of the season with a broken ankle to step in and compete. But making things fair doesn’t necessarily tip the scales in favor of Zaire—he still needs to find the calm and control that Kizer displays so effortlessly.

One thing I’m happy to report for sure: Zaire and Kizer officially do away with the ridiculous notion “if you have two quarterbacks you really have none.”

 

Bad Bullets:

These weren’t game-ruining for me, but a few things I didn’t like seeing.

* Josh Adams, you need to do a better job picking up the blitz.

* Drue Tranquill, that “panic P.I.” makes Irish fans worry about the half-field part of your game. It wasn’t necessarily the strongest part of your first two seasons and if Tranquill wants to spend 2016 in the starting lineup, he needs to make sure he can play comfortably in space at safety. Otherwise, he’s more likely to be a specialist deployed near the line of scrimmage.

* There was a lot of good play from Max Redfield on the field Saturday. But after making a sure-handed stop at the line of scrimmage, Redfield followed it up with a critical miss on Dexter Williams as he scampered into the end zone.

* Do we choose to think that the defensive line made improvements or that Malik Zaire’s starting right side struggled to slow down the Blue front seven?

 

THE UGLY

A clear-blue sky, football, and no injuries? Not to mention a Notre Dame win? Even if it’s one of the least memorable spring games in recent memory, chalk this up as an ugly-free football game.

Hounshell set to finish career at Ohio State

Chase Hounshell
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With a sixth-year of eligibility, reserve tight end Chase Hounshell is heading to Ohio State. The Cleveland native will spend his final season on the football field in his home state, playing for a head coach who initially recruited him.

Hounshell made the news public via Twitter. He’ll be a walk-on for the Buckeyes, eligible to play thanks to the NCAA granting him an additional medical redshirt, though not taking one of Ohio State’s 85 scholarships.

With one career catch at Notre Dame, a return for a sixth year wasn’t in the cards for Hounshell and the Irish, especially with defensive end Jacob Matuska converting to the position. At Ohio State, Hounshell will hope to take a spot in a depth chart that has an opening at tight end, a situational role on a team who once again looks like the class of the Big Ten.

Before he was a Notre Dame commit, Hounshell was an early target and recruit of Urban Meyer, committing to play defensive end for the then-Florida head coach. But Meyer’s departure from Gainesville led the Irish into the game and Hounshell spent five seasons in South Bend, most marred by various shoulder injuries.

He finished his career in South Bend with six tackles as a reserve defensive end and one catch as a tight end.

 

Kizer? Zaire? No easy decision coming at QB for Brian Kelly

Notre Dame quarterback Kizer DeShone makes a throw during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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It’s not going to be easy. Credit Brian Kelly for at least acknowledging that now. Because Notre Dame’s head coach knows he could call the quarterback race tomorrow or the night before the Irish play Texas and it won’t be any easier.

In DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire the Irish have two quarterbacks capable of leading the Irish into the College Football Playoff. And after watching both do different things to stand out on Saturday—just as they had all spring—Kelly acknowledged that he’s going to have to make a difficult decision eventually.

“I think I’m going to have to make a judgment call,” Kelly said. “I don’t know when I’ll make it. But there will be a time when I’m going to have to say, that’s our quarterback, let’s go with him, we’re all in, and let’s move forward.”

Deciding between Kizer and Zaire likely challenges Kelly on a number of levels. On the field, we saw first-hand the contrasting styles the quarterbacks showcased.

Kizer looks more comfortable running the offense.  Zaire looks more comfortable when things break down. Pressure on Zaire felt constant on Saturday—likely a product of putting Zaire up against what basically amounted to the starting front seven. But also factoring in was the fact that the senior is still learning an offense he only has had a chance to pilot for three career starts.

“I thought what I saw was Malik develop more of an understanding of what we did offensively last year,” Kelly said. “The offense developed under Kizer during the year, not Malik. So he was at a bit of a disadvantage coming into the spring, and I thought he caught up…

“Now that he has a better understanding of everything that we’re doing, I think now you’ve got the race and that will obviously be decided through camp.”

In Kizer, Kelly has a quarterback who seems adept at doing all the things he demands from his signal-caller. A strong arm with accuracy. Nimble feet that keep a defense more than honest with his running. And a head that checks all the boxes when it comes to knowing the game, representing his program and leading the team.

“He managed the game very well; confidence, consistency,” Kelly said. “I just think that he continues to show the things that you want a starting quarterback to show.”

Kelly was quick to follow that praise up with the caveat that he wasn’t close to naming Kizer a start. And that’s probably because of his true appreciation for the way Zaire plays football. The confident senior might be the closest thing to a quarterback in Kelly’s image.

That fiery demeanor? The alpha dog with unbridled self-belief? The quarterback who wants to both put his shoulder down and run you over and took every shot given to him to throw the deep ball over the top? That’s DNA the head coach shares with his passionate veteran quarterback.

It’s also what’s going to make this decision so difficult.

