Notre Dame Football: Spring Game Report Card
Outlined against a gray and miserably rainy April sky, the Fighting Irish played again. The team's annual Blue & Gold Game took place on Saturday within the walls of Notre Dame Stadium and officially signaled an end to official football activities until the fall semester.
The contest allowed fans an opportunity to see what sort of progress had been made during head coach Brian Kelly's second spring at the helm. Today we'll take stock and dish out grades to each unit based on their performance in the game.
The cold, rainy conditions made passing a tough proposition. A perfect example of how hard: two of walk-on quarterback Matt Mulvey's three throws were balls that slipped out of his hands and came out more like a pop fly than an actual pass.
The two experienced players wearing the red shirts and battling for the starting job were both pretty unimpressive. On the gold team Tommy Rees was 7-for-14 for 61 yards and an interception while blue team starter Dayne Crist was 5-for-11 for 34 yards. Rees flashed more accuracy than Crist but also made a few terrible decision, one ended up as an interception and a couple other could have as well. Dayne still flashed his maddening tendency to short-arm and bounce balls to open receivers, but his mistakes seem to err on the side of caution as opposed to Tommy's who end up in the opposing secondary's breadbaskets.
Rees was slightly more impressive overall and had some success down the field (the first play was a 24-yard strike up the seam to Mike Ragone), but there was very little clarity provided in terms of who is ahead in that battle.
The two young and mobile quarterbacks that everyone had the opportunity to see for the first time didn't disappoint in the their Notre Dame Stadium debuts. Gold team quarterback Andrew Hendrix was the Offensive MVP of the game, completing 10-of-16 for 113 yards while rushing for another 37 yards and two touchdowns. He flashed a rocket arm and some surprising wheels, punching one touchdown run in after bouncing and spinning off a couple tackles.
Blue team signal caller Everett Golson also impressed. His 62 yards on the ground were the most in the game and he also threw for 91 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game was his poise just four months removed from high school. He seemed to have great command of the team and a boatload of confidence even though he's had so much thrown at him so quickly.
This was far and away the position people were most interested in examining coming into this game. Unfortunately the two players most likely to start against South Florida left a lot to be desired. Should too much be read into this soggy exhibition? I don't think so, though it was disappointing not to see at least a little more clear progress from Dayne specifically.
And while Hendrix and Golson both impressed, it's abundantly clear that they need more seasoning before being thrown into the fire of Division I football. It's encouraging to see such quality depth at the position but it's for the best if both are only called on for situational duty as opposed to captaining the ship right away.
FINAL GRADE: C
The running back unit has been completely decimated by injuries and graduation. There were only three scholarship backs on the entire roster at the start of spring and by the end of practice Cierre Wood was the only back who emerged unscathed.
Wood looked very good in his limited action, racking up 39 yards on 7 carries. On one play he made a couple quick cuts to his left and bounced it outside for an 11-yard gain, a beautiful run that demonstrated both great vision and how the game is slowing down for him.
Jonas Gray was hampered by an injury about half way through spring practices and it showed on Saturday. His five carries only netted 16 yards and he looked hesitant, far from the bullish back Notre Dame needs him to be in the fall.
There wasn't a lot that could be drawn from this crew since Kelly wasn't going to put his only healthy back in harm's way for very long. It deserves an "Incomplete" since there was so little on which to calculate a grade, but with Wood's flashes of potential we'll peg it for a B-.
FINAL GRADE: B-
If there's one thing that was made abundantly clear in the spring game, it's that this team sorely needs superstar wide receiver Michael Floyd. Robby Toma was the most productive receiver of the game, hauling game highs in catches (six) and yards (64). Deion Walker also flashed some potential, catching five times as many balls as his entire career thus far (five) for 56 yards.
This is a group that has plenty of good players, it just lacks elite All-American level talent when No. 3 isn't out there. With the exception of Theo Riddick there isn't one player that truly scares opponents in the open field nor is there a true vertical threat able to stretch defenses.
There were a handful of drops and not a whole lot to write home about other than dropping an S.O.S. in a bottle asking for Floyd to return.
