With the spring game in the rearview and a successful Blue-Gold weekend in the books, it’s time for another edition of good, bad, and ugly. Full disclosure: No column is more subjective. Nor is there any column more difficult to write.
Football writing ain’t exactly Nietzsche. So when singing the praises of Torii Hunter or Jay Hayes, you’re also singling out a lost snap by Nick Coleman or Alex Bars. That’s the double-edge sword of intersquad scrimmages, when wins and losses are basically the same as losses and wins. (I feel like Yoda just writing that sentence.)
But jumping to conclusions after two 12-minute quarters and a second-half running clock that disappeared in the blink of an eye? It’s never stopped me before.
So let’s perfect the swan dive as we go head first into the last competitive football we’ll see until the Irish take the field against Texas.
Dexter Williams & Justin Brent. The third and fourth running backs on the roster sure didn’t look like guys who couldn’t crack the two deep. And after watching both Williams and Brent make some nifty plays, it’s hard to think that they won’t at least find a couple touches for each of them.
Williams is more likely a player in contention for a game-to-game role. Brent, who redshirted last season so still has three years of eligibility remaining, could be a dominant mop-up time performer, blowing up Cam McDaniels’ sterling 2012 season where he dominated games when the result wasn’t in doubt and the offense needed to churn through clock.
Both Williams and Brent showed some nice flashes, each catching their head coach’s eye.
“I thought Dexter ran extremely hard,” Kelly said. “I was pleased with Justin Brent.”
Brent made a nice play on a scramble drill when Malik Zaire evaded a blitzer then threw a 50-50 ball that Brent attacked for a big gain. Williams only averaged 3.3 yards per carry, but carried the load and showed the type of burst and decisiveness you want from a back running inside zone.
Remember when third and fourth backs in the spring game usually had a jersey that was three-sizes too big and a Bengal Bouts nickname that usually played off a Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out underdog? Well Williams and Brent certainly aren’t those guys.
Shaun Crawford. Rewatching the game, I came to appreciate even more what Crawford was doing. It felt like there was a level of disgust in Crawford’s play, the limitations of a green jersey forcing him from making a few big plays after he had diagnosed them early and had to wait around and avoid doing what comes naturally for him.
Playing on the edge and out of nickel isn’t preferential. Right now, he seems good enough to start opposite Cole Luke, and he’s already pushing Luke to be better. That’s a testament to just how unique he is athletically Crawford is. There has been no shortage of gushing about him, crazy when you consider:
a) He’s yet to take a snap in a real game.
b) Nobody is mentioning he’s 5-foot-8.
Alex Bars. I was happy that Bars was able to finish off spring at right tackle, the proper home for him all along. That he made it through the spring game without being exposed or suffering a setback with his foot and ankle is a victory by in itself.
The line makes better sense with him at right tackle. It allows the Irish to plug in Hunter Bivin or Colin McGovern on the inside. It allows the Irish to get even bigger across the front, a far cry from a group that played for the national title that looked like “five guards.”
Kevin Stepherson & Torii Hunter. A freshman and a senior were the two most intriguing pass catchers featured in the game. And they both play similar positions.
What’s that mean? Finding a way to move Hunter all over the field so Stepherson can grasp just one job. Kelly talked about that challenge postgame.
“We’re going to take it slow with [Stepherson], and find what’s best for him,” Kelly said. “It’s harder inside, because there’s so many more variables in terms of what he has to do and adjust his routes. He’s probably better suited to be on the outside.
“Then if he’s on the outside what do you do with Torii? I think Torii has more experience where we can flop Torii around more so with not swapping KJ around. I don’t want to move him all over the place.”
We’ve seen a lot of promising freshmen wide receivers arrive in South Bend. None have been able to make an impact under Kelly. But with a leg-up thanks to early enrollment—not to mention, three jobs vacating—putting Stepherson into a specific role should help him break the mold.
“We’ve got to really figure out what we want to do with him and stick with that and say, this is where you’re going to play next year,” Kelly said.
Limiting scores and big plays on defense.
Torii Hunter needed one hand for a 50-yarder. Kevin Stepherson got loose for 25-yards, and Justin Brent made a nice play for a 28-yard gain when Malik Zaire got outside. But other than those three plays, the Irish defense didn’t give up anything overly back-breaking and managed to keep the offense in check.
That was most noticeable in the running game. There wasn’t a ton of emphasis on getting the ground game going, but it certainly didn’t look easy out there. That’s a big step in the right direction, following up good plays with not-easy opportunities for the opponent.
Tyler Newsome. Last spring game, Newsome’s shaky punting had some of us (read: me) worried that life after Ben Turk might not be grand. Well last season’s solid debut erased that. And this spring game, Kelly named Newsome the MVP. The rising (redshirt) sophomore showed off a rocket leg kicking both directions, pinning the football inside the 20, multiple kicks of 50+ yards and excellent hair as well.
Notre Dame’s sophomore specialists are a strength.
Navigating this quarterback dilemma. We’ve talked about the decision Brian Kelly has to make. And it’s not going to be easy. Not necessarily because he could be picking the wrong horse in a two (plus)-horse race, but rather because of the human ramifications that come along with making a decision like this.
I find it hard to see how a choice like this doesn’t split the locker room. I also find it hard to believe that even a trio of brains as wise as Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford can a way for this to work mixing and matching components, though I think that’s the best way to keep everybody at least close to happy.
(Don’t get me wrong, I’m super intrigued by the duo of Kizer and Zaire both playing. It’s a way better scenario than anything Ohio State tried last year, and it’d be a complete nightmare to game plan for, especially on just a week’s notice.)
Kelly said quite a bit late this spring about the state of this battle, and he’s never shied away from saying it’ll go into the fall. More and more that feels like the best sign that he’s doing everything he can to let Malik Zaire have a fair shake, knowing it’s hard to ask a guy who missed 90 percent of the season with a broken ankle to step in and compete. But making things fair doesn’t necessarily tip the scales in favor of Zaire—he still needs to find the calm and control that Kizer displays so effortlessly.
One thing I’m happy to report for sure: Zaire and Kizer officially do away with the ridiculous notion “if you have two quarterbacks you really have none.”
These weren’t game-ruining for me, but a few things I didn’t like seeing.
* Josh Adams, you need to do a better job picking up the blitz.
* Drue Tranquill, that “panic P.I.” makes Irish fans worry about the half-field part of your game. It wasn’t necessarily the strongest part of your first two seasons and if Tranquill wants to spend 2016 in the starting lineup, he needs to make sure he can play comfortably in space at safety. Otherwise, he’s more likely to be a specialist deployed near the line of scrimmage.
* There was a lot of good play from Max Redfield on the field Saturday. But after making a sure-handed stop at the line of scrimmage, Redfield followed it up with a critical miss on Dexter Williams as he scampered into the end zone.
* Do we choose to think that the defensive line made improvements or that Malik Zaire’s starting right side struggled to slow down the Blue front seven?
A clear-blue sky, football, and no injuries? Not to mention a Notre Dame win? Even if it’s one of the least memorable spring games in recent memory, chalk this up as an ugly-free football game.