“I can’t keep them both happy. Somebody’s going to be unhappy,” Kelly said. “I love them both. They both are committed. They are both great competitors. But somebody’s going to be unhappy.”

Five things we learned: 78th Blue-Gold game

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On a beautiful afternoon for football, Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold game went off without a hitch. No turnovers. No broken coverages. More important than either—no major injuries.

All eyes were on quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. And while Kizer’s Blue team pulled out the 17-7 victory, no quarterback’s play on the field—not even under a clear-blue sky high above the still-transforming Notre Dame Stadium—provided clarity to a battle that’ll continue into fall camp.

But plenty of position groups came into focus on Saturday afternoon, with a rebuilt Irish roster featuring new faces that’ll turn into key pieces of the 2016 team. As the offense and defense battled evenly, head coach Brian Kelly was happy that his young team was able to play clean football.

“I think it was a little bit of everything, I think it was good football on both sides of the ball,” Kelly told NBC’s Jac Collinsworth. “Fundamentally sound defensively. Offensively, it was a little bit of everything. Some guys stepping up and making some plays. I was pleased overall coming out here and having a competitive day.”

With Montgomery VanGorder scored the second half’s only touchdown in the game’s closing minutes, he finished the spring on a positive note. Let’s find out what else we learned as Notre Dame caps off a key transitional spring before the 2016 season.

 

The first-half quarterback showdown revealed the Irish are in good hands either way. 

The afternoon certainly didn’t start the way Malik Zaire wanted it to. Notre Dame’s rising senior quarterback, who is looking to reclaim a starting job he lost just two games into last season when he broke his ankle, missed early and often in his first two drives, both ending in 3-and-outs.

But Zaire turned things around and flashed moments of brilliance—making plays with his feet and with the deep ball, connecting with Torii Hunter on the day’s most impressive play. Zaire also ran for a touchdown, looking healthy and elusive as he capped off the Gold team’s lone scoring drive in a one-man army type effort.

If Zaire’s day featured highs and lows, Kizer’s steady performance underscores his comfort in the system. More surgical with his decisions, Kizer worked through his reads, finding success picking apart the Gold defense with underneath throws.

Kizer also won the mental chess match at the line of scrimmage, a third-down audible exploiting an open middle of the field where Kizer ran for a long conversion. His quick side-armed sling around an unblocked defender turned a sack into a nice completion to Alizé Jones. Maybe his best pass of the afternoon was dropped, a deep ball looped perfectly towards a streaking Kevin Stepherson, with the rookie failing to reel in the big gainer.

Both quarterbacks played the entire first half without a red jersey before turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush in the second half. After the game, Kelly complimented the play of both, while also acknowledging that this battle isn’t ending any time soon.

“It was set up for the quarterbacks and I think they did a nice job,” Kelly said immediately after the game. “But I don’t think anybody separated themselves.”

 

As new faces emerge, freshmen Kevin Stepherson, Devin Studstill and Shaun Crawford look like major contributors. 

Brian Kelly has been telling everybody who’s been willing to listen that the young players on his roster were ready to make an impact. Saturday afternoon highlighted three of them, with Kevin Stepherson and Devin Studstill (both early-enrollees) along with (redshirt) Shaun Crawford looking the part of ascending players.

Stepherson was Notre Dame’s most active wide receiver, flashing top-end speed and the ability to play anywhere as he led the Blue team with 70 receiving yards. While he dropped a throw that would’ve put his afternoon into triple-digits, he’s clearly put himself into a position to be in the receiver rotation in the fall.

“We have a player on our team in KJ Stepherson that can catch the ball at full speed as he cuts across the field, a very unique trait,” Kelly said. “He still has to work on catching the ball vertically down the field. But he catches the ball out of his break at full speed, and it is a unique trait that he has that I have not seen since I’ve been here at Notre Dame.”

That explosiveness is likely why Stepherson was back catching punts. And even considering the difficulty freshmen wide receivers have had making an impact under Kelly, it looks like the unheralded recruit is positioned to be the most productive freshman wideout that Kelly’s had in his time in South Bend.

On the other side of the ball, Studstill was around the football early and often, proving very quickly that the praise her earned was much more than a motivational tactic for Max Redfield. Studstill ran the alley and made a nice stop on Zaire, limiting the quarterback to a short gain. He also looked at home in coverage, playing like a seasoned veteran, not a freshman who should be finding a prom date in a few weeks.

Put Kelly among those who wondered if Shaun Crawford knew what his green jersey signified (limited contact). It’s clear that a healthy Crawford has the ability to make the defense so much better with him on the football field. The Ohio native seems to just find the football. He was active in coverage, strong in run support, quick to diagnose every play he saw develop.

Crawford came off the edge with a blitz that ruined a play and played man coverage as an outside cornerback, too. With Nick Watkins out and Crawford still in the recovery phase after his August ACL tear, it’s clear the Irish have a playmaking cornerback on their hands. What’s surprising is that he looked like one of the most confident players on the field even before he’s made his collegiate debut.

 

Torii Hunter is standing out as the No. 1 weapon in the rebuilt receiving corps. 

