Five things we learned: 78th Blue-Gold game

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On a beautiful afternoon for football, Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold game went off without a hitch. No turnovers. No broken coverages. More important than either—no major injuries.

All eyes were on quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. And while Kizer’s Blue team pulled out the 17-7 victory, no quarterback’s play on the field—not even under a clear-blue sky high above the still-transforming Notre Dame Stadium—provided clarity to a battle that’ll continue into fall camp.

But plenty of position groups came into focus on Saturday afternoon, with a rebuilt Irish roster featuring new faces that’ll turn into key pieces of the 2016 team. As the offense and defense battled evenly, head coach Brian Kelly was happy that his young team was able to play clean football.

“I think it was a little bit of everything, I think it was good football on both sides of the ball,” Kelly told NBC’s Jac Collinsworth. “Fundamentally sound defensively. Offensively, it was a little bit of everything. Some guys stepping up and making some plays. I was pleased overall coming out here and having a competitive day.”

With Montgomery VanGorder scored the second half’s only touchdown in the game’s closing minutes, he finished the spring on a positive note. Let’s find out what else we learned as Notre Dame caps off a key transitional spring before the 2016 season.

 

The first-half quarterback showdown revealed the Irish are in good hands either way. 

The afternoon certainly didn’t start the way Malik Zaire wanted it to. Notre Dame’s rising senior quarterback, who is looking to reclaim a starting job he lost just two games into last season when he broke his ankle, missed early and often in his first two drives, both ending in 3-and-outs.

But Zaire turned things around and flashed moments of brilliance—making plays with his feet and with the deep ball, connecting with Torii Hunter on the day’s most impressive play. Zaire also ran for a touchdown, looking healthy and elusive as he capped off the Gold team’s lone scoring drive in a one-man army type effort.

If Zaire’s day featured highs and lows, Kizer’s steady performance underscores his comfort in the system. More surgical with his decisions, Kizer worked through his reads, finding success picking apart the Gold defense with underneath throws.

Kizer also won the mental chess match at the line of scrimmage, a third-down audible exploiting an open middle of the field where Kizer ran for a long conversion. His quick side-armed sling around an unblocked defender turned a sack into a nice completion to Alizé Jones. Maybe his best pass of the afternoon was dropped, a deep ball looped perfectly towards a streaking Kevin Stepherson, with the rookie failing to reel in the big gainer.

Both quarterbacks played the entire first half without a red jersey before turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush in the second half. After the game, Kelly complimented the play of both, while also acknowledging that this battle isn’t ending any time soon.

“It was set up for the quarterbacks and I think they did a nice job,” Kelly said immediately after the game. “But I don’t think anybody separated themselves.”

 

As new faces emerge, freshmen Kevin Stepherson, Devin Studstill and Shaun Crawford look like major contributors. 

Brian Kelly has been telling everybody who’s been willing to listen that the young players on his roster were ready to make an impact. Saturday afternoon highlighted three of them, with Kevin Stepherson and Devin Studstill (both early-enrollees) along with (redshirt) Shaun Crawford looking the part of ascending players.

Stepherson was Notre Dame’s most active wide receiver, flashing top-end speed and the ability to play anywhere as he led the Blue team with 70 receiving yards. While he dropped a throw that would’ve put his afternoon into triple-digits, he’s clearly put himself into a position to be in the receiver rotation in the fall.

“We have a player on our team in KJ Stepherson that can catch the ball at full speed as he cuts across the field, a very unique trait,” Kelly said. “He still has to work on catching the ball vertically down the field. But he catches the ball out of his break at full speed, and it is a unique trait that he has that I have not seen since I’ve been here at Notre Dame.”

That explosiveness is likely why Stepherson was back catching punts. And even considering the difficulty freshmen wide receivers have had making an impact under Kelly, it looks like the unheralded recruit is positioned to be the most productive freshman wideout that Kelly’s had in his time in South Bend.

On the other side of the ball, Studstill was around the football early and often, proving very quickly that the praise her earned was much more than a motivational tactic for Max Redfield. Studstill ran the alley and made a nice stop on Zaire, limiting the quarterback to a short gain. He also looked at home in coverage, playing like a seasoned veteran, not a freshman who should be finding a prom date in a few weeks.

Put Kelly among those who wondered if Shaun Crawford knew what his green jersey signified (limited contact). It’s clear that a healthy Crawford has the ability to make the defense so much better with him on the football field. The Ohio native seems to just find the football. He was active in coverage, strong in run support, quick to diagnose every play he saw develop.

Crawford came off the edge with a blitz that ruined a play and played man coverage as an outside cornerback, too. With Nick Watkins out and Crawford still in the recovery phase after his August ACL tear, it’s clear the Irish have a playmaking cornerback on their hands. What’s surprising is that he looked like one of the most confident players on the field even before he’s made his collegiate debut.

 

Torii Hunter is standing out as the No. 1 weapon in the rebuilt receiving corps. 

