What to take from the Blue-Gold game


The 27,863 fans that paid to see the Blue-Gold game in person might be thawed out and dry by now. For the rest of you that either skipped the festivities or watched on TV, trying to quantify what you saw and reach some conclusions might be a little difficult.

First, let’s cross off a few of the easy ones. Notre Dame has four intriguing quarterback options, all of whom are good enough to start for a BCS program… eventually. The Irish also have three legitimate kicking options, with Nick Tausch and Kyle Brindza putting together impressive performances. Lastly, Aaron Lynch looked pretty good out there, even if he still is a work-in-progress.

Here are a few other thoughts worth chewing on after re-watching Saturday’s game.

1. Even with a shaky Saturday, Dayne Crist is still the leader in the clubhouse for the starting job.

Sure, that short-hop throw to Theo Riddick gave many of you the twitches. But Crist looks much more stable in the offense, and that 5 for 11 wasn’t as ugly as it semi-appeared. Is Dayne as accurate as Jimmy Clausen (or even Brady Quinn)? No. But his command of the offense is much better than it was last year, and Crist’s struggles on Saturday were often because his receiver wasn’t on the same page — a page Crist was correctly on.

While it was nice to see both Hendrix and Golson flash brilliance, it’s clear right now that Crist and Rees give the Irish the best chance to win. Rees’ day — specifically his struggles controlling the slick ball and his poor read on Lo Wood’s interception — were a reminder that Tommy isn’t quite ready for prime-time either.

2. Dan Fox inserted his name into the middle of the middle linebacker conversation.

Fox has always been an intriguing candidate, but never much of an option because of his inability to stay completely healthy. But his seven tackles tied for a game high with Danny Spond and Aaron Lynch, and he was incredibly active from his middle linebacker position.

The depth at middle backer, whoever takes the spot next to Manti Te’o is an intriguing lot, with Carlo Calabrese the starter, but by no means a clear leader over Fox and Kendall Moore. You can easily add David Posluszny and Justin Utupo to that list, and I was really impressed with the freshman’s physicality.

3. Bob Diaco wasn’t showing his hand on Saturday.

Blink and you missed these guys: Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Gary Gray, and Harrison Smith. (I’m not counting Manti Te’o, who Kelly allowed to play on the punt team.)

Diaco has always played things close to the vest, but Saturday he filled his secondary with walk-ons and rolled into a vanilla coverage just about every play, relying on the strength of his front-seven players to keep the Irish offense at bay on a sloppy day.

Still, Kelly said everything he needed to after the game.

“When you go into the Fall and you feel like your defense is going to be able to stop the run and play the ball in the air, that is pretty good feeling,” Kelly said.

4. The wide receivers need a little work. The tight ends are good to go.

Regardless of weather conditions, I was hoping to see more from Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. Jones was playing nicked up with a bum ankle and Riddick was still in the midst of a (potentially temporary) transition to Michael Floyd’s receiver position. Still, it’d have been good to see one of the quarterbacks take a shot down field, especially against a mostly walk-on secondary. Robby Toma looked good in the slot, and Deion Walker finished up a strong spring with five catches for 56 yards.

While the wideouts underachieved, tight end Alex Welch impressed in his first real performance in front of Irish fans. Mike Ragone also had a nice catch to open the game in the slot, adding another complement to Tyler Eifert, who could be an All-American candidate this season. With Ben Koyack coming to campus this summer, those are four solid options at the position, taking some of the pressure off the receivers.

5. The young secondary is coming on strong.

For worried Irish fans, seeing Lo Wood step in front of a Tommy Rees pass and make a savvy play had to be reassuring. Just as important, Bennett Jackson looked like a natural at cornerback, making a few big hits and seeming at home on the opposite side of the ball. Ditto for Austin Collinsworth, who spent a ton of time as the only scholarship DB on the field, covering plenty of ground and making quite a few plays.

6. There’s a punting battle brewing between Ben Turk and Kyle Brindza

It’s no secret that Ben Turk struggled last year, both in terms of hang time and distance. With a strong wind, Brindza averaged 42.7 yards on his kicks while Turk averaged 40 yards per kick, with one of Turk’s punts the beneficiary of some nice roll.

