Notre Dame Football: Blue and Gold Game Thoughts and Reactions

Saturday was the 85th Notre Dame spring game and as we all freaked out from the big news of field turf installation, a minor football scrimmage broke out behind the angelic view of Jack Swarbrick. Here are many of my thoughts and reactions to what I saw and heard during the annual retail football event:

Tradition Is Dead

Alex Flannigan was able to make the biggest announcement regarding Notre Dame football since Jimmy Clausen visited the College Football Hall of Fame: Notre Dame Stadium will receive a face lift. Jack Swarbrick explains:

We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field, however…we have been unable to produce an acceptable playing surface. — Synthetic turf will assist our game preparation because our team will be able to play and practice on the same surface. We will also be able to utilize the Notre Dame Stadium field for practices on home football Fridays and other occasions, whereas that is currently unrealistic. Additionally, this change allows us to eliminate the risk to players posed by the asphalt perimeter that has to be maintained around our current field.

This means two things: message boards everywhere have officially exploded and imploded, creating a supernova with a black hole, and Notre Dame will continue to climb into the modern era of sports.

This is obviously the right move, no matter how much you like “tradition” or whatever word you use to justify a completely unnecessary obsession with the 1940s. Young athletes want it. Younger fans want it. The coaches want it. It’s just better. It’s easier and cheaper to maintain and it’s safer. There’s just no reason to keep the grass anymore. Sorry, Gramps.

Also, if you watched/attended the game, you know exactly how awful and trashed the field looked today. I’m sure this is no accident as it would be the perfect backdrop to Swarbrick’s sideline interview, but let’s not pretend like that wasn’t how it looked four months ago. Because it did. It was hideous.

Everett Golson Is Back…

…and rusty.

As I watched the first few plays that Golson participated in, I couldn’t help but bite my tongue as his touch was off and decisions were slow. After an entire first half, though, I just can’t keep forgiving it. He looked pressed. He was getting “sacked”. He was falling down on simple roll outs. He was missing targets (the Amir Carlisle incompletion into the end zone is just inexcusable).

I know he’s only been back for a month and needs to build chemistry with an essentially brand new offensive roster, but I need to see more from him as a starter. I need poise and 100% accuracy on easy outlet passes. I need to see better pocket presence. I need to see him teaching the younger guys around him instead of just walking off the field.

I’m not going to pretend like he was supposed to look like a Heisman candidate but…

…Malik Zaire Did

I’m going to go ahead and say that either we’re in for one hell of a quarterback controversy leading into the fall or Brian Kelly is pulling one hell of a troll job on Notre Dame fans, because Zaire looked goooooooood. He looked comfortable in the pocket and on roll outs. He put the ball where it is supposed to be for the receivers to make plays. He talked CJ Prosise through a route (then a few plays later throw a long touchdown to Prosise).

Now this was almost bound to happen. He’s playing mostly against the number two guys and under WAY less pressure. But there’s always that eye test, and Zaire most definitely out-scored Golson on that one.

Quarterback Predictions

It’s still going to be Everett Golson to lead this team. Golson had that “It” factor we all look for back in 2012 and I guarantee it’s not gone. The difference is, I believe Zaire will be constantly pushing Golson to stay on the top of his game which is very important at the college level. It could be the difference late in the season when other teams have improved and have plenty of film on the Irish.

I think we’ll also see more late-game substitutions with Zaire needing game play. It won’t just be scrub time late in the fourth quarter. Brian Kelly has said before he only wants one starter on the team…but I think that means we’ll still get those “packages” that he liked to use even back at Cincinnati.

Hole-y or Holy Defense?

New defensive coordinator Brain VanGorder surely has only installed a small portion of his entire playbook and even that portion isn’t going to go onto national television. This game was about two things: Golson and Zair. Kelly made no allusions otherwise. No blitzing, no stunts. It was designed to be straight up pocket practice for the quarterbacks.

That said, I loved the way linemen were still getting into the backfield. They were forcing the quarterbacks to move and forcing them into coverage sacks. Run defense for the most part looked good, until Greg Bryant took over a bit in the second half. The linebackers left a bit to be desired, but again they were playing a lot of vanilla football. What did impress me was the way the corners and safeties were hanging with faster and mostly bigger receivers. For the most part, the projected starters were putting themselves in good positions to make plays.