Streaking deep with Nick Coleman in good position to defend him, Torii Hunter made the game’s best catch—snatching Zaire’s perfectly-thrown deep ball with one hand and bringing it in. The 50-yarder was one of three catches Hunter made as Zaire’s favorite target, a nice step forward for the rising senior as he ascends to the No. 1 wide receiver job.

Hunter’s evolution as a receiver has been one of the spring’s most important developments. Long viewed as one of the team’s best practice players, injuries have hampered through two of his seasons in South Bend before finally getting through 2015 healthy.

But Hunter has been unwilling to let anything get in the way of his ascent. Kelly credited those efforts after the Blue-Gold game, talking about the work ethic the rising senior has displayed.

“I think he’s had a terrific spring,” Kelly said. “The work volume that he’s put in while he’s going to school, while he’s playing baseball, has been an incredible commitment.

“It’s amazing what he does in terms of the intensity in which he practices and how hard he goes, and then he does the same thing for [baseball coach Mik Aoki]. He’s a unique young man in that he can focus and give that kind of intensity to both sports”

Hunter’s move to the front lines will be counted on in 2016, especially if Corey Robinson‘s return to the football field isn’t clear. But identified as one of the team’s most improved players this spring by Kelly on Friday, Hunter is poised for a big season.

 

Even with massive turnover, improved defensive fundamentals had to have Irish fans happy. 

Nobody is ready to anoint the Irish defense after it got the better of the offense in the spring game. But any worry that there’d be offensive fireworks and big plays coming fast and furious were erased by a rock-solid performance in the first half.

The Blue front seven made things difficult for Zaire from the game’s first snap. Neither Josh Adams or Dexter Williams get loose. While Drue Tranquill drew a “panic P.I.” on a deep pattern by Chris Finke and Hunter caught a 50-yarder, Kelly praised the competitiveness of his rebuilt secondary.

“I’m very pleased is the progress of some of the young players in the back end of our defense,” Kelly said. “I thought our corner play was better. I thought our safety play was much improved and those are the areas we need better play at, and I thought that those young players out there today made significant progress.”

Spotting Jay Hayes wreaking havoc from his new defensive end spot had to make Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore happy. Watching young linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas continue to learn on the field had to be promising as well. With Avery Sebastian making his presence felt and Jarron Jones flashing early, Kelly didn’t sound like a guy wishing something to be true in his postgame comments when he set a lofty goal for his rebuilt unit.

“I think that this defense is going to play the kind of defense necessary for us to get into that playoff hunt again,” Kelly said. “There are good enough players out there for us to do that once again.”

 

On a roster filled with new players, the progress is still apparent. 

There were no cameos with defensive linemen in the backfield or screen passes thrown to linemen. The quarterback battle didn’t feature a flea flicker or forced friendship to finish the day on a high note.

Saturday was a work day for the Irish—Brian Kelly made sure of that. And his young football team rewarded him with a solid day at the office, finishing spring like a team intent on taking advantage of every opportunity to get better that the NCAA allows them.

With 14 starters gone and the majority of those heading to the professional ranks, prevailing wisdom would allow for a step back as the roster rebuilds. But with young talent unwilling to wait to get on the field and veterans more than eager to breakthrough, this football team—for one day, at least—didn’t look like a group that expected to be anything less than a contender for a college football playoff spot.

The play was crisp. The competition was even. And as Kelly continues to look for leaders to step forward, he’ll do so from a framework where the program runs smoothly.

“It’s a pretty sound group. They are not a group that gets too far outside of the blueprint,” Kelly said.

The team now transfers into the players’ hands. Replacing five captains is no small task and the months of offseason training is when Kelly believes this team’s identity will be formed.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly explained. “That naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way.”

One of the benefits that comes with a rebuilt roster is the anonymity it allows. For the first time in a long time, the Irish will be able to do something they’re fairly unaccustomed to doing: Sneak up on people.

So while there’s certainly the possibility that the Irish can’t overcome the considerable personnel losses they faced, there’s no better time to project a rosy future than when it’s 70-and-sunny in South Bend.

Weather aside, there’s reason for optimism.  At the game’s most important position, the Irish have an embarrassment of riches. Notre Dame can win with Zaire or Kizer, and probably with Brandon Wimbush as well.

Defensively, the Blue-Gold game was a nice data point in the evolution of a unit with a spotlight on it. For as much heat as VanGorder has taken for his scheme and his unit’s maddening inconsistency, one area he rarely receives credit is for his ability to make big adjustments in the offseason.

We watched the 2015 team do masterful work against the option after looking lost a year before. When teams used tempo to take the Irish out of their game plan in VanGorder’s debut season, they were unable to do so last year. With comprehension and player recognition the singular goal of the offseason, it isn’t too big of a leap to think that Year Three could yield improved results, even after rebuilding its core.

For now, those are questions—not to mention the quarterback battle—are deferred to the fall. Until then, Irish fans can be happy with the progress displayed on a perfect football Saturday.