From all reports, Brindza is still learning and his operation time needs some work. But special teams coach Mike Elston knows he needs more out of his punter and I expect Turk and Brindza to battle well into the fall.

Stepping up… The linebackers

If it feels like beating a dead horse to say that the Irish defense played below expectations last year, I apologize. But trying to put the linebacker play into context is difficult, because each position grouping in a defense depends on the other. Without a great pass rush, the secondary looks bad. Without tight coverage, the defensive line won’t get that much needed pressure on the quarterback. Blitzing linebackers help cover up deficiencies in the pass rush, but also exploit weaknesses in coverage. The problems with the Irish defense were numerous, and without knowing the schematic choices, its tough to say what exactly went wrong. 

Regardless of where the defense gave way, the linebacking unit didn’t have a great season. Too often, the middle of the defense struggled to stop the run, was a step late getting to the quarterback on a blitz, or failed to make tackles in space. While freshman Manti Te’o dazzled many with his potential, he was still a freshman learning on the job. The linebacking crew was high on Smiths — Brian, Harrison, Toryan, and Scott —  but low on production.

This offseason, the Irish will install a new defensive system which puts another linebacker on the field. Brian Kelly already mentioned that one Smith, Harrison, is moving back to the secondary, and two Smiths, Toryan and Scott, and graduating. Let’s take a look at who’s going, who’s staying, and who needs to step up.


According to BGS, the Irish return 88-percent of the minutes at linebacker, so the losses aren’t plentiful. Still, if there was ever a system suited for Toryan Smith, it was in the inside of a 3-4 defense. The Irish also lose special teams captain Scott Smith, a good role player who also made a lot of appearances on special teams.


While most people don’t generally worry about a sophomore linebacker returning, Manti Te’o’s decision to delay his church mission was a huge victory for Brian Kelly’s defense. Te’o’s role is still to be determined under coordinator Bob Diaco, but he’ll likely be a focal point, and I expect him to make the leap from great freshman to elite linebacker this season. Brian Smith also returns for his senior campaign. Smith bounced inside and out at linebacker to make way for Te’o, but seemed outside his comfort zone playing on the interior. Harrison Smith technically returns as a starter, but likely won’t see the field as a linebacker.


Projecting what linebackers make the leap this season is a crap shoot. The Irish roster isn’t shy on highly-projected linebacker recruits. Now it’s time for a group of them to step up and take the extra playing time available and the extra place in the defensive alignment. From a depth chart perspective, the Irish are as deep as they’ve been at linebacker in recent memory. Unfortunately, a lot of that depth is unproven. Here are three picks to make a run at some serious playing time.

Steve Filer: Filer is one of the few athletes on the Irish roster that physically fit the profile of an outside backer in the new 3-4 system. The Chicago native played in all 12 games for the Irish, but spent most of his time on special teams. There’s no doubting his athleticism, and for the Irish to get some production out of an outside linebacker, Filer is the obvious candidate to make a difference.

Anthony McDonald: Kelly and Diaco likely will spend this Spring deciding who plays in the middle of the Irish defense. McDonald, who redshirted during his freshman season, seems a likely candidate to get a chance at earning one of the two spots. McDonald is a big kid that runs well, but we’ve got no real idea how he’ll react to getting thrown into the inside linebacker competition. He spent a lot of time on the field last season on special teams and made 10 tackles.

Carlo Calabrese: Calabrese is another guy that could find himself in the middle of the Irish defense. Calabrese had offers from plenty of the big boys, including Urban Meyer, and the New Jersey native just looks like the kind of guy that’d fit in the middle of a defense. It’ll be the first experience he has on the field collegiately, but Calabrese’s ability to step up and seize a job would be great for the Irish defense.

Dark Horses: Just about any of the young linebackers have a shot to make a mark on the field this year. Calabrese and McDonald’s names could’ve been Dan Fox or David Posluszny. I also don’t count out guys like true freshman Justin Utupo, Kendall Moore, and Prince Shembo, all good sized guys that can possibly play on the edge. While Darius Fleming is technically being called a defensive end, it’ll be interesting if Diaco and Kelly have him playing without a hand on the ground, taking advantage of his ability to rush the passer and also play in space.