The Notre Dame coaching staff set out to accomplish a number of things this spring. What those objectives are still remains unclear at this point. Coach Tyrone Willingham was in good spirits after practice and seemed ready for the season to begin. "The best thing about spring practice and the conclusion of it means that you're closer to the season and that always brings some sense of urgency to coaches and to players."
The Irish will play in the 74th annual Blue-Gold game on Saturday and Willingham sees this game as an opportunity for his players. "The spring game is a little bit different," said Willingham. "It's an opportunity for the young men to show their athletic ability and for us as coaches to give them one more opportunity to participate in a game. Therefore, they grow, and you have to get your juices ready to play a game in front of a crowd and that's always a good thing."
The Irish coaches will be paying close attention to each player but Willingham doesn't believe this game will have much of an impact on the depth-chart for each position. "You never let 14 days be outweighed by one. What they've done up until this point will have more impact than just the one game. You take out a lot of the things in the game. You don't have the mental duress that you have on those other days in terms of installation, stress, pressure and learning the system. You reduce the game down to where it's very vanilla in most cases. You just go out and have some fun, show your athletic ability and play under game conditions."
Once again the offensive line was a hot topic and Willingham commented on how much progress they've made. "I think it's been a very positive improvement yet there's still a lot of room for us to grow. It's impossible in 14 days to replace the kind of experience that we've had leave that position. Yet, I think our young men have made a lot of progress in that regard."
A few of the offensive linemen have been learning other positions. Recently, Irish Eyes has learned that Bob Morton has been working some at offensive guard. Willingham says this is all about getting your best players on the field. "The philosophy is let's find the best five guys. If it means moving some guys around, sometimes you do that. They can get the experience out of that position so we can determine what may be their best position."
Willingham was clearly Willingham when asked if he could name a starting unit at this point. "I'd say right now, if we started today, we could probably put one together." That was all Willingham had to say and it was clear that was all he was going to say.
The quarterback position has been a hot topic of the spring but it appears Carlyle Holiday is the clear leader heading into fall camp. Willingham was asked about the progress of Chris Olsen and Willingham said he has made improvement. "I think he's definitely done that," said Willingham. "I'm not saying he's ready to take out Carlyle at this time but he and Pat are in a wonderful battle and that is a good situation for us because that helps make our football team better."
Willingham said Olsen has started to grasp the system. "Just understanding what he's doing and beginning to feel more comfortable with what he's doing. Until you get to that phase, it's tough to accomplish much in any other area."
The question is has Olsen been more competitive in his battle with Pat Dillingham? Willingham was careful in how he worded his response. "I can't exactly say that because in some regards we may have handicapped Chris to a degree. Knowing that we think a lot of his future and (it was) probably better to hold him off at that point so we may have done that."
Holiday has proven that he is the starter at this point and Willingham has been pleased with his progress. "I think the word is improvement. I think he's steadily improved and I think he's becoming even more comfortable with the system than he has in the past and that is a welcome sign."
The knock on Holiday has been his decision-making. Willingham doesn't think that criticism is justified. "Not necessarily, I felt last year he made good decisions in certain areas and I think he's going to expand that in other areas now. I was very comfortable in a lot of decisions he made last year."
Willingham is correct that this Blue-Gold game is about opportunity. It's an opportunity for fans to see their team again before fall camp begins. Don't expect many fireworks from the offense and don't expect many fireworks in the praise given by Willingham. To him, it's just another practice, just like the 14 before and I expect his response from the game will be much the same as it has been all spring. Still, there's no denying the optimism shown by his coaching staff, the players and Willingham himself after the final practice of spring.