Notre Dame drilled outside on Saturday, its first full practice at the LaBar Complex all spring. As promised by Brian Kelly earlier in the week, it was a physical, full-pads scrimmage, probably as physical a spring session as I’ve covered in years.
I scouted the offense, which worked at a 7-on-7 tempo so fast it seemed geared more to the defense to adjust than the quarterbacks, receivers and backs. Regardless of the play’s outcome, the offense would sprint to the line and snap it again and again and again.
Malik Zaire got the first-team work with Everett Golson running with the second-team. Alex Bars worked with the starting line at right guard, with Quenton Nelson backing him up. Chris Brown worked with the starting offense over Corey Robinson. Corey Holmes got much more meaningful work than Justin Brent. Beyond that, the offense worked with expected personnel throughout practice.
Let’s get this out of the way. Both quarterbacks threw interceptions. Third-stringer DeShone Kizer did too. But with Golson and Zaire it was an otherwise clean operation to the naked eye. No botched handoffs or fumbled snaps. Based on the barking from Kelly (actually, the lack of it), both quarterbacks had solid days. In some of the previous practices Golson had a clear upper hand on Zaire, but that wasn’t the case Saturday.
Golson continues to throw the better ball and reads the middle of the field better than Zaire. That’s probably not something that’s going to change this season considering how both quarterbacks are wired. Yet Zaire also spun a few nice heaves deep that should have/could have been caught for big gains.
Impressed with how Golson moved around in the pocket but kept his eyes down the field. There wasn’t a panic to his game when pressure came. When he did scramble, the ball didn’t pop out when he got tackled, which happened a few times. There’s nothing about Golson’s running style that suggests he likes contact. He looks to get down or get out of bounds more than Zaire, who’s a bull when he tucks and runs.
Liked how Golson was patient enough to let crossing routes develop underneath, which often meant receivers matched up with linebackers. Te’Von Coney was on the wrong end of coverages more than once thanks to that patience. Golson did get picked on a deep ball thrown over Chris Brown that Matthias Farley snared. The only other negative was Golson’s bizarre decision to throw off his back foot while scrambling during the scrimmage, nearly getting picked on a ball that should have gone safely out of bounds.
Best Golson throw was a muscle ball he put on Amir Carlisle for a touchdown in the red zone period. The throw was through traffic and came in hot as Carlisle broke inside. Mike Denbrock joked Golson has “balls the size of grapefruits” after the score.
Watching both quarterbacks go live, it’s clear Golson sees the field a half-second (or more) faster than Zaire, who kept most of his throws to the sidelines or deep. Curious to see the staff ask Zaire to throw while rolling right on multiple plays, which created a technical challenge for a left-handed quarterback. Those throws missed.
Zaire’s biggest interception came in the red zone when Jaylon Smith batted a ball that Max Redfield picked off. Zaire had another pick earlier in practice when Tyler Luatua bobbled a ball that was on point, the defense snaring it off the tight end.
For all the spring analysis of this position, not much has changed. Notre Dame has two quarterbacks who can move the offense, just in different ways. The best-case scenario for Notre Dame remains that Golson and Zaire stick around next season. If that happens, it’s hard to imagine both won’t play.
Prediction: If Greg Bryant doesn’t get major work this fall it won’t be a season-long talking point. That’s because C.J. Prosise has emerged as a home run threat, evidenced by his 70-yard touchdown run during the scrimmage. Prosise broke into the open field to his right and went untouched the rest of the way. No Notre Dame defender even got close.
Kelly said Prosise’s spring performance has been good enough that Bryant and Tarean Folston should think about their carry totals potentially dropping. At a minimum, the Irish have upgraded their third-string back in Prosise, assuming he doesn’t return to slot. Prosise had some grinding inside runs too, meaning he’s not the one trick pony of George Atkinson.
Interesting to see Folston and Bryant lined up as receivers on Saturday. Running empty sets isn’t something new for Kelly, but both backs saw plenty of work in the pass game. Zaire tried to force a pass in the flat to Bryant during the scrimmage that Jaylon Smith broke up … and then let Bryant know all about it.
Nothing significant from Folston during the scrimmage and Kelly was clear to not criticize the returning starter. With the pace of play rising this weekend, Kelly said Folston was pushed toward his work volume maximum. In some ways, Kelly wants Folston to do less during practice, not more. But that requires reinforcements from Dexter Williams and Josh Adams.
Folston did get used in a jet sweep formation with two tight ends coming out of the end zone for an eight-yard gain. He took the handoff from Zaire and had both Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua already on the move to block.
Chris Brown ran with the starting offense and looked the part more than Corey Robinson, who worked with the second-string. Brown delivered down the sideline, over the middle, in the flat, etc. He put the best move of the practice on Cole Luke, leaving the cornerback grasping at air after making a catch in the flat. That’s not something we’ve seen from Brown in the past
Brown also caught a zone beater from Zaire for a 40-yard gain during the scrimmage when he got into a space on the sidelines between Nick Watkins and Max Redfield. Brown did get beat in the blocking game at points but still looks much more physical than at any point during his career.
