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Pregame Six Pack: Green Irish roster prepares for Blue-Gold game

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For the 87th time, Notre Dame will play the Blue-Gold game. And for Irish fans tuning in for the first time this spring, they’ll likely need a new program.

As Brian Kelly’s seventh team in South Bend takes shape, it’ll look drastically different from the core of the previous two teams. Gone are standouts like Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin. Captain Joe Schmidt no longer stands in the middle of the defense.

Offensively, the Irish are expected to retain their firepower, but they’ll do so without their leading rusher and three leading receivers. They’ll also need to replace three starters along the offensive line, the Irish without a Martin on the offensive line for the first time since Kelly took over.

For the second time in as many springs, the Blue-Gold game will give a national audience a look at one of the country’s most compelling quarterback battle. Only this time one quarterback isn’t likely to flee town.

With a picture perfect weather forecast and a good crowd expected, a new generation of Irish football players will step into the spotlight, their turn to build on the legacy of the group before them. With a senior class that set a record for winning games in Notre Dame Stadium, the bar has been raised.

Brian Kelly will be wired for sound. Friend of the program Jac Collinsworth will be holding it down on the sidelines in place of Kathryn Tappen who is on NHL duty. So let’s crack open a pregame six pack that ends in the perfect fashion: A 100-percent guaranteed Irish victory, televised live on NBCSN on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

 

Kizer versus Zaire will be the closest thing we see to a quarterback showdown. Blink and you might miss it. 

Brian Kelly raised some eyebrows when he confirmed that both quarterbacks would be live during the Blue-Gold game. (For how long? That’s the big question.) But as Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach Mike Denbrock try to get a better grasp on who’ll pilot the offense next fall, seeing both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer in a natural environment is a necessary evil.

Both Zaire and Kizer will be aiming to impress on Saturday, each trying to make a final lasting impression before the long offseason months. For Zaire, he’ll once again remind people he’s a “lights-on” kind of quarterback, the type of player who elevates his play once he gets off the practice field and into a game situation. For Kizer, Saturday will be about dictating terms as a quarterback, showcasing the assets that made him one of the most impressive redshirt freshmen in the nation.

Kelly talked about having Zaire and Kizer both captain a team, pitting them against each other. He also talked about making both live—understanding that the zone read game will be a critical component of the offense. But don’t expect that to last.

Brandon Wimbush will eat up some of the snaps. So will fellow backups Montgomery VanGorder and walk-on Nolan Henry. The real goal is getting both Kizer and Zaire out of spring healthy, knowing that any final decision on playing time will be decided in the fall.

In the meantime, cherish our only great look at the battle all spring, because the next time you’ll see them is in August.

 

Will Jerry Tillery and Jarron Jones finally step forward in the last practice of spring? 

Brian VanGorder declared both defensive tackle jobs available heading into fall camp. And while just about everybody who follows the Irish have fifth-year senior Jarron Jones penciled in alongside sophomore Jerry Tillery, when VanGorder talks you’d be wise to listen.

While neither Tillery nor Jones were around yesterday to hear the third-year defensive coordinators comments, you can guess the message has been sent.

“If we started tomorrow, I am not sure who the starters would be,” VanGorder said. “I have an idea, but it’s going to be competitive going into training camp. No one has established themselves as a starter at the defensive tackle position. We will keep it competitive and see if we can grow and develop some young players.”

While we’ll get to see some of the young talent VanGorder referenced on the ascending defensive line, with Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway, Jay Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Elijah Taylor and Brandon Tiassum a strong core who could pick up some of the slack.

But these jobs needed to be seized by both Jones and Tillery, two mountainous men who could both wreak havoc against opposing offenses. Let’s see if the live action brings out the best in them.

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For Folston, Crawford and Tranquill, getting onto the field for the Blue-Gold Game is gravy. 

That Tarean Folston, Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill have all rebounded and reasserted their position on the depth chart is impressive. Because in year’s past, they’d likely have spent 15 practices rehabilitating their knees and sitting in the cold tub.

The Irish’s trio of bad luck, season-ruining knees have all had ahead-of-schedule recoveries. Folston has reasserted himself at the top of the running back depth chart. Crawford has played his way into the conversation to start opposite Cole Luke when he’s not anchored into the all important job working in the slot. And Tranquill—two ACL tears in two seasons—is ready to go from the cold tub to the starting strong safety job.

