SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The good news? Notre Dame won, with the Gold beating the Blue 17-14. The better news? Nobody got hurt. The best news? The kids are going to be alright.
If you were looking to draw conclusions after the spring game, you might be out of luck. Like last year, the Irish didn’t play a defensive front that they planned on using this fall. Incumbent quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees spend more time with rain panchos on than helmets. And walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin nearly led both the Blue and Gold teams in carries, swapping jerseys early and often, a sign that the coaching staff wasn’t willing to take a chance getting either Cierre Wood or Jonas Gray injured.
Still, there’s plenty to be gained from the rain-soaked 82nd playing of the Blue-Gold game, which gave audiences a good look behind the curtain of a Notre Dame football program on the rise, thanks to the open-microphone Brian Kelly wore for Versus.
Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in the Gold team’s 17-14 victory, in front of 27,863 rain-soaked, die-hard Notre Dame fans.
1. Freshman Aaron Lynch might be the best pass rushing recruit the Irish have brought in… ever?
Don’t laugh. Sure, the talented freshman is a long way from going down in the Irish record books, and somewhere Beano Cook is chuckling about a preposterous statement like this. But looking back at the modern era of recruiting, there hasn’t been another player like Lynch to sign with the Irish.
Manti Te’o was a five-star everything, but he was a middle linebacker. Victor Abiamiri was a top-ten, blue-chip recruit, but he always profiled as a power defensive end. Nobody knew Justin Tuck would become one of the NFL’s most dangerous players when he signed as a long and lanky three-star linebacker out of Kellyton, Alabama.
Lynch dominated the Blue-Gold game, taking advantage of freshman like Christian Lombard and seniors like Trevor Robinson alike. He led the game with seven tackles, led the game with 1.5 tackles-for-loss, and certainly led the game in quarterback hurries, planting Andrew Hendrix on his back early and often.
Understanding that the expectations could get out of control, Lynch wasn’t made available to the media after the game. But the blogosphere is already abuzz about the 18-year-old’s performance, and even Brian Kelly struggled to temper his enthusiasm.
“He’s a good football player,” Kelly said. “The one thing that he did today is he went against our first offensive linemen, he went against Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever, and we thought that would tamp down the expectations, too. But I’d also like to give him credit for what he did.”
Quarterback Andrew Hendrix, the receiver of Lynch’s torment, was a little less diplomatic.
“I told him after the game that I can’t wait to see him do that to other quarterbacks,” Hendrix said. “It was pretty painful.”
What Lynch did was raise a bar that already started sky high. Something Irish fans (not to mention the coaching staff) have to be very happy about.
2. The Irish defense will be dynamic on the edge.
Taking away what Aaron Lynch did, it was a very good day for the edge of the defense. With Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Darius Fleming all but taking the day off, the defense built depth at defensive end, but more importantly had great performances from nearly every outside linebacker that took the field.
Danny Spond and Prince Shembo, both fighting for the starting ‘Dog’ linebacker position, had seven and six tackles respectively. Shembo did a nice job playing in space while Spond looked fluid in coverage and also made a tackle for a loss. Ishaq Williams made five tackles in his Irish “debut,” working effectively at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position with Fleming watching. And while Steve Filer didn’t fill up the stat sheet, he came off the edge hard as a pass-rusher, nearly notching a few sacks on some very mobile quarterbacks.
It’s remarkable to think that in one calendar year Kelly and his staff have taken one of the biggest liabilities on the roster and turned it into a strength. Again, we weren’t going to see anything Diaco and Kelly didn’t want us to see, but expect some dynamic rush packages on the field come autumn with guys like Lynch, Shembo, Fleming, Williams and Filer getting after the quarterback, maybe at the same time.
3. The Irish rushing attack will evolve in season two.
It’s no surprise that the leading rusher for both teams was a freshman quarterback. Andrew Hendrix bulldozed his way to two touchdowns, running for 42 yards on five carries while Everett Golson had a game-high 74 yards on 11 carries, dazzling fans with a highlight reel 23-yard scamper that evoked shades of Fran Tarkenton.
Kelly kept both young quarterbacks live, and each defense took its turn teeing off on the signal-callers. While the passing game for each was a work-in-progress, the Irish showed their ability to incorporate the quarterback into the spread-option game, something Kelly didn’t have the luxury of doing last year.
