Literally speaking, the crowd in attendance at Notre Dame’s 90th Blue-Gold Game this weekend holds some sort of value. Otherwise, there would be no difference between it and the previous 14 practices in the last six weeks. Those tens of thousands of pairs of eyes add a bit of a pressure dynamic, not that any two of them hold more weight than Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s or offensive coordinator Chip Long’s, but such is how a young mind works.
“I want to see what they’re going to do Saturday with those lights,” Long said Thursday. “It’s one thing to go out there and practice in the indoor or outside, but what are you going to do when you walk into that Stadium now with people watching you? That’s different.”
Those figurative lights — at least, they better be figurative. No one wants to watch a spring exhibition in weather so terrible it necessitates lights at 12:30 in the afternoon — shine brightest on young players, the unknowns, the hopes of the future. Naturally, those thousands of eyes will thus focus on one player in particular.
This space has spent an inordinate amount of time this spring pumping the brakes on expectations of rising sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec, and every single one of those words of caution holds just as much truth now, but if there is ever a day to watch a freshman quarterback, it is at his first spring game.
This very well may be the last real chance to see Jurkovec in action until, well, next year’s Blue-Gold Game.
If 2018 taught Notre Dame fans anything, it was to never assume a blowout will give the backups and youth chances to stretch their legs. When Ball State, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh all kept their hopes of an upset alive into their final possessions, the Irish reserves never got to get in a few reps.
Sure, Jurkovec threw two passes in the rout against Wake Forest, but note then-backup quarterback Brandon Wimbush did not that day. The NCAA’s granting of up to four games of action before losing a year of eligibility pushed many of those blowout snaps to the freshmen, not to the second-stringers. This situation is obviously different in that Wimbush had experience while Jurkovec does not, but the point remains: Jurkovec will play tomorrow. He may not play again, or play much, until the next public exhibition.
Still not quite with a full handle on the playbook, still very young and raw, the greatest indicator of Jurkovec’s progress will be his accuracy and his reads.
“For any offense, the quarterback has to be accurate,” Long said. “[Jurkovec] has to be able to take the gift throws, and obviously hit the ones when we need it the most. He’s been throwing a nice deep ball, and I think more than anything, it’s just understand the offense, going through his progression, and once he gets confident with that, that ball will come out a lot cleaner.”
Some of those gift throws are often to running backs in checkdown situations, or even in designed routes — wheel or angle routes, specifically — that the defense somewhat yields. As much as wondering if Jurkovec can hit those, it is worth making sure …
The young running backs showcase pass-catching skills when open to live tackling.
Pulling in a pass when no one is about to drill you out of bounds is one thing. Doing so when 231 pounds (rising junior linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath, for example) is bearing down on you is another.
Both Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones have shown they can catch the ball out of the backfield. Just with that pair, Long has dangerous two-back possibilities available. But, as he noted Thursday, the Irish will rotate backs due to the demands of the position. One of Notre Dame’s flaws the last two seasons was its inability to not utilize those two-back sets when Jones (in both 2017 and 2018) or Armstrong (in 2018) was injured. Neither the other contributors nor the reserves offered the same diverse skill sets.
Jahmir Smith has the look and reputation of a “banger,” to use Kelly’s description from two weeks ago. C’Bo Flemister has shifty hips and a certain agility, but might fight natural catching tendencies. Kyren Williams is an early-enrolled freshman.
The Jones-Armstrong package could be particularly lethal because either one can flank out and run routes against an out-of-position linebacker. Losing one halves that threat. Can any of the young trio offer hopes of this regard surviving a sprained ankle?
A similar thought process should be applied to them and pass protection. Blitzes this weekend all come with an asterisk since the quarterbacks will be in red jerseys, but the willingness to meet a charging linebacker head-on should still be noted. Without it, a young back could go the way of a young Dexter Williams, regularly sidelined because he might follow a first-down rush by giving up a 13-yard sack on the next snap.
“The physicality that group has finally brought has been really exciting for me,” Long said. “Just in their pass pro and their ability to stick their nose in there, all of them, there’s not one real weak link. There’s obviously guys who lack experience picking up blitzes with the young guys.”
The linebackers will not have any concern about running through those blocks. How the young linebackers fare in live tackling, though, could create some separation in the ongoing position competitions throughout the defensive second-level.
Again, it is one thing to wrap your arms around a 227-pound ball carrier (Jones) in a “thud” drill. It is another to stop all that momentum, drive it backward and bring it to the ground.
Fifth-year Asmar Bilal has emerged as the likely starter at Mike linebacker, perhaps splitting time in a rotation. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea identified Bilal as the only piece in the middle-tier that has established himself. That undoubtedly is in part because Bilal’s physicality is a known commodity, inherent to being the only linebacker with extensive playing time.
Rising sophomore Jack Lamb has shown instincts and a ranginess that could give him an edge in passing situations. If he can supplement that with sure tackling, he could become Bilal’s running mate at Buck rather than Genmark Heath. Toss Lamb’s classmate Shayne Simon into the conversation, possibly as Bilal’s backup or time-share partner. The depth chart combinations continue to be essentially innumerable due to the vast amount of unknowns in the mix.
“To a man, we are better-equipped, better-skilled from where we started,” Lea said Thursday. “If you look at our room, it’s an interesting makeup in terms of the multiplicity of the positions. A guy like Jordan Genmark Heath is really still only a year into playing at the second level. An Asmar has been field overhang, now moving in. Shayne Simon has bounced around.
“Some of these guys (are) still on their first year in the program. We’re still a work in progress and have a long way to go.”
This will be only one of 15 practices, but as the closest thing to live competition the Irish will face between the Cotton Bowl and Labor Day, it may be worth keeping track of the leading tacklers and, less-precisely, the most-sure tacklers among the many linebackers.
Lastly, a note possibly never before offered before a spring game, keep an eye on the kicking.
There will be no kickoffs, which may be a good thing. It should allow for rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer to focus on field goals and extra points as he takes over for the leading scorer in Notre Dame history.
There will be punts, though all fair caught. Early-enrolled freshman Jay Bramblett will not have the savvy, the experience or the hair of Tyler Newsome, but if he can show calm and confidence in attaining decent hang time, that would likely help the coaching staff sleep a bit easier over the next four-plus months.
Beyond that, do not fret too much. This is a spring exhibition, designed to entertain the fans and give the young players a light test in a low-pressure but not no-pressure environment. Nothing more than that.
Lea put it more bluntly.
“The outcome of the spring game is probably the most meaningless thing we experience, so I’m not too hung up on that.”