How this trio is used on Saturday is anybody’s guess. But it’s already been a successful spring for three key contributors who worked hard to make it back to spring ball ahead of schedule.

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With the depth chart open in front of him, Saturday could be a preview of Torii Hunter’s 2016 coming out party. 

After entering Notre Dame recovering from a horrific leg injury suffered at the Army All-American All-Star game, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr.‘s career got off to a slow start. But after a redshirt and two years working his way into the rotation, don’t be shocked if Hunter tries making up for lost time on Saturday.

Expected to become Notre Dame’s next No. 1 receiver with Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Hunter may have punched his own ticket to a monster statistical season. That’s what should happen when you run a 4.42 40-yard dash and have the ability to play anywhere on the field (even defense—Hunter was the staff’s choice to cross-train as a defensive back when the Irish went searching for a nickel back.)

Finally at the top of the food chain and also tasked with teaching a young group of talent with Corey Robinson still out with lingering concussion symptoms, don’t be surprised if Hunter decides leading by example is the best course of action, getting vertical on Saturday and running by every defensive back at least once.

Hunter’s a below-the-radar player who is primed for a breakthrough in 2016. Coming off of a 28-catch, 363-yard season, not too many people will see it coming.

So maybe Kelly is happy to let him stay off the grid, leaving spring to some impressive youth and Hunter to announce his presence once he arrives in Austin on Labor Day Weekend.

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The kids are going to be all right. 

Keep an eye out for some of the quick studies earning a lot of kudos from the coaching staff. Early enrollee freshmen Devin Studstill (No. 13) and Kevin Stepherson (No. 29) may have numbers that look like they should belong to walk-ons, but both have been dynamic this spring. Studstill is challenging Max Redfield for playing time at free safety. Stepherson has already found his way into the two-deep, a three-star receiver who already looks the part of an ankle-breaking playmaker.

After preserving a year of eligibility last season, linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas will get more playing time than they can handle on Saturday. Both Indiana natives have had to learn through the firehouse as Mike Elston’s had just four healthy scholarship linebackers during spring ball. Both could take that momentum onto the field next spring, with Bilal in the conversation for the starting Will linebacker job.

While a new load of reinforcements will be on campus in June, a few defensive backs who spent 2015 watching now have a chance to charge into battle. We already talked about Crawford. But Ashton White also looks like a physical corner who has crossover abilities at safety. Redshirt freshman Miles Boykin could be another matchup problem as a receiver, the beneficiary of Corey Robinson’s missed practice time at the boundary wide receiver.

We’ve seen glimpses from emerging contributors like Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams, Alizé Jones (likely to spend some time with Boykin at W receiver), while Tristen Hoge fights for time at guard. All have essentially taken this spring as a chance to fight for a significant in the rotation.

Expect one (or more) of these names to have a big Saturday.

 

Take it from Junior Jabbie. Not all spring game performances are created equal. 

A clutch touchdown catch from Justin Brent and Corey Holmes sharing the team lead with three catches. Jhonny Williams and Grant Blankenship notching sacks. Max Redfield running an interception back for a touchdown. None of those occurrences in last year’s Blue-Gold game were signs of big things to come in 2015.

Of course, the flip-side is also true. Before he shattered most first-year quarterback records in South Bend, DeShone Kizer was getting outplayed by Montgomery VanGorder, hitting rock bottom with a 1-of-5 performance for three total yards, taking a safety and sack in a game where he wasn’t even full contact.

Spring games reveal themselves in different ways. Junior Jabbie will go down in Irish lore for a spring game performance that netted him an MVP trophy. He was never heard from again. John Owens was unblockable in the 2000 Blue-Gold game, notching three sacks. That was triple his career total. Chris Olsen went from MVP to quarterback transfer, a dozen years before Everett Golson pulled the same chute.

Last year, we saw clues of the team that emerged in the fall.  Notre Dame’s offensive line was a strength, C.J. Prosise‘s switch to running back looked natural. But this is also just 1/15th of spring drills—and the only ones broadcast to fans (and opposing coaches) trying to glean anything from an Irish team filled with unknowns.

I’m often reminded of comments former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made when he discussed his first defense’s performance in his inaugural Blue-Gold game in South Bend. He was pleased with their effort, happy they executed the gameplan he delivered. Then he revealed they’ll never play that scheme again.

Happy Blue-Gold game.