Will Fuller had a long touchdown catch-and-run, spinning out of an attempted tackle on his way to the end zone. His hands weren’t great during the scrimmage, but the speed was there as usual.
More impressed with Corey Holmes than Justin Brent, who caught an earful from Mike Denbrock about poor blocking technique. Holmes almost made a quality catch in the back of the end zone on a high bullet from Golson. Would have been a difficult catch, but receivers have to make that in a live setting. Holmes later snared a 30-yard completion from Golson, who moved around in the pocket to get open and buy time.
Very little production from Torii Hunter Jr., who worked as the second-team slot behind Amir Carlisle. Just not enough from Hunter when it came to one-on-one battles for the ball. He also dropped a bomb from Golson off a scramble. The rising junior couldn’t look it in.
There’s a clear order at tight end: 1. Durham Smythe, 2. Tyler Luatua, 3. Nic Weishar and 4. Chase Hounshell. That means Mike Heuerman is nowhere to be found, not taking reps, at least. He was at practice but wasn’t given the opportunity to do anything of consequence outside special teams.
Smythe and Luatua worked in tandem much of the practice, with Smythe the clear starter. However, it seems Luatua can give the Irish something in the run game by motioning him around the formation. He also made a decent catch on a drag route over the middle for a first down before Matthias Farley leveled him. Luatua doesn’t seem to have the natural athleticism of most Irish tight ends.
Curious to see how Alize Jones competes with Nic Weishar from the No. 3 tight end job.
Notre Dame’s first-team offensive line came out with left tackle Ronnie Stanley, left guard Alex Bars, center Nick Martin, right guard Steve Elmer and right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The second-team line came out with tackles Mark Harrell and Hunter Bivin, guards Quenton Nelson and John Montelus, plus center Sam Mustipher. Tristen Hoge and Jimmy Byrne worked with the third team.
Not to get carried away, but Ronnie Stanley looked like an NFL tackle on Saturday. Whichever quarterback wins the job won’t have to worry much about edge rushers beating Stanley because it’s just not going to happen often. Stanley handled Romeo Okwara and whoever else got stuck rushing him.
When you’re watching these practices you’re trying to assess more than just X’s and O’s. The offensive line had a moment in the scrimmage where you got a glimpse of the group’s mentality. After Max Redfield picked off a deflected Zaire pass, Nick Martin drilled Redfield on the sideline to make the tackle. During the return Jay Hayes took a free shot on Steve Elmer, who wanted to track down Hayes after the play. But Elmer had to get in line behind McGlinchey, who was coming after Hayes. If Hayes had talked back to McGlinchey the practice could have ignited into something more. The line appears to be a close group.
Interesting to listen to the line talk about a series of plays with Harry Hiestand on the sidelines. After one 7-on-7 series the five starters gathered with Hiestand and went over each play. While Bars only listened, Stanley offered input and analysis about what the defense tried to do. Consider that give-and-take to be a real positive.
• The progress Jarrett Grace has made physically since the fall when he was still rehabilitating his broken leg from a year previously was striking on the LaBar Practice Complex turf Saturday.
The defense opened in a three-station drill with one group working on stripping the quarterback of the football on an outside pass rush, another working on punching the football free from behind, and a third doing the scoop-and-score drill. The defensive backs, linebackers and defensive linemen rotated through all three drills.
Grace immediately showed the ability to bend at the knees, scoop and accelerate toward the goal line. It’s not an easy drill to execute when perfectly healthy because it forces you to bend your knees, bend at the waist, make the scoop and get into full gallop while trying to gather your footing after tracking a bouncing ball. The fact that Grace was able to execute it seamlessly was a great sign of recovery, as was his general quickness/bounce throughout the practice.
• Irish graduate assistant and former captain Mo Crum put the defensive backs through their drills Saturday. Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght was not in attendance at Saturday’s practice. Unbeknownst to most outside the football program, Lyght’s mother passed away in February. Because of timing issues, her memorial service wasn’t held until today in Atlanta.
• On two separate occasions from two different coaches – defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore – sophomore-to-be defensive tackle Jay Hayes was reminded to keep his pad level down. “Too high, Jay, your game is too high,” VanGorder barked.
• Leadership comes in many forms. One of those ways is to lead your group as the first man to get in line for a drill. Two that showed that in the early positional work were safety Matthias Farley and defensive tackle Sheldon Day.
• One play, Kolin Hill looks like an explosive linebacker who can burst to the football unlike most others; the next play, linebackers coach Mike Elston says, “You need to be tougher, Kolin.” Hill worked at linebacker last year, too, but most of his action as a freshman came as an off-the-edge rusher. The position remains new to him.
It appeared to be a good day for outside linebacker Greer Martini, who twice was commended by VanGorder for his technique while taking on a block, shedding it and getting to the ball carrier.
