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.

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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.

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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.

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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.