Inevitably, Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game’s most exciting moments will come when a young receiver breaks loose for a long touchdown or an unproven defensive lineman makes plays in the offensive backfield on consecutive snaps. Those will be the tidbits fans take with them to nurture their optimism over the spring.
The more informative aspects of the final spring practice, however, will be whatever can be gleaned from the offensive and defensive schemes. With a new defensive coordinator focused on turnovers and a new offensive coordinator preaching tempo, the Blue-Gold Game will offer the best looks yet at how those concepts have taken hold.
Following the spring’s 13th practice Wednesday, Irish coach Brian Kelly said defensive coordinator Mike Elko had successfully installed his base defense.
Notre Dame's base defense has been installed, per Kelly.— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) April 19, 2017
That base defense’s success will hinge on its ability to create turnovers. Should the Irish offense commit a few in the weekend exhibition, it may be considered as much a positive sign regarding the defense’s growth as a negative indicator of the offense’s sloppiness.
“The most important thing is the scheme in itself is the fundamentals of football,” Kelly said April 7 of Elko’s approach. “Being in the right place to be timely in taking the football away. It’s being in the right gap. All the fundamentals that we’re talking about that we lacked at times.”
Saturday’s pseudo-game environment should present a good evaluation of those fundamentals. While it will fall short of the pressure of playing in front of a sellout crowd in September, it will certainly provide more of an atmosphere than any of spring’s practices have. Especially with an inexperienced defensive line facing Notre Dame’s rather experienced offensive line, the ability or inability of the former unit to hold its own within the new scheme will be far more projectable intel than sophomore Daelin Hayes’ individual performance.
“We’re going to be a smarter, more disciplined football team. That, I think, is going to put us in position to be schematically a better football team,” Kelly said. “Without having to create and be exotic, we can be a football team that takes the football away and is a better football team because we’re just fundamentally in a really good position each and every snap.”
HOW DOES THE OFFENSE HANDLE ITS OWN TEMPO?
On the other side, offensive coordinator Chip Long’s greatest influence on the scheme may be its pacing. Though largely operating within Kelly’s playbook, Long intends to expedite the Irish tempo.
Long coached under Todd Graham at Arizona State from 2012 to 2015. Presumably, he carried forward some of Graham’s philosophy from those four seasons. Earlier this month, Graham expressed some dismay about how many teams utilize fast-paced play.
“I think a lot of people nowadays might as well huddle up,” the Arizona State head coach said on the Associated Press Top 25 podcast. “All they’re doing is just [tempo for the sake of tempo]. We’re not that. We want to push the pace, but there’s a way you do that. You don’t just hurry up. You have to manage tempo. I’m talking about managing snaps.”
Graham then turned to some numbers which could be useful in gauging Notre Dame’s success with a quicker-paced scheme.
“If you turn the ball over, you’re going to play five less snaps on average,” Graham said. “For every three-and-out, you’re losing two to three snaps.”
Naturally, those snaps then become defensive snaps, putting your defensive unit at risk both in terms of exhaustion and in opponents’ scoring chances. Graham sees value in tempo, but only if it comes with possession. Utilize the tempo to create a mismatch, not simply to try to tire out your opponent.
“When we call a play, we want to get the ball to our best guy on their less guy,” Graham said. “When we come up and there are less numbers over here, we’re going to run it over here…
“I believe in tempo, but not more than physicality. I believe in fast tempo not to sit up and look back and call the right play. I’m trying to create a fifth quarter.”
The intrasquad scrimmage to conclude spring practice is always filled with contradictions. If Elko’s defense successfully forces multiple turnovers, that can be seen either as his aggressive strategy taking root or as Long’s offense missing its assignments. If Long’s offense gets into fifth gear and exploits multiple matchups, that might be junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush knowing the playbook’s intricacies or it may be a young defense failing to step up when called upon.
Rather than default to blanket statements such as those, look for how Notre Dame’s offense and defense understand their new styles throughout the afternoon. The grasp, of lack thereof, of the new systems may be the most accurate barometer of this spring’s success preparing for the fall.
HOW TO WATCH SATURDAY
The Blue-Gold Game begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, and it will be aired on NBC Sports Network, as well as on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.