Streaking deep with Nick Coleman in good position to defend him, Torii Hunter made the game’s best catch—snatching Zaire’s perfectly-thrown deep ball with one hand and bringing it in. The 50-yarder was one of three catches Hunter made as Zaire’s favorite target, a nice step forward for the rising senior as he ascends to the No. 1 wide receiver job.

Hunter’s evolution as a receiver has been one of the spring’s most important developments. Long viewed as one of the team’s best practice players, injuries have hampered through two of his seasons in South Bend before finally getting through 2015 healthy.

But Hunter has been unwilling to let anything get in the way of his ascent. Kelly credited those efforts after the Blue-Gold game, talking about the work ethic the rising senior has displayed.

“I think he’s had a terrific spring,” Kelly said. “The work volume that he’s put in while he’s going to school, while he’s playing baseball, has been an incredible commitment.

“It’s amazing what he does in terms of the intensity in which he practices and how hard he goes, and then he does the same thing for [baseball coach Mik Aoki]. He’s a unique young man in that he can focus and give that kind of intensity to both sports”

Hunter’s move to the front lines will be counted on in 2016, especially if Corey Robinson‘s return to the football field isn’t clear. But identified as one of the team’s most improved players this spring by Kelly on Friday, Hunter is poised for a big season.

 

Even with massive turnover, improved defensive fundamentals had to have Irish fans happy. 

Nobody is ready to anoint the Irish defense after it got the better of the offense in the spring game. But any worry that there’d be offensive fireworks and big plays coming fast and furious were erased by a rock-solid performance in the first half.

The Blue front seven made things difficult for Zaire from the game’s first snap. Neither Josh Adams or Dexter Williams get loose. While Drue Tranquill drew a “panic P.I.” on a deep pattern by Chris Finke and Hunter caught a 50-yarder, Kelly praised the competitiveness of his rebuilt secondary.

“I’m very pleased is the progress of some of the young players in the back end of our defense,” Kelly said. “I thought our corner play was better. I thought our safety play was much improved and those are the areas we need better play at, and I thought that those young players out there today made significant progress.”

Spotting Jay Hayes wreaking havoc from his new defensive end spot had to make Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore happy. Watching young linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas continue to learn on the field had to be promising as well. With Avery Sebastian making his presence felt and Jarron Jones flashing early, Kelly didn’t sound like a guy wishing something to be true in his postgame comments when he set a lofty goal for his rebuilt unit.

“I think that this defense is going to play the kind of defense necessary for us to get into that playoff hunt again,” Kelly said. “There are good enough players out there for us to do that once again.”

 

On a roster filled with new players, the progress is still apparent. 

There were no cameos with defensive linemen in the backfield or screen passes thrown to linemen. The quarterback battle didn’t feature a flea flicker or forced friendship to finish the day on a high note.

Saturday was a work day for the Irish—Brian Kelly made sure of that. And his young football team rewarded him with a solid day at the office, finishing spring like a team intent on taking advantage of every opportunity to get better that the NCAA allows them.

With 14 starters gone and the majority of those heading to the professional ranks, prevailing wisdom would allow for a step back as the roster rebuilds. But with young talent unwilling to wait to get on the field and veterans more than eager to breakthrough, this football team—for one day, at least—didn’t look like a group that expected to be anything less than a contender for a college football playoff spot.

The play was crisp. The competition was even. And as Kelly continues to look for leaders to step forward, he’ll do so from a framework where the program runs smoothly.

“It’s a pretty sound group. They are not a group that gets too far outside of the blueprint,” Kelly said.

The team now transfers into the players’ hands. Replacing five captains is no small task and the months of offseason training is when Kelly believes this team’s identity will be formed.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly explained. “That naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way.”

One of the benefits that comes with a rebuilt roster is the anonymity it allows. For the first time in a long time, the Irish will be able to do something they’re fairly unaccustomed to doing: Sneak up on people.

So while there’s certainly the possibility that the Irish can’t overcome the considerable personnel losses they faced, there’s no better time to project a rosy future than when it’s 70-and-sunny in South Bend.

Weather aside, there’s reason for optimism.  At the game’s most important position, the Irish have an embarrassment of riches. Notre Dame can win with Zaire or Kizer, and probably with Brandon Wimbush as well.

Defensively, the Blue-Gold game was a nice data point in the evolution of a unit with a spotlight on it. For as much heat as VanGorder has taken for his scheme and his unit’s maddening inconsistency, one area he rarely receives credit is for his ability to make big adjustments in the offseason.

We watched the 2015 team do masterful work against the option after looking lost a year before. When teams used tempo to take the Irish out of their game plan in VanGorder’s debut season, they were unable to do so last year. With comprehension and player recognition the singular goal of the offseason, it isn’t too big of a leap to think that Year Three could yield improved results, even after rebuilding its core.

For now, those are questions—not to mention the quarterback battle—are deferred to the fall. Until then, Irish fans can be happy with the progress displayed on a perfect football Saturday.