Notre Dame Football: 10 Things We Learned from the Spring Game
Spring practice is gone and Notre Dame Stadium has fallen silent until September. The Irish slogged it out in the rain last Saturday in the annual Blue-Gold scrimmage and it provided a peek at exactly how far Brian Kelly's troops had come since the Sun Bowl victory.
The vast majority of starters saw very limited time, but that doesn't mean fans weren't able to glean some insight on what was to come this fall. Let's go over 10 things that were evident by the time the clock hit zero on the cold, rainy day.
10: The Young Quarterbacks Will Make an Impact This Season
Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson are miles away from being polished enough to take over the team for good, but that doesn’t mean they will be riding the pine come fall.
Both quarterbacks exhibited the ability to be a threat running the ball from the quarterback position, a key aspect of the spread offense that is lacking when Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees is in the game. Golson gained a game-high 62 yards while Hendrix punched in two touchdowns on quarterback reads.
Brian Kelly has been quite clear that one—if not both—of his young signal-callers will see the field as a change of pace quarterback. Having those running threats in the game will force opponents to game-plan and prepare for another dangerous facet of the Irish attack. The experience Golson and Hendrix garner will also help them become more comfortable and prepare for when they eventually do get the keys to the car.
Expect at least a handful of series of each game to be led by Hendrix or Golson. And don’t be surprised if they’re so effective that fans start clamoring for one of them to start by the time the calendar turns to November.
9: Notre Dame Is Stacked at Kicker
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The spring game showcased the fact that Notre Dame has the best collection of kickers in the country.
Former starter and rising junior Nick Tausch connected on two field goals in the mucky conditions, including a 45-yarder that couldn’t have split the uprights more perfectly. Early enrollee freshman Kyle Brindza also converted a 32-yard first half field goal in his first public appearance for Notre Dame. Lou Groza Award finalist David Ruffer didn’t even play due to sickness. That trio stacks up against any in the country.
Unfortunately, being deep at kicker is the equivalent of being deep at goalie in lacrosse—only one is needed to be successful so the riches unfortunately will be wasted at least while all three are still in South Bend. But Irish fans remember it wasn’t long ago when the team had to lean on the likes of Carl Gioia, Ryan Burkhart and Brandon Walker, making everything from extra points to 45-yard field goals an unpleasant adventure.
How nice it is to be on the other side of that coin.
8: Jonas Gray Still Has a Long Way to Go
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Perhaps it can be pinned on the fact he was banged up, but Jonas Gray looked slow and timid—two words you don’t want describing your power back.
Many people had high hopes for Gray, believing that he’d start to fulfill his potential now that more carries seem inevitable. Unfortunately, if Saturday was any indication, those hopes will go unfulfilled.
Gray is built like a brick house and has been since the day he arrived on campus. He flashed some potential as a freshman in limited playing time, but to this point in his career, he’s better known for his game-changing fumbles against Michigan and Navy.
Robert Hughes provided the thunder to Cierre Wood’s lightning down the stretch of last season, and that’s exactly what the Irish need from Gray. One could argue that if Hughes could figure it out so late in his career, then Jonas can as well. The difference between the two though is the fact Hughes had flashed that ability to be a bulldozer early in his career while Gray has not.
Notre Dame needs him to be a viable complement to Cierre Wood because there really isn’t another alternative. That means something needs to click between now and September that spurs Gray to start running decisively and with authority.
7: Louis Nix Changes the Dynamic of the Entire Defense
Irish fans got their first glimpse of Big Lou in action on Saturday. The conclusion that can be drawn: He is simply immovable.
It didn’t matter whom he matched up against, a veteran or a backup, every single play he commanded a double team. He’s so strong and gets such a push up the heart of the offensive line that he completely eliminates the option of running the ball up the middle.
He has a long way to go until he gets his stamina and condition up to the level defensive coordinator wants, but he’s already done a good job working toward that goal. After tipping the scales at 370 lbs when he arrived, Nix has already shed 30 lbs with the goal of even more before August. He’s really bought into the staff’s workout and nutrition programs, and that’s a huge battle won.
Big Lou will be an unsung hero on the majority of his snaps. His mere presence will effectively occupy blockers and space—the main objective of a 3-4 nose tackle—which will in turn free up the linebackers and ends to make the highlight plays.
