Only so much could ever have been learned about Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner in the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday (1 ET; exclusively on Peacock), even if he was playing instead of being sidelined by a rolled ankle.
If he had dazzled by not throwing a single incompletion, expectations would have skyrocketed to unreasonable levels this summer. If he had struggled with three interceptions, clamoring for junior Drew Pyne to be named the starter as soon as Monday would have shouted over any other football commentary for the 133 days after the Blue-Gold Game until the Irish take the field at Ohio State on Sept. 3.
The best measure of Buchner for offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and his staff came in the 13 practices Buchner partook in before missing a stair Tuesday evening. Frustrating as that is for fans and media alike eager for content, gauging a top-level player has rarely been the purpose of the spring finale.
Its purposes have long been to give reserves or key substitutes chances to impress in front of a crowd and to create offseason hype for the program.
That intangible aspect will ring loudest this weekend. Losing Buchner may dampen the spring showcase slightly, but the main attraction was never going to be the former four-star recruit who dazzled in moments as a freshman. Since the first week of December, the main attraction has been head coach Marcus Freeman.
This part of a Blue-Gold Game preview should include a few quotes about the main attraction, but there are few applicable about the new head coach’s broad intrigue — broad to the point of being arguably unprecedented at Notre Dame — given the nature of media interviews.
Freeman will be mic’d up through the entire two-hour scrimmage, not exactly unprecedented after Brian Kelly used to give mid-play interviews from the backfield during the Blue-Gold Game, but still an excellent opportunity for insights into Freeman’s relationships with his roster. He, along with Rees and defensive coordinator Al Golden, will also chat with sideline reporter Caroline Pineda during the practice.
Those intangible aspects that can be loosely described as “vibes” will echo through the summer. Their actual impacts are vague at best, hence the use of intangible, but Freeman’s insistence on turning every moment around the football program into a competition should have only positive long-term results. The Blue-Gold Game has not included interest in who won in memory, if ever.
Wednesday morning’s draft of rosters threw some verve into the proceedings, with Blue Team captain and fifth-year safety Houston Griffith outright guaranteeing victory over Gold Team and captain Cam Hart.
“You’re going to see the results,” Griffith said. “Cam is talking about how they’re going to play with a lot of execution. I don’t know how you’re going to play with execution when my team is wreaking havoc on offense and defense.”
That might be the most colorful quote offered in anticipation of the 15th spring practice in years, if not also ever. That touch of spirit to what has been a formality is not a change that will have any effect in September, but it underscores Freeman’s favorite mantra, “Challenge everything.”
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It is inclusive of more of the roster and coaching staff; do not think for a moment it is by chance that the coordinators are not the coaches on Saturday, but rather defensive line coach Al Washington leading the Blue Team and running backs coach Deland McCullough fittingly leading the Gold Team. When Freeman sees a chance to elevate a Black assistant coach, he will take it.
Offering chances to speak up leads to more buy-in overall, be it from the coaches or the players.
“Us being able to do this draft, it talks about where we’re going as a program,” Griffith said. “They want us involved in this. It’s not like we’re just split as a team. The guys got something to say.”
That effect first showed itself in the players’ groundswell of support for Freeman’s promotion when Kelly bolted for LSU at the end of November. Freeman has made it a point to lean into the locker-room spirit these last four-plus months. Finding a way to do so even in the usual competitive farce that is the Blue-Gold Game shows the thoroughness of the players’ involvement in the entire program now.
Of course, some on-field football lessons can be gleaned Saturday, despite Buchner’s absence …
— Among Griffith, fifth-year DJ Brown, junior Ramon Henderson and Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph, the two who separate themselves as the top safeties. Griffith and Henderson will man the defensive backfield for the Blue Team, quite possibly for most of the game with the only other safety on the Blue roster being sophomore Justin Walters, while Brown and Joseph will line up for the Gold Team, aided by junior Xavier Watts.
A nose for the football, in particular, will catch Freeman’s attention.
— Notre Dame has depth concerns at center. Fifth-year Jarrett Patterson missed all of spring due to a torn pectoral, but he should fit right back in as the starter by August. His backup would come from any of a number of options. An eye on the centers Saturday will be needed to shed some clarity on that two-deep hole.
— A dozen freshmen enrolled early in January, and up to 10 of them should see the field this weekend for their first time in front of a crowd at Notre Dame Stadium. A few linebackers, in particular, could show flashes that inspire summertime confidence. Not that Junior Tuihalamaka (Blue) or Jaylen Sneed (Gold) will start this fall, but they may be needed to contribute in early September. A display of sure tackling and speed would go a long way to thinking the Irish might keep the Buckeyes’ offense in check for a quarter or two.
The same could be said of sophomore Prince Kollie after his freshman season was interrupted by COVID.
Those are the reserves and key substitutes that most want to impress in their last practice before summer. The top-level players, including Tyler Buchner, can focus more on the two-way dialogue Marcus Freeman continues to propagate.