FINAL GRADE: C-
The combination of a shortage of bodies along with Brian Kelly's desire to test various different lineups during the game led to the entire offensive line playing for both sides.
There were plenty of positives to take from the game such as the fact that both the blue and gold squads averaged over five yards per carry and they allowed zero sacks. On the other hand there were also some negatives, like early enrollee defensive lineman Aaron Lynch wreaked havoc from the first snap until the final whistle no matter where he lined up.
Overall, the day was a success simply because there were no injuries sustained. But in terms of what happened on the field, it's another mediocre grade for the unit.
FINAL GRADE: B-
Here is where the first sterling grade of the day arrives. Early enrollee freshman Aaron Lynch arrived on campus with huge expectations. His first time in a gold helmet did nothing to curtail them.
Lynch was a menace whether he lined up at defensive end or tackle, racking up seven tackles including 1.5 for a loss. He leveled Andrew Hendrix on a couple different occasions and wasted no time showing why he's without a doubt the most talented defensive lineman to suit up for Notre Dame since Justin Tuck. Hands down he was the biggest winner of the day and the Defensive MVP.
The majority of relevant players like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson barely played so it's once again tough to formulate a grade, but based on Lynch's superstar performance alone this unit garners a top notch mark.
FINAL GRADE: A-
This was another unit that was interesting to watch because the DOG outside linebacker position is an open battle between rising sophomores Prince Shembo and Danny Spond.
Spond won this round, coming up with seven tackles (six solo) to Shembo's six (one solo). Spond delivered some big hits and showed why coaches have been raving about him since he set foot on campus last August. Had he not gotten hurt mid-way through the year there's a good chance he would've cracked the playing rotation in November. There's no doubt he will this fall.
Freshman enrollee and 5-star recruit Ishaq Williams received the lion's share of playing time at the CAT linebacker position as starter Darius Fleming watched from the sideline. He came away with five tackles and forced a key turnover when he got to Everett Golson on a scramble. While it was obvious his head was swimming a bit, the natural athletic ability he exhibited helped paint a picture of just how high his ceiling is in the long-term.
For the most part this unit was pretty unspectacular, but it did deliver the turnover that ultimately won the game.
FINAL GRADE: B
With rain pouring down all day, the secondary didn't have to worry too much about accurate passes down the field. With the exception of Mike Ragone's 24-yard catch on the first play of the game, there weren't many big passing plays allowed. Deion Walker also had a long grab at the end of the first half, but it proved meaningless since time had expired before he went down.
Lo Wood made Tommy Rees pay for a bad read in the first half and picked off a pass down the left sideline. This was a great sign for Irish fans since Wood's a bit of an unknown commodity and will need to contribute in a big way this fall. He showed great instincts and reaction time after he figured out where Rees was looking and made an easy interception to halt a Gold Team drive.
Starters Robert Blanton and Gary Gray both registered a single tackle in their limited time. Across the board the secondary is very thin which meant plenty of time for walk-ons and redshirted matador Dan McCarthy (sporting a red jersey because of a shoulder injury). Not much to draw from this game other than a very positive step for Lo Wood.
FINAL GRADE: B
A great day for the Irish kickers and punters. In the kicking department, Kyle Brindza snuck his only field goal attempt (a 32-yarder) inside the left upright while Nick Tausch ripped two kicks (22 and 45 yards) right down the pike. It's ironic that a team that had so many struggles executing field goals under Charlie Weis (hello, Carl Gioia and Brandon Walker) now has three great kickers on the roster.
The punting was also rock solid. Brindza is in a battle with incumbent Ben Turk for the starting position and had a strong showing in his first public appearance. His three punts averaged 42.7 yards per kick, two yards more than Turk's pair (40.0 yards per kick). Turk did however bomb one kick 48 yards in the air, a clear improvement from last season.
The Irish have multiple, viable options at both kicker and punter. It's a very nice luxury to have, though Brian Kelly certainly would trade the quality depth at those positions for some depth at running back and in the secondary. Overall, a very strong showing from one of the best units in the entire country.
FINAL GRADE: A