But there will be times this fall where a team is dumb enough to think a single offensive lineman can contain Big Lou. When these situations arise, Nix will completely manhandle said lineman, toss him into the backfield and cause either a quarterback sack or negative rushing play.
And it’s those plays that will cause his legend to grow.
6: The Receiving Unit Needs Michael Floyd
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Notre Dame fans have been spoiled for the most part since 2005. With the exception of 2007 (when the Irish trotted out the smurfs—Grimes and West—as starting receivers), wideout has been a position stocked with impact players and superstars. Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija in 2005. Samardzija and Rhema McKnight in 2006. Golden Tate and Michael Floyd in 2008 and 2009. Floyd again in 2010.
When you take away big No. 3 though, there isn’t another dynamic threat lying in waiting like there has been the past five years. Will heralded recruits George Atkinson III and Davaris Daniels be the future once they step on campus this summer? Perhaps, but the receivers Notre Dame fielded last Saturday were decidedly average.
Theo Riddick has enormous potential coming out of the slot position in the spread, but he’s still learning the position and will never be a true No. 1 receiver. TJ Jones could also evolve into a very productive receiver, but he’s still young and it’s unclear exactly what his ceiling is. Robby Toma, John Goodman and Deion Walker are all good receivers, but not one strikes fear in a defense. Does the coaching staff feel confident that any of them can get open on that key play late in the game when the Irish need a first down?
Michael Floyd’s return instantly upgrades the receiving unit from average to very good. Floyd presence will make everyone else on the team better simply because defenses must be worried about him, whether it’s rolling coverages or assigning double teams.
5: The DOG Linebacker Position Battle Will Go Down to the Wire
There aren’t many starting positions that are still to be determined, but one of them is the DOG linebacker. Prince Shembo and Danny Spond are in a heated battle to lock down the spot, and both looked very good in their action on Saturday.
Shembo is more of a known commodity thanks to the impact he made last season as a pass-rushing specialist, but the coaching staff has raved about Spond since he arrived last summer. The duo posted a combined 13 tackles in the spring game (Spond 7, Shembo 6) and both showed they could be very viable options come the fall.
The reality is that both will see significant time come this fall. This is a much different situation than last year when Calabrese and McDonald were in a competition because the staff gave some indications that Carlo would win that spot in their general comments. It’s been equal praise heaped on Shembo and Spond, and that’s a good thing for everyone.
4: The Irish Have the Makings of an Elite Front Seven
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Notre Dame lost only one player from the two-deep on the defensive line from last season (NT Ian Williams) and replace him with 340 lb Louis Nix, the prototype for the position. The linebacking unit is led by future first-rounder Manti Te’o and three-year starter Darius Fleming. Superstar freshmen DE Aaron Lynch and LB Ishaq Williams are already on campus and making an impact, while an infusion of highly rated talent like 5-star defensive end Stephon Tuitt is on the way this summer.
For the first time in ages, Notre Dame can stake the claim that they are loaded with elite talent on their front seven. The days of athletically and physically limited players like Chris Frome, Ronald Talley and Justin Brown occupying spots are gone for the foreseeable future. This generation of the Irish defense is athletic, large and relentless.
If the defense can even just maintain the level of play they showed in the final month of the season, they’ll be one of the best in the country. Add in the contributions of Lynch, Tuiit and Williams, and you have a recipe for dominance.
If Notre Dame takes a step toward the upper echelon of college football this season, it’ll be on the wings of this unit.
3: Aaron Lynch Is on the Fast Track to Superstardom
Coaches and fans alike new snatching Aaron Lynch up in the 11th hour of the recruiting cycle was a huge coup. After seeing his first 60 minutes in blue and gold, people are beginning to understand just how huge a coup it was.
From the first snap to the final gun, Lynch was a menace. Whether he was lined up outside or inside, it didn’t matter. His lightning quick first step and strength made offensive linemen look like they were standing still.
Perhaps you could shrug off the success a bit if it came all day long against walk-ons and players never slated to see the field. That wasn’t the case though. Offensive tackle Christian Lombard was repeatedly victimized, and veteran starting guard Trevor Robinson was completely blown away by Lynch’s speed and swim move on one play.
Lynch tied for a game-high with seven tackles, including 1.5 for a loss. Not included in those stats were the multiple times he got into the backfield and leveled quarterback Andrew Hendrix. Each time PA announcer Michael Collins announced Lynch’s name over the Notre Dame Stadium loudspeaker, the hype and expectations grew. Post-game, the coaching staff set out immediately to temper them, continually stressing how Aaron still has a long way to go to becoming a complete player.
