With the eve of the 2010 Blue-Gold game upon us, I thought I would sit down in advance of the game and remind myself of the potential pitfalls and healthy guidelines one needs to keep in mind when viewing the Fighting Irish’s spring scrimmage. All too often, those of us that bleed blue and gold forget to put down the Kool Aid long enough to ask ourselves what criteria are appropriate for evaluating a team so far removed from the 2010 football season. Therefore, let’s resolve to spend a second or two thinking about, and adjusting, our expectations for Saturday’s game. We all owe our sanity come next December at least some measure of tempered expectations that result from an adequate rubric for assessing the team and staff so early in their development.
Unreasonable Evaluative Criteria
While evaluating personnel is a crucial reason fans attend the annual Blue-Gold game, one should be careful not to overextend analysis into the realm of fantasy. Being able to find reasonable ways to draw conclusions about player development should not include an overemphasis on the current state of the depth chart. Why?
Many events have yet to play out between the middle of April and the end of August. Summer conditioning and fall practices will alter players’ physical capabilities, as well as allow them to hone their skills inside Kelly’s new system. Additionally, there are several incoming freshman that will murky the positional waters. Formulating an accurate picture of the depth chart come fall at this point in the team’s development, is nebulous at best.
Another area that many extrapolate conclusions where meaningful analysis is extremely tricky is in regards to evaluating the overall potency of the offense or defense as a whole. This is an issue because it is difficult, if not almost impossible, to analyze a team scrimmaging against itself. Is the offense highly explosive, or is the defense just extremely bad?
Too often, online analysis of the team after the Blue-Gold game is rife with prognosticators praising the defensive line’s penetration or bemoaning the lack of effective run blocking. The bottom line is that one has to be careful to draw measured and precise conclusions about the performance of any unit when they aren’t in a real-game situation. Merely scrimmaging against teammates they regularly practice with taints a semi-objective observer’s ability to discern players’ true progress.
Further complicating matters is coach Brian Kelly’s “vanilla” approach to defensive scheme during the spring scrimmage. While attempting to get fans, and his players, to buy in to the fast-paced and explosive offense he was hired to install, Kelly is also undoubtedly making it more difficult to successfully draw conclusions from either unit’s performance on Saturday.
Just as there are things to be wary of regarding personnel on display, so should fans expect to temper their enthusiasm or depression regarding the coaching staff. As I noted in the previous paragraph, because of Kelly’s toned-down defensive packages, it will be somewhat trickier to come to any sort of definitive conclusion regarding the offense’s progression in adapting to the new offensive system. Passionate fans are likely to exit Notre Dame stadium swooning over how potent the offense was and how far the defense still has to go in order to be competitive in the fall. In fact, Kelly stated as much in a recent interview regarding the format of Saturday’s game:
“You’ll probably leave going, ‘Wow, our defense didn’t make the kind of progress that we were hoping.’” Kelly said. “I’m just preparing you for it right now. This is going to be set up for offense, because we want to get out there and show some exciting football. But at the end of the day, our defense has made great progress this spring.” (Source: South Bend Tribune)
Another area in which expectations must be tempered is in assessing the coaches’ rapport with their players. This staff has had less than six months with the team and it is going to take awhile for the players and staff to get used to each other and begin to develop into a cohesive group. This aspect of team development cannot be underrated as it affects a multitude of other tangential things such as on-field communication and player assessment.
Reasonable Evaluative Criteria
While fans should avoid making broad generalizations regarding personnel, evaluating players based strictly upon their own merit has usefulness. This is even more true when observing players that have changed positions (Theo Riddick, Harrison Smith, etc.) or whose stock has purportedly risen in spring practice. Evaluating an offensive lineman on his technique or physical performance will yield a more accurate grade than if he’s critiqued based on his performance in a particular alignment or contrived situation against his own teammates.
Additionally, how comfortable Harrison Smith looks at safety, what Kyle Rudolph’s progress looks like coming back from injury, and whether or not the kickers have increased their overall accuracy are all appropriate, and measurable, phenomena that can be debated. It is these specific developmental questions that are most useful in a spring scrimmage. Essentially, evaluating players on their own individual prowess executing their position, instead of as a part of a larger whole, will result in a much more accurate picture of the aggregate.
Likewise, evaluating the coaching staff and even the new offensive and defensive systems is possible given the right criteria. For example, plays that have been specifically deployed and practiced in the last few weeks will function as telltale markers onlookers can identify to see where exactly the team is in their progression towards being able to fully deploy Kelly’s offense and defense. Because these plays are about rote execution and not about being comfortable enough to riff off of a particular offensive or defensive framework, it is much easier to observe whether the fundamental building blocks of the new Irish playbook are coming together.
Hopefully we’ve now successfully outlined a sound strategy for assembling an accurate developmental picture on Saturday. By reminding ourselves that there are still plenty of practices and unknowns between now and September, and in asking the right questions and limiting the scope of our evaluations, we can form a more exacting opinion as to what the future holds for the Fighting Irish football team of 2010. The Blue-Gold game is, after all, the final opportunity most of us will have to see this team before they run out of the tunnel to face Purdue this fall.
- Spring Football Focus Part II: Conditioning
- 670 the Score Radio Interview Audio and Reflections
- Spring Football Focus Part I: Personnel Changes
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