Pregame Six Pack: 85th annual Blue-Gold game

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Welcome back to football. And what easier way back into it than a guaranteed Irish victory. After a long offseason, Notre Dame fans near and far will get their annual spring checkup on their favorite football team. What they’ll see? Well, that might not be that simple.

Everett Golson is back, a long journey completed after last taking the field as the presumed starter in the 84th annual Blue-Gold game. He’s joined by Malik Zaire on the scholarship depth chart, with both signal callers expected to get an extended look on Saturday.

What will Brian Kelly choose to show? That’s not entirely clear, either. After talking up an up-tempo attack and the evolution of the offense to a full-scale spread attack, it’s hard to expect Kelly to show off too many of the cards up his sleeve, especially with a national broadcast and a hungry fanbase that’ll dissect every snap taken.

But why sweat the small stuff? After one of the worst winters in memory, there’s football in Notre Dame Stadium, with a live blog hosted here and the game available to view both on NBC Sports Network and on NBCSports.com starting at 12:30 p.m. EDT. (Here’s an early-bird link to the game.)

Here’s your pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the Irish do battle for Blue-Gold glory. 

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First off, let’s take a look at the rules.

You might need an accounting degree to understand this year’s scoring system. But let’s start with the easy stuff.

The first half will be close to real football. Each quarter will be two 12-minute periods, with normal clock rules. The second half will be running time, with the quarters set for 15 minutes each.

The offense’s scoring system is as follows:

Field goal: 3 points
Touchdown: 6 points
Extra Point: 1 point
2-point Conversion: 2 points
Big Chunk Pass (20+ yards): 2 points
Big Chunk Run (15+): 2 points
Two consecutive first downs: 2 points

This is how the defense scores points:

Defensive Stop Before 50-yard line: 4 points
Defensive Stop After the 50-yard line: 2 points
Turnover Forced Before 50-yard line: 7 points
Turnover Forced After 50-yard line: 3 points
Forces a Field Goal (Make or Miss): 1 point
Three-and-out: 2 points

Make sense? Good, you can explain it to me during the live blog.

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Irish fans excited to see Brian VanGorder’s defense? Don’t get your hopes up. 

Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator will be on display this Saturday, Irish fan’s first opportunity to see the changes Brian VanGorder made to Bob Diaco’s system. Some will be obvious: Expect to see the Irish mostly in four-down sets. Some will be most subtle: Nickel and Dime sub-packages could be plentiful.

But for those expecting to see VanGorder throw the kitchen sink at the Irish offense, don’t hold your breath.

For the first time in five seasons, the Irish will head into the season with the advantage of having VanGorder’s system a mystery to opponents. What tape do you study? A season under Gene Chizik at Auburn? Rex Ryan’s defense will the Jets? Old film from the Atlanta Falcons? Even older tape from the beginning of the Mark Richt era at Georgia?

The first conversation I had with former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was a month after the new coaching staff’s first spring game in South Bend. When I asked him how his defense played, he carefully responded, “They did a nice job doing what we asked them to do.” I kindly asked him to explain. Diaco then confided that they played a scheme that they’d never play again, simply for the purpose of not giving anything away.

Don’t expect the attitude to change, especially with a young, unproven personnel group.

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Thanks to a razor thin depth chart, we should see plenty of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. 

The quarterbacks will be off limits. But thanks to a scholarship depth chart that’s exactly two deep, we should see plenty of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire on Saturday (and walk-on Charlie Fiessinger). This is hardly Golson’s triumphant return, with a scrimmage far from making this “finished business.” But the rising senior will be in his first game-like situation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the South Carolina native wants to put on a show for the fans.

The same can be said for Zaire. After providing one of the rare highlights in last year’s Blue-Gold game with a nice touchdown pass, Zaire won’t have the opportunity to fully take advantage of his skill set if he’s off limits, but he’ll need to show full command of the offense put into his hands.

We just talked about the fact that Brian VanGorder might not throw the type of exotic blitzes he’s known for at the Irish offense on Saturday. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t doing it this spring.

