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.