And just like that, spring football is over. Even with a two week break in the middle, and dozens of stories to follow throughout the offseason, football is done until August… all in a blink of the eye.
Of course, that won’t stop us from sorting through these last 15 practices, especially Saturday’s Blue-Gold game. And with the offense cruising early before holding on for a 63-58 victory, there’s plenty to discuss after a fun Saturday of football.
Let’s get to the good, bad and ugly of the 85th annual Blue-Gold game.
Quarterback Play. Sunday afternoon I spent two hours sorting through old Blue-Gold game box scores. I made it back to 1998, and didn’t another Blue-Gold game where Notre Dame quarterbacks didn’t throw an interception. That included standouts Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen. It included some not-so-standouts, too — with guys like Jared Clark, Zach Frazer, and David Wolke getting some playing time, too.
Much has been written (and for good reason) about the game Malik Zaire played. After being almost an afterthought — the guy between Everett Golson and Blake Barnett, Zaire reminded people that he’s a really good quarterback, something Brian Kelly has been telling us, though we’ve just been thinking it’s because he wants to create competition for Everett Golson.
Well, consider Saturday’s performance a good indication that there’s competition. While it’s still Golson’s job, Notre Dame won’t be held back because their back-up quarterback can’t get things done.
On second (and third) inspection, comparing Golson and Zaire on an apples to apples day isn’t necessarily fair. Golson faced some more complex looks defensively, and had the challenge of fielding some wayward shotgun snaps from emergency back-up center Mark Harrell. He settled down after missing a few early throws and looked just fine.
But it’s clear that Kelly’s optimism for the quarterback position, a view he’s shared from the minute the Pinstripe Bowl ended, is for good reason. The Irish are in great shape at the position — even if a two-deep is a little too thin for comfort.
The Running Backs. This trio of backs is probably the strongest we’ve seen since the 2001 trio of Julius Jones, Ryan Grant and Tony Fisher. (Debate below, this is a fun one.) While Greg Bryant’s 51-yard run gets most of our attention, the work Tarean Folston did in the passing game should have Irish fans very happy.
Cam McDaniel only played a cameo on Saturday, scoring an early touchdown while contributing a workman like 3.7 yards per carry. But he came through big with a few catches, including a very nice back-shoulder conversion for a first down.
Splitting these touches should be interesting. While McDaniel has earned Kelly’s trust, Folston can do everything well, and has an ability to make defenders miss that doesn’t exist with McDaniel. And as Bryant learns to run with patience until he sees a hole emerge, he’ll demand more and more touches.
Jaylon Smith. Even taking limited snaps, Smith had six tackles. Successfully shifting to the Will linebacker position this spring, Smith has the potential to put up massive numbers in Brian VanGorder’s system.
“He’s in a whole different level in terms of knowledge of our defense. Now he knows it from inside‑out and outside‑in,” Kelly said. “So he can play a number of positions for us. We can move him around, and he has an understanding of how to play this defense both inside‑out and outside‑in and that he had no knowledge of going into the spring. That’s a smart football player, and a guy that now is an asset to our defense in a manner that he never was before.”
The future is now for Smith, who made the game’s most impressive play when he tracked down and stopped Tarean Folston for a minimal gain, even though the running back had the corner on Smith.
Nice job, Mike McGlinchey. We didn’t notice you much out there. That’s a very good thing.
Durham Smythe sure looks like he could be a good player. The Texas Longhorns loss is the Irish’s gain. I’m still really intrigued by Mike Heuerman. He’s not big enough, but he’s got the knack of a productive player.
Austin Collinsworth can lead the Irish in tackles all he wants, like he did Saturday. But if he gives up touchdowns like the one he did to C.J. Prosise, who left Collinsworth in his wake, it’s tough athletically to keep him in space.
Speaking of Prosise, that’s the type of game he needs to play more regularly. His touchdown catch and run looked like Golden Tate, only with a lower-half built from a tree trunk. Between Prosise and Amir Carlisle the Irish seem to have answers at the slot receiver position.
Walk-on Austin Larkin is an intriguing player. Taking snaps at inside linebacker until a talented freshman class enters, Larkin will likely get his chance on special teams.
How about that Irish pass rush? A hat trick of (fake) sacks by Romeo Okwara, and youngsters Andrew Trumbetti, Isaac Rochell, and Jacob Matuska getting in on the act. Chase Hounshell also got one, a nice reward for a healthy spring practice.
Welcome back, Elijah Shumate. There are still plenty of people who think he’s capable of being the starter at safety.
Call me a glass half full kind of guy, so here’s a rapid fire list:
Not the best day at the office for Kyle Brindza. But Notre Dame’s combo kicker punter is one of the best in the country, and he’ll never have to kick off the Irish turf again.
A few drops: I saw two from Ben Koyack and Chris Brown. Two veterans that can’t be part of the problem, but rather part of the solution.
A tough day at the office for the Irish’s cornerbacks. We didn’t see much of KeiVarae Russell on the field, but we did end up seeing Josh Atkinson, a few times in the wrong light. Jalen Brown was seen chasing as well. (I can’t blame Connor Cavalaris for getting beat long by Corey Robinson. He was actually in good position.)
It’s hard to call the wide receivers’ good day a bad day for the cornerbacks, but the broken coverage on Chris Brown’s big catch up the sideline isn’t a good thing.
Let’s hope Nicky Baratti‘s shoulder injury is nothing serious.
It was a 70 degree day in South Bend! Other than the shoddy field conditions, there’s not much to complain about.
In lieu of ugly, I will point out one thing that I’m not sure Brian Kelly is getting enough credit for. The sidelines were absolutely covered with former Irish players. Whether they were graduating seniors that were back in South Bend, or recent NFL players like Manti Te’o or Theo Riddick, the culture has certainly changed over the past few seasons.
Young alums weren’t the only monogram winners back on campus. Other (older) ex-players were back, and have continued to come back after some awkward years when Charlie Weis was in charge of the program.
There are some that still criticize Kelly for the way he “understands” Notre Dame and for his dalliance with the NFL after the 2012 season. It’s worth pointing out moments like this that show him in a different light as well.