Five things we learned: Defense 54, Offense 43

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What a difference a year makes.

Just think: Twelve months ago, the Irish were in the middle of a four-man open race for the starting quarterback job. The coaching staff was rebuilt and reshuffled, all with the hopes of fixing an offense that needed to replace its best player. Coming off two 8-5 seasons, the sky felt like it just might actually be falling, with star freshman Aaron Lynch’s departure in the middle of spring feeling like an early sign that the Brian Kelly era was doomed to end just like those of Davie, Willingham and Weis.

Nothing an undefeated regular season and a date in the BCS National Championship game couldn’t fix.

On a frigid Saturday afternoon in South Bend, it really didn’t matter that the defense defeated the offense 54-43. It was just another day at the office for the Irish, with the glorified scrimmage a celebration of the hard work that’s gone into creating the foundation for the 2013 squad.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned during the Blue’s 54-43 victory over the White.

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1. They are who we thought they were.

For the most part, the Blue-Gold game was absent of any real subplot. The Irish know who their quarterback is. They’ve got an idea of their depth chart at running back, wide receiver, tight end, and on the offensive line.

On the defensive side of the ball, this game provided another look at the growing depth in the front seven. It showed the work that still needs to be done in the secondary. But to credit Denny Green, the Irish are who we thought they were.

That might be a very good team, though it’s a squad with some work to be done.

The Irish offensive line struggled to get a push against the starting defense, no doubt hampered by the absence of Chris Watt, who was held out of action for precautionary reasons after a minor neck injury flared up during pregame. Everett Golson wasn’t as sharp as many hoped, with the red jersey almost an open invite to revert back to the sandlot quarterback Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have been eliminating.

But nothing done today — and likely on purpose — showed opponents anything the Irish coaching staff didn’t want to show. And just as important, it didn’t give anybody any reason to think this upcoming season will be one with anything but sky-high expectations.

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2. While he might not have shown it today, Everett Golson took a great step forward this spring.

Everett Golson’s fairly average numbers didn’t tell the story of the rising junior’s spring. A year after surviving during a surprising 12-1 season, Golson spent the winter and spring moving into a leadership position, a role we saw him play not just today, but throughout the spring’s fourteen other official practices.

While Golson put up only modest numbers, 6 of 13 for 98 yards with an interception in the red zone, he talked after the game with NBC’s Alex Flanagan about something far more important — his improved confidence.

“It’s different,” Golson admitted to Flanagan on the field after the game. “But along with that comes responsibility. One of the things I’m trying to do this year is lead this team.”

That’s a quarterback that’s come a long way from last season. Golson was a young kid that openly admitted to being embarrassed after getting yanked against Michigan after a horrendous start. He’s also far from the kid who got benched for the first series against Miami for showing up late for a pregame meeting in Chicago.

After graduating stars like Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, the best player on the offense is now its starting quarterback. This spring showed that Golson understands the responsibility on his shoulders.

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3. If there’s an area of concern heading into the fall, it’s that the special teams are still very much a work-in-progress.

Brian Kelly said a large emphasis was put on improving the special teams this spring. It didn’t show on Saturday afternoon. While none of the coverage units were live during the scrimmage, a few of the major questions Irish fans had about the special teams were only magnified after watching the Blue-Gold game.

Kyle Brindza struggled as the team’s starting punter. (Walk-on Jude Rhodes was even worse.) Fifth-year senior Nick Tausch missed his first field goal attempt, before making three chip shots. And the open audition for punt returner looked more like a game of Hot Potato, with a slew of other candidates not looking like they wanted anything to do with catching the ball.

“I’d like to leave the spring feeling a little bit better about it, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Kelly admitted after the game.

Taking too much from the performance of the special teams units in 39 degree weather during non-contact situations isn’t wise. But Brindza’s inability to average more than 30 yards a punt is worrisome.

Kelly has pledged to use his best players on special teams come the fall, after seeing how Alabama dominated the third segment of the game with starters on all units. We’ll see if that happens come fall camp, when the Irish will have a full allotment of players on hand.

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4. We certainly didn’t learn this today, but Louis Nix is wonderful.

In a game that lacked any true breakthrough performances, Louis Nix provided the highlight of the afternoon, with a quarterback draw executed to perfection for a two-point conversion.

Nix, who looks every bit the 347-pounds he’s listed at, calmly looked both left and right before tucking the football and charging for the end zone. You could hardly blame Kendall Moore for stepping out of the big fella’s way, even though Nix was looking for a collision.

“My intentions were just to truck somebody,” Nix said after the game. “I didn’t care about the touchdown too much. I just wanted to run somebody over.”

That Kelly would give Nix the opportunity to take a snap at quarterback shows you how beloved the All-American nose guard is to his teammates. But perhaps a better illustration of that was shown during the Strong and True documentary, where Nix’s teammates rallied around him as he struggled to finish a particularly hellish conditioning session in the middle of Camp Kelly, a rugged winter workout that featured pushing a wood board along the snow-covered artificial surface.

That kind of thing isn’t easy for anybody, let alone a 350-pound nose guard. But then again neither is playing quarterback, as Nix admitted after the game.

“We haven’t actually conditioned me to read defenses yet,” Nix joked. “So I just ran it.”

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5. Brian Kelly is a different man.

The red-faced screamer of yesteryear would not recognize this head coach. Kelly, who didn’t see a ton of good from his offense, seemed to let it all roll off his shoulders, as much of a sign as you’d ever want from a head coach evaluating his football team.

It’s startling to see how different Kelly is heading into his fourth season at Notre Dame. While we heard that the head coach would evolve as his team learned what he expected from him, we’re now actually seeing it before our eyes.

When George Atkinson got creamed for running with his pads too high, Kelly joked about it with him, before reinforcing his coaching point. When his starting quarterback scrambled too much and threw a bad interception, Kelly called it valuable tape for a long offseason. The only time Kelly got really animated on the sideline was when new long-snapper Scott Daly jumped on a muffed punt — nearly taking out wide receiver TJ Jones’ legs.

It’s crazy to think that Kelly’s fourth season at Notre Dame is the first time he’s had a fourth season since Grand Valley way back in 1994, when half this roster wasn’t born. But Kelly’s stress-free attitude is a sign that all is well for the flagship athletic program under the Golden Dome.