• Good news for Joe Schmidt, who continues to rehab the severely broken ankle he suffered the first Saturday of November. Schmidt once again left practice early to continue his rehab/strength and conditioning. But Brian Kelly said after practice that Schmidt has been cleared to participate in all non-contact activity beginning Monday, which allows Schmidt to finish the spring and head into the off-season on a high note.
• Working at the No. 1 Mike linebacker spot all day was sophomore-to-be Nyles Morgan, who forms a pretty imposing inside linebacker corps with Will linebacker Jaylon Smith. Also working with the No. 1 unit virtually the entire day was Sam linebacker James Onwualu, who continues to impress VanGorder.
• In the absence of Jonathan Bonner – who was in a right walking boot after being diagnosed with an extreme case of turf toe that will require surgery early next week and sideline him for the rest of spring drills – classmate Grant Blankenship picked up most of the No. 2 reps.
• This was my first real good look at freshman nose tackle Jerry Tillery. To be sure, physically, Tillery has an imposing presence. Doubt that it was one of his better days at the office, however, since his early effort prompted defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to say, “Jerry, you want to go back to O?”
Despite the chiding, Tillery worked with the No. 1 unit all day in the absence of injured Jarron Jones. It is extremely difficult to get push against Tillery. He may not always be involved in the play, but he holds the point of attack well.
Make no mistake, Tillery is a special talent. But it still has to be an every-down deal, not an every-other-down performance. Not sure what the issue is with Daniel Cage, but he did not appear to take any contact Saturday.
• When you look out at No. 90 on defense, it prompts you check your roster to make sure Isaac Rochell didn’t change numbers. A bigger and more imposing Rochell returned to the practice field this spring. Brian Kelly again reiterated the progress Rochell has made as a pass rusher. He already was one of the strongest players on the team in the fall, and now he looks even bigger and stronger.
• A little special teams news less than hour into the two-hour practice. Greg Bryant, Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise returned punts. Prosise showed great concentration on a fair catch in traffic of three defenders. Bryant and Fuller both look explosive out of the catch. The difference is that Fuller’s second step is longer than Bryant’s. Both can get the job done.
• Among the players who look to be part of Scott Booker’s core punt coverage guys are James Onwualu, Devin Butler, Nick Watkins, and Connor Cavalaris. Also seen running down to cover punts were Te’von Coney, Nicky Baratti, Max Redfield, Austin Larkin and even Jaylon Smith. Kelly said after practice that Baratti has shown no signs of issues with his shoulder.
• Max Redfield made an interception of Malik Zaire during a seven-on-seven drill in the red zone. Jaylon Smith got his hand on it, Redfield snagged it, and made an ill-advised decision to bring it out of the end zone, although he wiggled his way up near the 20-yard line.
Offensive players can be particularly vulnerable to a block from a defensive player after a pick, and it was Steve Elmer who got the worst of a blind-side, on-the-run block by a vocal Jay Hayes, which prompted Elmer to react in an exchange of bumps with Hayes.
• You are not going to see too many walk-on defensive backs as impressive athletically as 6-foot-0, 180-pound senior Travis Allen from Lansing, Mich. Allen picked off a pass thrown by DeShone Kizer.
• The Irish went live for the final portion of Saturday’s practice. These are some of the highlights:
- Matthias Farley, a nickel/cornerback last year, worked extensively with the No. 2 defense at safety, spelling Baratti and lining up alongside John Turner. Farley took full advantage of a kill shot on tight end Tyler Luatua on a ball that allowed Farley to size him up and throw a powerful right shoulder into the tackle.
- It was a tough day for Corey Holmes catching the football, but he did make a nice deep middle catch in front of Devin Butler.
- One of the top five hits of the day belonged to cornerback Nick Watkins, who lit up receiver Chris Brown on the near sideline. Watkins also allowed a long play when Will Fuller slipped a tackle on a quick-out and turned it upfield.
- Zaire threw a perfect deep ball to Fuller, who beat Cole Luke, but Fuller couldn’t secure the football and Luke knocked it free.
- James Onwualu showed his pass coverage skills defending Torii Hunter, Jr. on the far sideline.
- From the red zone, there were several nice fill-the-hole tackles. They included Jaylon Smith on Greg Bryant, Max Redfield on Malik Zaire, Isaac Rochell on Zaire, James Onwualu on Zaire, and Jarrett Grace on C.J. Prosise. A bit further downfield but in comparable fashion, Elijah Shumate stepped up from the safety position and dropped Tarean Folston after about a 15-yard game.
- There was no catching C.J. Prosise on a 70-yard run. Once he burst through the hole, the defense lost all hopes of getting an angle on the speedy Prosise, who had a running start and out-ran Max Redfield.
- In what appeared to be a broken coverage, Chris Brown beat Watkins up the sideline. Moments later, Jaylon Smith atoned with nice pass defense on the sideline against Greg Bryant. One doesn’t think of Smith as a “talker” per se, but he had plenty to say to Bryant.
- Grant Blankenship flushed Everett Golson out of the pocket, forced him to the sideline and prompted Golson to throw the ball away. Credit to John Turner for a nice pass broken up on a deep-in to Amir Carlisle.