Five things we learned: The Blue-Gold Game

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In front of 27,241 fans eager for a fresh start, the Brian Kelly Era took its first snaps at Notre Dame Stadium. After five months of transition, questions, and worries, quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Nate Montana led their Blue and Gold squads respectively, and assured all of us that regardless of who coaches the football team, there are still quality players more than capable of playing winning football wearing gold helmets.

Played at a pace unlike anything we’ve seen at Notre Dame, Montana’s Gold squad got the best of Crist’s Blue team, winning 27-19 on a slightly wet day in South Bend. While neither offense looked particularly crisp and the defense kept things nice and vanilla, there were plenty of clues given by Kelly and his staff on what type of football team we can expect come this September.

Here’s what we learned.

1) The quarterback situation isn’t that dire.

Expect a huge sigh of relief in the Notre Dame football offices, as Nate Montana looked like a capable backup quarterback in Kelly’s timing-based spread offense. Montana started quick, hitting 9 of his first 11 throws, then rebounded from a poor stretch of football to finish 18 of 31 for 207 yards and three touchdowns. Montana missed a few reads and was late with the ball a few other times, but he certainly didn’t look like a deer in the headlights and seemed to be a decent option to back up starter Dayne Crist if the need arises.

As for Crist, the fact that he was able to participate fully in spring drills only four-and-a-half months after ACL surgery is miraculous. When Crist called himself a “quick healer” immediately after the Halloween knee injury, I assumed it was lip-service, but he backed it up with a spring that was imperative for his development in Kelly’s rapid-fire offense. In Crist, the Irish have a quarterback with indisputable raw skills, but a desperate need for refinement. He made some impressive throws today to tight end Kyle Rudolph, but also showed that his accuracy was well behind predecessor Jimmy Clausen’s.

Even Tommy Rees, the early-enrollee freshman who played in spot duty today looked quick and decisive during his limited snaps, delivering a nice mix of play-action passes and quick screens on time and accurately.

2) There’s little reason to worry about the running game.

Many thought the implementation of Kelly’s spread offense would mean the abandonment of the running game for the Irish. If the Blue-Gold Game is any indication, the running attack is alive and well. With Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray and Robert Hughes, the Irish have the most depth at tailback that they’ve had since the Holtz era.

All four backs showed themselves capable, with Wood and Gray stealing the show, both delivering highlight reel touchdown runs. Wood, who will retain his freshman eligibility, dazzled with 10 carries and 121 yards with two touchdowns, making it clear that he’ll be a factor on the field next season. His vision and burst reminded us why he was one of the top running backs in his recruiting class, and why Theo Riddick moved to wide receiver.

If you’re looking for a below-the-radar key to the Irish running game, look no further than offensive line coach Ed Warriner. Warriner is one of the elite coaches in college football when it comes to running the football out of a spread, one-back set, and it was clear that the blocking schemes and talented runners thrived today, just 15 practices after putting the system in place.

Another encouraging aspect of today’s scrimmage was the creativity seen in Kelly’s schematics. There were multiple gains on delayed counters that consistently hit for big plays, and it was a refreshing change of pace from the draws and stock playcalling that Charlie Weis’ running game usually employed.

3) This defense actually has play-makers.

It’s still difficult to figure out what went wrong last season with Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 scheme. But even in a vanilla base defense with hardly any blitzing, we saw that the talented recruits that Weis and his staff brought to South Bend have the ability to thrive when used properly.

Bob Diaco’s 3-4 base defense has little in common with the previous system, but is clearly a better fit for the athletes on the current roster, specifically on the edges, where elite athletes like Darius Fleming, Brian Smith, and Steve Filer can play in space. Filer was a presence today, leading the Gold team with 12 tackles and consistently over-powering the blockers assigned to him on the edge.  In the middle, it’s clear that the Irish have a star in Manti Te’o. Te’o was all over the field, contributing 8 tackles, many with violent collisions. He looked adept in coverage, made an interception on a tipped ball, and his pursuit sideline to sideline was impressive.

Another pleasant surprise was the play of the interior defensive linemen. Both Ian Williams and Brandon Newman knocked down passes, and Sean Cwynar was a headache for offensive linemen as he consistently broke through the line. While Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore’s health are crucial to the success of the Irish defense, Emeka Nwankwo and Hafis Williams showed the ability to step in and play if needed.

The final piece of the defensive puzzle will be the secondary. Gary Gray chipped in an interception on a tipped ball, Jamoris Slaughter was solid in coverage, and Harrison Smith had one of the hits of the day from his safety spot. Both Robert Blanton and Darrin Walls have shown they can be true cover corners, and the depth the Irish are building at safety with Zeke Motta and Dan McCarthy, along with the contributions of early-enrollee E.J. Banks will help the Irish compete on the bacd end.

4) Tai-ler Jones will be the first freshman to make an impact.

Jones, who enrolled early and is still only 17-years-old, looks like he’ll contribute early and often in Brian Kelly’s new spread attack. The son of former Irish defender Andre Jones had 59 yards receiving today and a nice touchdown catch between Dan McCarthy and Darrin Walls in the corner of the end zone. He looked quick and confident in his routes, showed a great burst and shake in the open field, and likely will be a great weapon for the Irish.

For the most part, all the early enrollees looked capable on the field, with Tommy Rees doing a nice job at quarterback, Chris Badger making some plays at safety, E.J. Banks getting plenty of action at corner and Spencer Boyd showing up as well. It’ll be interesting to see what Kelly’s philosophy is on playing freshman and whether he’ll try to preserve the eligibility of the guys in the secondary as well as Rees, who don’t look like they’ll break into the two-deep.

5) It is truly a new era at Notre Dame.

From the onset of today’s scrimmage, it’s clear that this Notre Dame team will be a complete transformation for last year’s team. The pace of the game today was astounding and from the sound of Coach Kelly he only expects it to get faster.

“If you thought today was fast, it’ll get a lot faster than you saw today,” Kelly said on the field after the game.”

Gone are the deep drops and long developing routes. There wasn’t a single fade pattern thrown to Michael Floyd or deep comeback route. The pace of the offense was frenetic, and it’s clear that the Irish will simply try to out-run and out-condition their opponents. Still, the weapons of the Irish offense developed by Weis will find a place in Kelly’s offense. The worries over Kyle Rudolph’s role were extinguished quickly today, with Crist finding his tight end early and often. The concern that a shotgun attack would turn the running game irrelevant was eliminated when quarterbacks regularly took snaps under center and handed the ball off to backs that found plenty of running room in the new system.

More importantly, it’s clear that this Irish football team will play far gr
eater attention to detail an
d be a product of a coach that’s spent 20 years honing his craft as a man in charge of a program, working with a staff that he’s spent years with. While the Blue-Gold Game certainly isn’t a precursor to certain success, it has to have left Irish fans feeling far more comfortable with the direction of their football team.

That’s about all anyone could ask for in the Blue-Gold Game.