Notre Dame's final spring practice will be live for every Irish fan to see, with the NBC Sports Network broadcasting the 85th annual Blue-Gold game at 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday.
With a sunny day forecast, a large crowd expected and a slew of recruits descending on South Bend, Ind., the annual scrimmage is a wonderful finale to the spring session. Our last opportunity to see this football team before they gather for fall camp, the game serves as our last peek through the window before four months of darkness.
As we close out practice, let's take one last look at the big board.
Can Jarron Jones Keep Up Productivity?
Late last year, Jarron Jones emerged as the unlikely heir apparent to Louis Nix at nose tackle. For those who had tracked his career up until that point, it seemed like a far-fetched idea.
Jones spent his redshirt freshman season learning the ABCs of college football. He didn't do much more in his sophomore campaign, until Nix went down. But after being buried on the depth chart at defensive end, Jones emerged as a productive player at nose tackle, even if he was learning on the fly.
Jones was set to walk into spring practice as one of the only legitimate options at nose guard. That distinction loses its importance with the Irish playing in Brian VanGorder's four-man front. But lined up on the interior next to Sheldon Day, Jones could be even more productive after the system switch.
VanGorder commented earlier this week on the knack Jones has for making plays, something this defensive front could use.
"As much as we're on him about technique, every time we scrimmage or get in a physical-type team run, he's productive," VanGorder said about Jones. "As much as he still has to learn and develop from a technique standpoint, he's a productive player. You can't ignore that."
Day is expected to have a breakthrough season; he's finally healthy after a lingering ankle injury. He is capable of wreaking havoc—and at 6'5.25", 310 pounds, he should. The two Irish tackles might give the unproven defensive ends plenty of help.
On Offensive Line, Possibilities Still Endless—That's Good Thing
It looks like offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and head coach Brian Kelly know what they think they want their offensive line to look like. But it's also clear that they're in no hurry to get there.
If everybody were healthy and the Irish were playing Rice in the season opener tomorrow, here's how the Irish would line up along the offensive front:
Ronnie Stanley, LT
Steve Elmer, LG
Nick Martin, C
Christian Lombard, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT
But after reloading the depth chart the past few years and developing plenty of depth during the injury streak that hit the offensive line hard last season, there are plenty of options to consider. Does McGlinchey give the Irish their best five? Is Elmer better served as a tackle? Has Matt Hegarty or Conor Hanratty shown enough in relief to battle for a starting job?
It all feels like a champagne problem.
After not having enough healthy players to prepare for Alabama and the BCS championship game, even short-handed with nine healthy bodies, this offensive line looks the best it has in a decade. (And that's before a highly touted freshman class enters the picture.)
"We’re not anywhere near where we need to be," Hiestand told Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com (subscription required) last week. "It’s definitely way out of whack. We’ve been throwing guys all over the place. But in the end, it will serve us really well."
After Much of Season in Coverage, Jaylon Smith Could Help Pass Rush
What? Jaylon Smith can blitz, too? Don't expect to see it take place on Saturday. Blink and you could miss Smith, a player far too valuable to risk in a glorified scrimmage. But while settling into his outside linebacker spot this spring, Smith could be unleashed in the pass rush in VanGorder's system, something that didn't happen much under Bob Diaco.
"I think what (VanGorder's) done more importantly has created some pass rush from where we've lost some guys that could get after the quarterback," Kelly explained about the schematic shift. "For example, Jaylon playing drop, we never saw him come off the edge. Now he's coming all the time, so he's an extra pass-rusher."
After an impressive freshman season, Smith filled the stat sheet everywhere but in the sack column. But there's every reason to believe Smith has the ability to be a Anthony Barr-like terror coming off the edge.
He's just got to get his chance.
Stock Down, Stock Up: Don't Count Out Jarrett Grace Just Yet
It's been a roller-coaster few months for Jarrett Grace. When Kelly announced that Grace had another rod inserted into his surgically repaired fibula, the writing seemed on the wall. The Irish's starting inside linebacker looked like a long shot for next season, as his slow recovery from a leg fractured in four places seemed unlikely.
But Grace certainly hasn't given up on making it back for next season, and this week Kelly delivered some good news. While the Irish are waiting to make any medical decisions until they get to six weeks after surgery, Grace looks like a new man.
"Early indications are very positive,” Kelly said. "We’re cautiously optimistic where he is. He feels great. He’s in a good frame of mind."
Grace's return would solidify a position that's one of the biggest question marks on the roster, even with Joe Schmidt's emergence this spring. While it's still too soon to know what exactly this means, Kelly's optimism tells you he's rooting for the veteran leader.
"There’s not a better kid that you would want to root for in terms of coming back from the kind of injury that he had than Jarrett Grace," Kelly said.
After Spring Inside, We'll See How Much Progress Irish's Special Teams Have Made
The Blue-Gold game will be only the Irish's sixth practice outside. For as nice as the Loftus complex is to accommodate practice during inclement weather, it's no substitute for the great outdoors when trying to practice special teams.
And practice is what the special teams desperately need. So even with the Irish fair-catching punts and forgoing kickoffs on Saturday, Kelly had his gallows humor in midseason form.
"There will be all fair catches and I'm sure we'll drop three of them, and the Internet will blow up on punt returning and who that might be," Kelly cracked.
We don't have to wait until a muffed punt to wonder how the Irish will get things figured out. But just as intriguing will be the guys Kelly decides to trot out and fair-catch punts.
Kelly identified Greg Bryant as a top candidate in the punt return game. He also tabbed Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter Jr. (He even offered Irish sports information director Michael Bertsch as a candidate.)
"We're going to try anybody that has a pulse. We're going to try them back there," Kelly said. "We just don't know who that guy is going to be."
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
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