We likely won’t know much about this defense until the final depth chart comes out and the final whistle blows against Rice, but for a spring game focused on the quarterback play, I’m at the very least satiated by what I saw today.

Running Back Stable

I used stable on purpose as we’ve got some serious horses behind the quarterback. I think this is the deepest, most complete running back depth chart since Lou Holtz had several three-headed monster backfields. Cam McDaniel seemed to struggle against the top defense and never really had big holes through which to run.

The true highlights came from the younger guys. The first half seemed to belong to Tarean Folston. Kelly miraculously added in a screen package this offseason, which will be great to show off Folston’s hands and feet. Getting him into immediate open field situations will go a long way to spreading the field and forcing the defense to play back. Greg Bryant is back with a vengeance after falling into the doghouse last season. Showing both his power and his moves, Bryant even seems to have improved his receiving ability.

Long story short, there was noticeable improvement in the biggest backfield weakness last season: caught balls. We know the speed and power that all three backs possess, but a huge separation between top teams and Notre Dame last year came from passes behind the line of scrimmage. It is absolutely imperative that this gap be, at the very least, narrowed in order to reach the next level of national competition.

Other Notes

  • Corey Robinson is big..and he learned how to play receiver. That’s dangerous for opposing teams.
  • Jaylon Smith is still a bad, bad man.
  • Receiving success will depend on tight ends and slot receivers. Amir Carlisle is a work in progress and we will definitely need to see improvement from Ben Koyack.
  • Quarterback coach Matt LaFleur will be to ND female fans what VanGorder’s mustache is the males.
  • Kyle Brindza is going to drive you insane all season.
  • Chris Brown’s focus is the only thing holding him back from a huge season.
  • Under Armour and Notre Dame are going to make boat loads of cash on people like you and me.
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  • Irishize

    Blue-Gold Observations:

    -There is a lot to be optimistic about for this season

    -This is the best collection of RBs and WRs that we have had in years

    -Screen passes will be used at last: Get Folston or Bryant in space and then the fun begins

    -We actually used a misdirection run: Zaire and Bryant started right, Bryant planted, and came back quickly to the left. Miracle of miracles!

    -Bryant’s 51 yard run was revealing: He showed great shiftiness in tight spaces in order to break free (this bodes well as our new punt returner; however, he doesn’t have an extra gear to finish the deal (it looked like he blew a “hammie” the way he finished), but 51 yards is 51 yards.

    -Robinson is no burner but he sure is tall and he sure can catch the ball

    -Fuller and “Breezy” Brown give us that home run threat

    -Prosise was a man with wheels on that 39 yard TD

    -Everett will be OK; he’s a winner. Zaire should be included in the game plan, also. He is too good for just “garbage time” minutes, and if Everett goes down, Malik will be ready.

    -The zone read running game will include Golson, Zaire, Folston, and Bryant–that is scary good!

    -Okwara will be our long lost pass rusher

    -We didn’t see one fade pass. Please, Brian, rip that one out of your play book.

    -Field turf is a no-brainer–the present turf is a joke and has been so for years

    -Be hopeful, things are going to get better!

    • WhiskyPoet

      Excellent observations. Sadly my lack of DVR didn’t allow me to go back and add more to my list but you did a great job of supplementing!

      I think most of us can agree that things are getting better/deeper on the team. We’re putting meat on the bones of ND Football and it’s starting to look pretty damn good.

  • beyeg

    Brindza was one of the players to weigh in on social media about the fieldturf, I have to say that the poor grass was a factor in his kicking on Saturday, because reports out of camp are that he was consistent, and consistently long in spring ball (all on turf).

    CJ Prosise finally showed that he is an elite athlete – wow, can’t believe that he wasn’t a factor in the slot last season.

    The Zaire red zone touchdown may have been one of the best, and hardest thrown passes that I have ever seen.

    Golson will be ok – but I am still pondering why he had so many issues taking the snap.

    Finally – I know that the spring game is designed not to show anything to Rice or any other opponents – but I really would love to see both of those QB’s taking some snaps out of the Pistol.

    Great write up as always Tex.

    • IrishElvis

      Yes, good write-up, Tex.

      • ndtex

        Hush, you. Just let me take the credit.