What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

“We all came into the spring talking about Brandon Wimbush and rightly so, the starting quarterback at Notre Dame is a big topic. It’s a big story,” Kelly said. “But the story beneath the story for me was, who the heck is going to be the No. 2 quarterback? Because if you guys have followed us long enough, we’ve used our No. 2 here quite a bit.”

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury.

Thus, whether Book or senior Montgomery VanGorder could provide some assurance as to an option behind Wimbush appropriately concerned Kelly. Saturday’s performance concluded a spring in which Book put those worries to rest.

“Having that No. 2, and seeing him perform the way he has this spring, for me has been one of the big stories, and Ian has done this all spring,” Kelly said. “You could point to his performance today and say it was a surprise. It wasn’t a surprise to me. He’s shown that. I thought he would go out and play really well. I’m glad he did.”

Provided health, Wimbush will start for the Irish against Temple on Sept. 2. Do not even consider ginning up a quarterback controversy. Nonetheless, it is not an overstatement to say Notre Dame will need a backup quarterback it can rely on. Wimbush could break an ankle a la Zaire, he could lose his helmet and need to spend a play on the sideline like 2012 Everett Golson, or he could miss a team meeting and sit out a quarter or a half as a disciplinary measure. At all times, Book will be a moment away from taking over. He knows as much.

“I’m just trying to be as confident as possible,” Book said. “I know that the mentality here is next man in, and that’s where I am right now. I think I can be the starter, but Brandon’s a great player. … If something were to happen, as next man in, I think I would be able to do a good job.”

By no means is Book’s thought of being ready to start outlandish. If the time does come for him to see competitive action in 2017, that confidence will be as necessary as his accuracy.

Book’s success indicates something else, as well
Book played well. This is not meant to diminish that, but in an intrasquad scrimmage, one side’s successes are naturally another’s failures.

By the stats, Book was sacked four times. That number seems generous. The second-team offense had little trouble moving the ball against the second-team defense, averaging 8.1 yards per play. (Its 350 total offensive yards does not provide much context given the game’s running clock in the second half in order to fit within its NCAA-mandated two-hour window.) Book and VanGorder (1-for-2, six yards) averaged 11.8 yards per pass attempt.

The Irish defense is paper-thin. While there is enough cornerback depth to perhaps shore up the holes at safety, no such bandage for the interior defensive line. The best bet may be getting incoming freshman Darnell Ewell into the revamped Notre Dame weight room before he even moves into his dorm room.

Alizé Jones is now Alizé Mack and you’ll hear that name often
For the first time, Notre Dame listed the junior tight end Alizé Mack after he changed his name.

Remember the name. Wimbush targeted Mack early and often, and his 6-foot-4 ½, 245-pound frame was every bit the mismatch it has been touted as. He finished with only five catches for 46 yards, but those numbers could very easily rise as he readjusts to the timing of a game and he and Wimbush develop further chemistry. Wimbush did, in fact, target Mack at least three other times.

Kizer maintains his sentiment from this week
Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer raised some eyebrows this week when he put himself into a sentence alongside New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. If nothing else, it was a bold statement. Then again, like Book having the belief he can start, why would Kizer strive for anything less than the top tier?

During the NBC Sports Network broadcast, Kizer did not soften that claim.

“When you decide to play a game like this, you’re going to try and model yourself after the greats,” he said. “It was a comment that I made—and I’m going to stand by it. Those are the people that I want to get to. I think that I am pretty comparable in size with one of the best in the league. I would love to have the preparation and to exhibit the intellect that a guy like Tom Brady does. So for me, why play this game if you don’t want to go out there and be the greatest?”

The NFL Draft begins Thursday. Thanks to the NFL’s slotted guidelines regarding rookie contracts, as soon as Kizer is drafted, he will have a rough idea of his income for the next few years. If he isn’t thrilled by the prospects, perhaps he can start comparing himself to Walter Iooss and Neil Leifer.