That’s very true. He still has plenty to learn and is far from a finished product. But Lynch has already shown a lot of gifts and skills that can’t be learned. He’ll have an impact right away in passing situations much like Justin Tuck did as a red-shirt freshman, whether it’s actually getting sacks or drawing holding penalties. Six sacks on the year is not an unreasonable expectation.
Lynch is unlike anyone Notre Dame has seen along the defensive line since Tuck and frankly, his ceiling is probably even higher.
2: ND Doesn’t Appear to Have a National Title Caliber Quarterback
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One of the biggest disappointments from the spring game was the fact that Dayne Crist didn’t look like he improved all that much from last fall. All spring practice reports and interviews suggested that things had slowed down for him and he was far more comfortable in the offense. That didn’t appear to be the case Saturday.
Tommy Rees on the other hand looked like he’d progressed, but he still possesses the same shortcomings as last season. First of all, physically he’s just unable to make all the throws that the other three quarterbacks can. But secondly—and more importantly—is the fact that Rees has a propensity to turn the ball over.
Many praise Rees for getting the ball out of his hand quickly, but sometimes that quick release follows a bad read and leads to costly turnovers. That tendency reared its head during the spring game when he threw a bad interception to Lo Wood. He was fortunate that was the only pick he threw because a couple other passes very easily could have gone the other direction.
What does their performance mean, if anything? The biggest takeaway is that the Irish lack a national title caliber quarterback right now. Look at the list of quarterbacks in the national title game the last five seasons:
2006: Chris Leak, Troy Smith
2007: Matt Flynn, Todd Boeckman
2008: Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford
2009: Greg McElroy, Colt McCoy
2010: Cam Newton, Darron Thomas
With the exception of the 2007 season, that’s a list of elite quarterbacks. Notre Dame lacks that level of signal-caller right now. Could Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees evolve into it by the fall? Possibly, but it’s unlikely. In Kelly’s offense you need a triggerman capable of consistently moving—and protecting—the ball. Crist has yet to prove he can provide the necessary consistency, while Rees hasn’t shown he can protect the ball adequately.
Will Hendrix or Golson evolve into one in the coming years? That’s distinctly possible, but to expect them to arrive this season is unrealistic.
Brian Kelly has a way of working magic with quarterbacks and maximizing their potential (just look at Rees last year and Zach Collaros at Cincinnati). If there’s one position people should feel comfortable letting him evaluate and improve, it’s the guy lined up behind center.
But based on what we saw last year and what we witnessed Saturday, the Irish don’t have a quarterback on the roster capable of taking them to the national title this fall. It’s a sobering fact, but unless something dramatic changes, it’s the truth.
1: ND Is Capable Crashing the BCS, Just Not the Title Game
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Brian Kelly was tasked with returning Notre Dame to the top of the college football world. The Irish fanbase isn't known as the most patient, but it will have to wait at least one year longer until it's in the thick of a title hunt late in the season.
This fall Kelly will field a potentially elite defense. The big question is whether his vaunted offense will be consistent enough to win all the games on the schedule they're supposed to win and steal a game or two that perhaps they should not. Without a standout quarterback to run the show, it'll be an uphill battle, but it's one Kelly has conquered before. Could he find a way to coax enough consistency out of Crist or Rees to run the table? It's a long shot.
More than likely Notre Dame will slip up one or two times in the first seven games. That doesn't mean all will be lost though. For a program that was 4-5 and had vultures circling after back-to-back losses against Navy and Tulsa just last October, the reversal from rock bottom to relevance has been dramatic—and make no mistake, Notre Dame will be relevant again starting this season.
They have some extraordinary talent on defense and an experienced offensive line to protect whoever emerges at quarterback. Combine that with a light schedule, and you have a legitimate BCS contender.
The hunch here is the Irish will poke their head in the Top 10 at least once and wrap up the season with their best record since Charlie Weis' Sugar Bowl team of 2006. Notre Dame will win at least nine games, and if things break right, they'll get the 10th win that will sneak them back into the BCS as an at-large.
So be patient Irish fans. While a national title run is highly unlikely this season, there will be much more to play for than the Sun Bowl come November. Just another step on the way back to the ultimate goal of hoisting that championship trophy.