I want our quarterbacks to see it all,” Kelly said earlier this week. “They have seen more exotics, more things than they will see next year at any one time, and it’s difficult on them. It’s really hard on them, but I’d rather have it be difficult, so when I go into that meeting, we have great meetings that we can teach off of and learn off of, and get better at. Our quarterbacks understand that.

“What they’re seeing is really some 500-level stuff. It’s all good stuff, and I’d rather have it that way than have them line up like ducks and then we get to the fall and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen that, coach. 
It’s hard, it’s made for some tough meetings, but I think it’s really good teaching in the spring. I’d rather be teaching in those meetings than just saying this is pretty easy.”

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Even after a disappointing slide to four losses, Brian Kelly is still viewed among the elite. 

It’s that time of year where arbitrary lists and rankings get plenty of attention. Or at least this one should. Athlon released their rankings for all 128 college football coaches and as you may or may not have expected, Brian Kelly was close to the top.

Kelly slotted in at No. 9 in the rankings, falling in just behind Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (who if it weren’t for a play called Little Giants, would be winless against the Irish head coach.)

Here’s the top 10:

1. Nick Saban
2. Urban Meyer
3. Steve Spurrier
4. Bob Stoops
5. Art Briles
6. Bill Snyder
7. Jimbo Fischer
8. Mark Dantonio
9. Brian Kelly
10. Gus Malzahn

Stanford’s David Shaw comes in at No. 12, Louisville’s Bobby Petrino at No. 16, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald at No. 18, Arizona State’s Todd Graham at No. 19. Michigan’s Brady Hoke is No. 38 and USC’s Steve Sarkisian is No. 44. That’s a lot of coaching talent on next year’s schedule.

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 What in the name of Junior Jabbie? Will we actually learn anything on Saturday?

For every revealing spring game there’s a breakout performer like Junior Jabbie, the anonymous back-up running back who burst onto the scene like a supernova, but never appeared again. There are plenty of chances for that to happen this year, with a stable of walk-on running backs likely carrying the ball in the second half and Charlie Fiessenger probably running the second half show as well.

But a quick look back at last year’s game revealed some interesting tidbits. First, the special teams were a mess. Second, the running game was still trying to figure out exactly what it was.

Mostly, the feeling at the game was one different than most. The Irish were settled. They were coming off a 12-1 season. They had their starting quarterback ready to take the next step.

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

Obviously, the trap door hadn’t opened yet. But expect a more business-like performance on Saturday, even if we won’t know what any of this actually means.

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Even with changes on his staff and roster, Kelly seems all in. 

Earlier this week, CBS Sports’ Jeremy Fowler sat down with Brian Kelly and picked the head coach’s brain. In a wide ranging conversation where Kelly talked about Declan Sullivan (Kelly delivered the keynote at the memorial fund’s annual dinner), Kelly also talked about some lighter things.

A growing duel over surfboards in offices with Bob Stoops, and a recent foursome at Augusta National with Tom Brady (no big deal, Charlie Weis isn’t the only Notre Dame coach that gets to hang with the Patriots)!

Kelly opened up about things big and small about life at Notre Dame.Do yourself a favor and read the entire article, but here are a few snippets that I found very interesting:

Kelly talked with Brady specifically about the workload that exists in the NFL.

As if that four-putt somewhere on Amen Corner wasn’t humbling enough for Kelly, who shot 91, Brady asked Kelly if players today understood the difficulty of making an NFL roster. Most of them have “no idea,” Kelly realized.

“They are putting in 10 hours a day,” Kelly said of NFL players. “Right now, college guys are putting in maybe 10 to 12 hours a week [because of NCAA rules].”

Kelly’s evaluation of this team also was worth noting, a distinct difference between the team that could have three first round draft picks.

“It’s not really a top-heavy NFL Draft pick team, but this might be our most talented top to bottom,” Kelly told Fowler.

Perhaps Kelly’s most revealing detail was just how important he feels the quarterback is in his system. After noticing how quickly Florida State was able to turn the tables with Jameis Winston (and the fact that Kelly himself rode a young quarterback to the BCS title game), he talked about the essential nature of a good quarterback in college football.

“It’s all about the quarterback,” Kelly told Fowler. “Manage the pocket. He’s got to have answers.”

We’ll get our first extended look as to whether Golson and Zaire have those answers on Saturday afternoon.