“Obviously for me, and what I’m used to, it’s a comfort level in terms of play-calling,” Kelly said. “But we’re going to make it work whoever the quarterback is. I think it’s pretty clear that we saw that they had the ability to do both, and that’s pretty exciting when you’re in the spread offense.”
On a windy and wet day, it’s hard to judge where any quarterback is throwing the football. But both Golson and Hendrix had flashes of rock-solid play, with Hendrix’s two-minute drill at the end of the first half giving him the opportunity to unleash a couple of big-time throws. Golson had a sloppy fumble and turnover, but he also showed a comfort level in the pocket and in the spread that most early-enrollees couldn’t imagine.
Running the ball with the quarterback — regardless of what quarterback is on the field — will be an added element in the Irish offense. But also expect to see a big jump in production from Cierre Wood, who took great strides in his first spring as the starting tailback.
“I like the way Cierre looked,” Kelly said of his running back. “Confident in running the football is the way I would describe him. He was confident and decisive in his decisions. If he couldn’t hit it at the front door, he was going to bend it back.”
Wood only had seven carries, but his 39 yards came in chunks. Expect bigger things out of the running game both from Wood and No. 2 Jonas Gray.
4. The Irish defense finally has the physicality of a BCS-caliber defense.
If you were looking for big collisions, I offer you Louis Nix’s tackle of walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin. Working through multiple blocks, the 345-pound freshman defensive tackle put a very large shoulder into Coughlin, popping the backs helmet off his head and knocking him into next week.
Nix is an abnormally large defensive tackle and looks the part of an NFL’er right now. Keeping him in the game continues to be the biggest challenge for the coaching staff.
“Louis Nix, our concern is how long can he play at that level?” Kelly said. “Because when he’s out there, he’s a pretty good football player. He was today. We’ve just got to continue to develop his work volume.”
If it looks like Notre Dame’s defense is bigger than seasons past, it’s because it is. Consider that the projected starting 2011 defense, even with one less defensive lineman, is 205 pounds heavier than the 2006 defense. (Numbers courtesy of JRT)
2011 (3-4 alignment) 2006 (4-3 alignment)
Louis Nix, 345 Trevor Laws, 283
Ethan Johnson, 300 Derek Landri, 277
Kapron Lewis-Moore, 295 Victor Abiamiri, 270
Darius Fleming, 250 Chris Frome, 262
Prince Shembo, 250 Joe Brockington, 220
Manti Te’o 255 Maurice Crum, 220
Carlo Calabrese, 245 Travis Thomas, 209
Zeke Motta, 215 Chinedum Ndukwe 210
Harrison Smith, 214 Tommy Zbikowski, 210
Robert Blanton, 196 Ambrose Wooden, 193
Gary Gray, 195 Mike Richardson, 188
Total: 2,755 lbs. Total: 2,550 lbs.
If you’re looking for a reason to believe that the Irish can play dominant defense, here it is. Three NFL sized defensive linemen? Check. Big, strong, physical linebackers? Yep. In the past, it was the front-seven of the Irish defense that didn’t physically stack up. Not anymore.
5. After a few quiet weeks, the Irish struck gold in recruiting.
Even with weather most elite recruits would run from, the Irish coaching staff got a major commitment from Maryland’s Ronald Darby, who some are calling the fastest recruit Notre Dame has signed since Raghib Ismail. Darby was joined by commitments Nicky Baratti and long-snapper Scott Daly, all three priorities for the Irish coaching staff.
Both Darby and Baratti are listed as athletes by the major recruiting websites, but Darby walks in as a cornerback and Baratti as a safety. Daly is a 6-4, 230-pound long snapper, a position the Irish almost brought in last recruiting cycle, even with tight numbers.
Darby spent most of his time on the sidelines with fellow Irish commitment Tee Shepard, giving the Irish a cornerback duo that any college would take. With more than a dozen other prospects on campus this weekend, recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin and player development head Dave Peloquin continue to bring in elite recruits, with Darby having offers from Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan (among others) while Shepard turned down USC, Miami, Auburn and Alabama for the Irish.
If last year’s position of need was defensive end, this year’s roster needs an infusion in the secondary, and Shepard, Darby and Baratti are three great additions.
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