What to watch

Matchups, and youth playing in space to highlight the Blue Gold Game Saturday.

No thrilling return opportunities, no defensive play calls, a QB-heavy running game (and an eventual running clock) and one, two-if-you're-lucky defensive fronts over the course of the contest.

Stripped of football's modern exotics, schemes, and head coach Brian Kelly's trademark no-huddle tempo offense, the 82nd annual Blue Gold Game will nevertheless offer fans its share of matchups and story lines to monitor.

Especially for those hoping to catch a glimpse of the team's developing depth

  1. Louis Nix vs. Braxston Cave and Mike Golic: Our first extended look at the new and improved redshirt-freshman nose guard facing off vs. a pair of senior centers should be the focal point of your viewing Saturday. No schemes, no stunts, no annoying whistles because an off-limits QB is about to take a hit: just (massive) young man vs. older men in the trenches. Cave's renowned functional strength vs. Nix sheer power should give the discerning fan a 20-25-snap glimpse of the future inside.

  2. Prince Shembo and Danny Spond vs. Open Space: Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco both admitted a modicum of surprise at Shembo's ability to play in space upon first blush. I expected it from Spond, more athlete than linebacker entering college, and that's what makes this tandem of DOG/Drop competitors part of Saturday's storylines (I assume Kelly will do fans a solid and pit the pair on opposite sides). The ability of either to redirect slot receivers and tight ends in space is the underrated key to the 2011 first and second down defense. Unlike next fall, don't expect much blitzing from the explosive Shembo – the staff will want to see him tussle with the likes of Riddick, Eifert, and Toma for future evaluation.

  3. Everett Golson vs. Expectations: Golson and sophomore quarterback competitor Andrew Hendrix are the game's feature players. The sandlot defense Golson will face is tailor-made for his publicized strengths: he'll make at least two backup defenders look foolish on a slick Saturday turf. More important in the early enrollee's final evaluation will be his ability to hit the seams, slants, and dig route receivers in stride, as YAC (yards after catch) was largely absent from the Irish offense last fall with the exception of a certain suspended star.

    Kelly noted he's looking for another playmaker – so are we.

  4. Andrew Hendrix vs. Jamoris Slaughter and the Irish safeties: Hendrix will run too, as Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar need to see him in game conditions as much as possible, but I'll be honest, I want to see the arm – and not behind a spiraling pigskin that damages the unwilling hands of an Irish student manager.

    Hendrix has a legitimate cannon, but Kelly has quelled expectations with the requisite, "we just want him to throw it to our guys," commentary. That should happen Saturday, as Hendrix will have fewer pre-snap reads and a bit less talent than has been the norm facing him defensively. Can he hit squeeze the ball into tight windows with a pair of ball-hawking safeties bearing down on his receivers? Does he have the touch to hit deep targets in stride, or the eyes to look off zone defenders on intermediate throws? Can he run the goal line offense well enough to push for Wildcat playing time, or situational appearances? Has Hendrix developed a rapport with any of his targets after a season on the Scout Team and now four months as a starting competitor?

    On a related note…

  5. Alex Welch – down the seam and working the zone: It's not a matchup, but I'm intrigued by Welch as a mid-to-late season option in the passing game. Can he work the seams as well as last year's breakout tight end Tyler Eifert? Can he hold up vs. opposing linebackers well enough to take time away from 5th-year senior Mike Ragone? Can Welch's ability to catch the ball in traffic help the Irish on third down next fall?

    Welch is my choice as the breakout offensive star of the Blue Gold Game (Golson is my MVP). To cast your vote for those and five other categories, visit our Subscriber's Football Forum, here.

Of note, don't expect much from a still-hampered Jonas Gray (calf) nor fellow running back Cierre Wood, Saturday. Instead, look for hard-charging walk-on Patrick Coughlin to steal the second-half show as a featured runner. Gray estimated today he was about "85 percent."

More to ponder:

  1. With a mere six healthy receivers, how much will the staff feature veterans Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, and John Goodman Saturday?
  2. Can a defense at (literally) half of its overall talent level contain Riddick or tight end Tyler Eifert in such a controlled setting?
  3. How will Early Enrollees Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams fare coming off the edge when cut blocks aren't an option for the team's backup offensive tackles?
  4. Wither Steve Filer, he of the 12-tackle Blue Gold Game in 2010? Can the senior finally emerge as a key part of the linebacker rotation?
  5. Is junior linebacker Dan Fox the (backup) answer inside...at both WILL and MIKE? Can sophomore 'backer Kendall Moore make a final push in this game setting as he did during last fall's late-season stadium scrimmages?
  6. Should Crist take more than five snaps on a slick turf?
  7. Will Cierre Wood play enough to warrant a post-game interview, the key to any meaningful Sunday sound byte?

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