Passing grade, barely

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly graded his quarterbacks at the tail end of spring practice knowing well that the pair's presence below the Mendoza Line is not yet a cause for concern.

2.0 is average. It's passing, but no student-athlete strives for a C.

Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire thus have some work to do this summer to be in good athletic standing for the fall semester.

Thankfully the 2.0 grade -- assigned by their teacher, Brian Kelly -- relates to the playing field, not the classroom, and it was assigned in the wake of a taxing spring that allowed the evolving Notre Dame defense to operate with impunity while offensive counterparts worked out myriad kinks along the way.

"We graded our quarterbacks the other day. Nobody had a 2.0 cumulative, and the quarterbacks agreed with that," said Kelly. "They agree that we have a number of categories that we grade them, and a lot of it is because they were taking 500-level classes (against new coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense). It wasn't easy stuff for them. The great part about it is that they see that as well and they've got a lot of work to do.

"Malik hasn't played yet. Everett played but you saw how we ran the offense with Everett (in 2012). We took him out in a few games and Tommy (Rees) helped us win some games. The (2012) defense did a great job of winning games for us, and (Golson) didn't play last year. He's still learning, too. It's been just great teaching, and Brian's helped us a lot with what he's doing defensively as we teach our quarterbacks."

Stunts, sub packages, blitzes, man coverage -- all part of the defensive installation. Golson and Zaire have been forced to cope with an offensive line searching for proper fits. The group is without starting center Nick Martin (knee surgery), likely starting right guard Christian Lombard (broken wrist) and worked this spring to find best fits for competitors such as Steve Elmer, Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty, and Mike McGlinchey.

It is likely the deepest Notre Dame line of the Kelly era, but it's not yet whole. As a result, neither is the offense.

"Most would not allow it to go the way I've allowed it to go," said Kelly of the challenge the defense presents to his offense during what would normally be basic play installation. "I mean, it would be much controlled. I allow it to happen at will. In other words, I want our quarterbacks to see it all. They have seen more designs, more things than they will see next year at any one time, and it's difficult on them. It's really hard on them, but I'd rather it be difficult, so when I go into that meeting, we have great meetings that we can teach off of and learn off of, and get better at.

"Our quarterbacks understand that. They know right now that when it comes to pocket presence and route progression and how they protect themselves, they are not even close to where they need to be. Now having said that, what we're seeing is really some 500-level stuff. It's all good stuff, and I'd rather have it that way than have them line up like ducks and we get to the fall and (they say), 'It's the first time I've ever seen that, coach.'"

Backfield Much Better

In contrast to the performance of Notre Dame's quarterbacks is the successful spring experienced by the three-headed monster that is the Irish backfield.

Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant are each poised to contribute heavily from the outset. Key to that end is their increased ability to protect and catch more so than run.

"I've been pleased with their ability to catch the football," said Kelly of the trio. "That hasn't been a concern. We've been really focused on their ability to protect. We've added a little bit more responsibility in pass protection for them. That's been a focus for us in the spring, pass protection to the max.

"They've really done a nice job. On whole, all three of those guys have had a good spring and really have developed in all of those areas. Pass-catching, running the football and pass protection. That's a unit, of all of our units, I feel like they're developing. They're all tough kids, too."


Tarean Folston earned the bowl game starting assignment

Folston finished 2013 as the technical starter. McDaniel led last year's squad throughout (rushing yards, attempts, touchdown). If Bryant isn't the most impressive skill player this spring, he's 1B.

"I thought, of the three, Tarean probably started a little slow but has picked it up at the end, and it might have been because Greg Bryant has had a really good spring as they've gotten it going. We've got to keep this competitive nature going. I've been pleased with the 'backs."

Punt Return, Take Five

Notre Dame's 2013 punt return team improved to the point that wasn't among the nation's worst.

Take a bow.

Spring 2014 provided precious few moments to improve, with inclement weather most often forcing the squad to practice indoors where any quality punt would ricochet off the Loftus Center's celling.

Fans hopping to catch a glimpse of the unit won't have that chance until next fall as Saturday's annual Blue Gold Game won't involve returns (insert joke here).

A trio of competitors will fair catch each punt. Kelly's modest goal? Catch them.

"We got a good sense of the kickoff return game," said Kelly of his special teams work this spring. "I'm still not certain on our punt return game. We didn't get enough work on it. (Practice 14) was our fifth day outside. Saturday will be our sixth. That will be all fair catches and I'm sure we'll drop three of them, and the internet will blow up on punt returning and who that could be.

"I don't know, really, to be quite frank, who is going to be that guy. It is still a work in progress for us, but it will be Bryant back there for us. It will be (sophomore) Torii Hunter. It will be (senior) Amir Carlisle. It will be (sports information director Michael) Bertsch back there. We're going to find somebody, anybody that has a pulse, we're going to keep trying them back there. We just don't know right now who that punt returner is going to be."

Asked what Bryant brings to the punt return table, Kelly offered, "He did a nice job last fall when we really tried to focus on him being that guy before (graduated captain) TJ (Jones) took that role over. We have some previous experience watching him and really spending some time with him. We're relying on some of that, quite frankly, as to why we have some confidence that he can do it. I can't say for certain that we've got that thing figured out yet."

Notre Dame ranked 80th out of 124 FBS teams in punt return average last fall, 7.07 yards per return. Previous squads (2012-2010) finished 116th, 112th, and 100th, respectively.

Of note, college football's national champion during Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame finished 90th (Auburn), 14th (Alabama), 44th (Alabama), and 41st (Florida State).

Above average might be all that's necessary.


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