Spring practice culminated this weekend in the annual Blue Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium in front of 27,000 of the Irish faithful. First year head coach Brian Kelly's offense was displayed in spades as the Gold beat the Blue, 27-19.
The offense itself deviates from a traditional spread, or it did Saturday, in that there were a good number of plays from under center. Expected starter Dayne Crist and Junior walk-on Nate Montana operated from the single-back shotgun set that will become familiar to all Irish fans as the year progresses, and also out of a single back "ace" set that featured a wide variety of WR and TE combinations.
Despite high passing yardage, the offense does not look like a pure "fun and gun" spread. With a deep stable of running backs, the offense looks to feature many speed options and counters run from the shotgun formations, as well as some traditional option and stretch runs out of the ace set.
There does not appear to be much need for a fullback, as I don't recall a two-back set at any point.
The spread in and of itself is designed to stretch the defense from sideline to sideline and lessen the defense's ability to use complex coverages or to commit to large blitz packages without leaving receivers uncovered.
It also is aimed to lessen the load on the quarterback by making pre-snap reads easier and simpler, and to get the ball out of his hand faster.
A sort of "West Coast" offense on speed, the spread uses a mix of short passes (screens and weak side slants will be a staple) and counter runs to pull a defense in then utilizing play action with seam and flag routes to look for the quick score.
The offense also requires a quarterback that can run as well as offensive linemen that are smaller and faster than are needed in a more pro-style offense, as there are a lot of throws off of roll-outs and bootlegs.
All of this was on display Saturday as the regular stars shined.
Michael Floyd hauled in a 33-yard pass from Crist, as well as running for 13 yards on an end around. Armando Allen carried 8 times for 41 yards as well as catching 6 balls for 30 yards.
Dayne Crist had a fine day, completing 20 of 31 attempts for 172 yards and a pretty touchdown pass to Talier Jones on a flag route in the left corner of the end zone. He did have a tipped ball picked by Manti Teo, as well as poor throw into coverage that was picked by Calabrese on the right hashmarks.
Cierre Wood stole the show on the ground, carrying 10 times for 111 yards and 2 scores. Wood, Allen, Hughes, and Jonas Grey all received significant carries and showed excellent speed and field vision finding creases and hitting holes at speed in Kelly's up tempo offense.
The abundance of speed and depth at RB made it understandable to see Theo Riddick playing in the slot most of the day.
As a WR/Flanker, he only hauled in 3 balls for 31 yards, but he did receive the game-clinching TD from the games biggest star.
A year ago, Nate Montana was away at a Juco in California, gaining experience in hopes of returning to South Bend in a better position to compete for playing time.
The recruiting of Tommy Rees and Luke Massa make it unlikely that Montana will find himself climbing the depth chart. But thanks to Massa not yet enrolling and Rees just arriving, Montana got the start for the Gold.
For a day, Nate Montana woke up some echos of his own.
Donning a red No. 16 jersey, the young Montana was the spitting image of his father.
Making pin-point passes on the run with a graceful fluid precision brought a chill to many in the stands. At many times, he looked like his dad when Joe was leading comeback after comeback in his tenure in South Bend.
Montana connected on 18 of 30 attempts for 223 yards and 3 touchdowns. He threw surprisingly well on the run, showed the ability to buy time with his feet, put the ball on target in some tight places, made many nice check-downs, and showed surprising arm strength.
His touchdown to red-helmeted Riddick may have been the prettiest throw of the day, a skinny post that Montana nailed with a strong throw high and inside of the covering DB.
Ignoring that this scrimmage was built for the offense to shine, and that it was against a defense that rarely stopped anyone a year ago, there was reason for optimism.
The offense looks fast.
For now at least, that is reason to smile.