Five things we learned: 83rd annual Blue-Gold game

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Tolstoy once said that spring is the time of plans and projects. On display for all to see today were Brian Kelly‘s plans and projects, with quarterback Everett Golson and running back George Atkinson stealing the show. The soon-to-be sophomores showcased their respective talents this afternoon during the 83rd annual Blue-Gold game, while also reminding us that they are still works-in-progress.

“Both of those guys are exciting, electric players,” Kelly said after the game. “But they are a heart attack for me.”

On the scoreboard, the defense defeated the offense 42-31. But the stars of the game were Atkinson, who ran for 124 yards on 15 carries and caught three balls for 54 yards, and Golson, who completed 11 of 15 throws for 120 yards and two touchdowns, while chipping in 25 yards on the ground. In a crowded backfield, Atkinson clearly stated his case for seeing the football more next fall. He also lost two fumbles, showing the dangers of youth as he contributed more than his fair share to the offense’s six turnovers, continuing last season’s fit of self-inflected mistakes. While Golson played mostly mistake free football, Kelly continues to work with his young talent to make sure he’s able to properly manage a football game.

Spring football games are just another practice for a coaching staff that gets 15 opportunities to work with their team in the offseason. But for fans clamoring to get that first peak at what’s to come in the fall, let’s look at the five things we learned during the Blue-Gold game.

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It appears that it’s only a three-man race at quarterback.

Brian Kelly laid out his plans for the quarterbacking position earlier in the week,  rolling Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel through the game based on seniority. But when the Irish took the field under a perfectly sunny sky, Kiel stayed on the sidelines for the first half, only seeing action in the second half while the clock rolled.

After the game, Kelly explained that Kiel wasn’t ready to run the full allotment of the offense, and kept him out of the fray as the other quarterbacks competed against the Irish’s top defense. And while Kiel will have his opportunity to learn and compete in the fall, it’s clear that a perfect world will feature the Irish’s five-star prospect watching and learning.

“We can’t run everything with Gunner at this point,” Kelly said. “He just doesn’t have the knowledge base. So from that standpoint we gave him all the reps in the second half and got him an opportunity to really feel like he was part of the game.”

Kiel was five of ten on the day, throwing an interception to Chris Salvi on one of many throws that sailed high on him. While he very much looks the part of a starting college quarterback, barring a big step forward during summer workouts and fall camp, Kiel will enter the depth chart at No. 4.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Entering the third year of building his program, Kelly has the luxury of letting his freshman quarterback develop properly. The future of this program very well could be with Kiel behind center. But it likely won’t be in 2012.

***

With six offensive turnovers, today’s snapshot felt too much like a replay of last season.

Kelly has stated that the minus-fifteen turnover ratio was more upsetting than the 8-5 record. And after today’s scrimmage, the head coach once again railed on the mistakes made on the offensive side of the ball.

“We saw some errors that, unfortunately, are all too familiar,” Kelly said. “So I think there were some strides made, but clearly we’re not there yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Atkinson’s fumbles pushed aside for the moment, both Rees and Hendrix made mistakes with the football that can’t continue. For Rees, it was over-throwing a seam route that ended in the arms of an over-the-top safety. For Hendrix, it was trying to force a throw in a place it should’ve never gone. Both quarterbacks struggled with accuracy, completing less than 50 percent of their combined throws, failing to capitalize against a secondary that was playing largely without Bennett Jackson.

After a relatively clean 14 practices, the Irish quarterbacks threw threw interceptions on 48 attempts. That’s not good enough, especially with 2012’s difficult schedule ahead.

***

There’s still plenty to like along both sides of the line for the Irish. 

With quarterbacks open game for Irish defenders, the stat-line in the sacks column was kept conspicuously clean. That’s a credit to Harry Hiestand‘s offensive line, still playing without starting center Braxston Cave, but also because the Irish’s top pass rushing presence was visiting South Florida while his former teammates battled. A year after Aaron Lynch treated offensive tackles like matadors, there was little pressure on Irish quarterbacks then they dropped back to pass.

That’s not to say that the Irish won’t get after quarterbacks without Lynch. Fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt only made cameo appearances along the line while guys like Sheldon Day and Tyler Stockton saw a ton of time. Just as impressive was the effort by youngsters Anthony Rabasa and Jarrett Grace, who likely will be let loose in the pass rush next season. Kona Schwenke, voted most improved by the coaching staff after an impressive spring, should be able to replace Sean Cwynar as Louis Nix‘s running mate at nose tackle.

The Irish offensive line might be the best set of blockers this defensive front sees in the next calendar year. The Irish ran for 259 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry behind a group that substituted liberally. With a stacked backfield and limited receiving options, the Irish would do themselves well leaning on the line to power the offense. With a secondary also learning on the fly, the front seven should dictate the tone of the defense as well.

After struggling to fill a depth chart last season, there’s an embarrassment of riches in the backfield.

Last year, the Irish were worried about what they’d get from their running backs after Cierre Wood. While Jonas Gray stepped to the forefront, the Irish were thin in the backfield the entire season, having the shift Theo Riddick back to running back after Gray went down with a knee injury.

Turn the clock ahead and now the backfield is one of the undeniable strengths of the team. With Wood running for over 10 yards a carry this afternoon, Theo Riddick looking natural in the backfield, and Atkinson drawing oohs and aahs in the press box, Brian Kelly has more than enough to work with, even without injured back Amir Carlisle and incoming freshmen Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell.

The versatility of this position group might be the best thing it has going for it. With Chuck Martin rebooting the scheme, Irish backs will be just as dangerous through the air as on the ground. Riddick led the Irish with eight catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. Atkinson broke a big play on a pass as well. Carlisle was one of USC’s best two-way back last season, and he’ll move comfortably between the backfield and split wide.

The strategic benefit of Tony Alford coaching both backs and slot receivers forces the Irish’s offensive personnel to cross-train daily. We already saw Robby Toma get a carry this afternoon after only getting one all last season. With wide receiver still a big question mark heading into the season, creative personnel grouping between multiple tight ends and running backs could help alleviate any concern on the outside.

***

It’s only one practice, but a future with Everett Golson behind center could be coming.

The quarterbacking job is still likely Tommy Rees’ to lose. But for one afternoon, Irish fans had the ability to see what a dynamic playmaker Everett Golson can be in this offense. Golson was unquestionably the best performer of the four and his ability to make plays with his feet and flash a very big arm, help you understand why he’s always been such an intriguing prospect.

After the game, Kelly was quick to talk about the things that Golson needs to improve on, skipping over the undeniable ability that was on display for the 35,000-plus fans in attendance.

“We come at this from different perspectives,” Kelly said, slipping quickly past the two touchdown passes and nimble running. “The stats don’t mean anything to me. What I didn’t like was that he’s got to get the plays in quicker. He’s got to recognize the signaling. If I’m not out there getting guys set and making sure he knows what to play, we’re going to have flags thrown all over the place. So those things don’t mean as much to me as they do managing the offense. We’re making progress there, but we’re nowhere where we need to be.”

As the Irish head into summer workouts and team-run sessions, Golson will likely need to continue learning how to run a football team, something that Brian Kelly wants out of his quarterbacks. The record-setting high school quarterback that’s simply able to freestyle his way to a state championship is a guy that gets college coaches fired.

“The quarterback position is both art and science,” Kelly explained. “The art part he’s got down. It’s the science and the consistency, all of those things to be a championship quarterback.”

Kelly knows he’s got a project with Golson. As the Irish head into summer, it’ll be on Golson’s shoulders to finish the job and take control of the quarterback position.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.