Tim Prister’s Tale of the Tape

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley — in addition to his pass-receiving skills — is one of several reasons why the coaching staff and the Irish team are raving about the offensive line, which offers much more than just size and strength to form the main asset of the 2015 team.

Offensive line backbone of 2015 team

In the aftermath of the 86th Blue-Gold Game, it’s become trendy – almost cliché – to rave about Notre Dame’s offensive line as we head into the summer months.

Brian Kelly says he’s going to lean on that unit heavily and Notre Dame’s players – on both sides of the football – consider the offensive line the rock upon which the 2015 team will be built.

Too much, too soon? What’s the big deal about a unit that paved the way for 3.6 yards per carry in the final practice of the spring? What does spring practice against a defense that allowed huge chunks of ground over the final eight games prove?

Some have asked that, and in looking at the numbers from Saturday’s tilt, it’s a legitimate question. It’s also probably a bit myopic basing an impression upon numbers in a pseudo game.

Here’s what’s so impressive about Notre Dame’s offensive line, and it’s an impression formed over 15 practices, not just the Blue-Gold Game.

Much has been made about the size of Notre Dame’s offensive line. NBC’s Dan Hicks and Doug Flutie pointed to that first and foremost, and they’re absolutely correct. They’re big.

But most major college offensive lines today are big. There’s nothing inordinately different with the Irish offensive line size-wise than any other playoff contender heading into the 2015 season with some minor exceptions.

If there are physical outliers on Notre Dame’s offensive line, they are 6-foot-7 ½, 310-pound right tackle Mike McGlinchey, 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pound right guard Steve Elmer, and 6-foot-4 ½, 325-pound left guard Quenton Nelson.

Simply put, you don’t see too many 6-foot-7 ½ right tackles, especially ones that have the ability to completely envelop defensive ends and moving as well as McGlinchey does. He’s come a long way in a short period of time as a former tight end just a couple years back with three years or eligibility remaining. His balance in the Blue-Gold Game was much better than it was against LSU. He did a much better job of staying on his feet, and when he locked somebody up Saturday, that somebody was not getting away.

Elmer’s measurements don’t do justice to the power he brings to the right guard position as a run blocker. There are a lot of 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pound offensive linemen in the country. But I said it during the 2014 season and I’ll stick with it: Elmer was the most consistent run blocker – from my Tale of the Tape vantage point – last season, and he’s only enhanced his skill set. Like McGlinchey, his balance on the move is vastly improved.

Nelson is a bit of a freak of nature, and I didn’t fully realize it until last week when I saw a) Nelson in civilian clothes during his nervous interview with the media and b) his performance in the Blue-Gold Game. From shoulder to shoulder, Nelson might be the widest offensive lineman I’ve ever seen at Notre Dame. He’s as wide as a garage door.

In the scrimmage, he aggressively attacked defensive linemen, perhaps not always in the most fundamentally sound, balanced way. But he erred on the side of aggression, which often times is enough when you have the width of an Oldsmobile.

He’s like a thrashing machine in there, which was one of the assets that Matt Hegarty brought to the equation, only Nelson has much more bulk and power to his game and is a much more compact blocker.

But again, these are mainly physical/strength traits, assets which the nation’s best teams can claim, and that’s not even mentioning likely future first-round draft choice Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame’s 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pound left tackle, and Nick Martin, the 6-foot-4 ½, 301-pound center – two guys who are the heart-and-soul of the unit (in addition, of course, to Harry Hiestand).

What separates Notre Dame’s offensive line from most and what puts them on the spring pedestal as we head into the summer months are the aggressive nature with which they play, the fundamentally-sound level that they’ve reached, and the combination of athleticism to go with the size to create havoc for opposing defenses.

Notre Dame’s offensive linemen are playing in attack mode. They’re not absorbing blows or allowing the other side of the football to dictate the tempo or physicality. The Irish offensive line is the aggressor, and when you combine that with the size, the athleticism and the technique, you now have the makings of a truly outstanding offensive line, which is why Brian Kelly, his staff and even players on the defensive side of the football are raving about the offensive line.

From a depth standpoint, there are three guys that stand out in my mind, starting with 6-foot-4 ½, 315-pound Colin McGovern. Mentioning his name ahead of 6-foot-6, 316-pound Alex Bars may surprise some people, but McGovern has been a guy on the rise since last year. He’s listed as a guard by most, but he also was playing some right tackle in the Blue-Gold Game, and Kelly has mentioned McGovern several times in the past as a guy on the rise with position flexibility.

We don’t see the offensive linemen enough to know for sure, but from studying the Blue-Gold Game and knowing how Kelly/Hiestand feel about him, McGovern looks to be someone that could be plugged into the equation that would have a chance to play on a high level, whether at guard or tackle.

Whereas Nelson is startlingly wide in the shoulders, Bars is, from the waist down, as wide as a house himself. He’s known as more of a technician than Nelson, whose reputation is that of a brawler, and Nelson lived up to it Saturday by playing a “violent” left guard.

They say Bars is a candidate for tackle as well as guard, but I said it when I saw him in Chicago prior to his senior year in high school and I’ll stand by it. Bars’ best position is guard, whereas McGovern – in my mind’s eye – can play tackle as well as guard.

The third backup offensive linemen that looks ready to play to me is 6-foot-4, 310-pound guard John Montelus, who like McGlinchey and McGovern carries three years of eligibility into the 2015 season.

If you’re thinking of Montelus from his early days at Notre Dame, that’s a reality that no longer exists. He’s in much-improved physical condition and he was getting after it Saturday. He, too, is a viable option on the interior for the Irish, although I’d point to McGovern and Bars first, followed closely by Montelus.

Hunter Bivin, Sam Mustipher, Mark Harrell, Jimmy Byrne and Tristen Hoge represent the next rung of offensive linemen. It would require a bit more of a stretch to say they’re ready to step into the lineup in the same manner in which McGovern, Bars and Montelus appear to be.

That’s how I see this offensive line and those are some of the reasons – beyond sheer size – that make this the backbone of the 2015 team.

The running back competition

The way we looked at the running back situation at Notre Dame compared to the way we’ll view it in a couple of months will differ greatly. That’s when Dexter Williams and Josh Adams enter the fray with Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and C.J. Prosise, who continues to be a combo Z receiver/running back.

Williams and Adams bring varied skills to the equation, and it will be interesting – and much different – to see the position evolve compared to the three-man competition this spring. I wouldn’t expect any one of the three running backs this spring to be unseated on the depth chart by a freshman, but the dynamics will indeed change.

As for the spring competition at running back, Kelly turned some heads last week when he suggested that Folston and Bryant better be on their toes and show improvement, otherwise it’s Prosise who will emerge as the starter.

“As we continue to move forward, he’ll get every opportunity to take over a starting position, whether it’s at wide receiver or whether it’s at running back,” said Kelly of Prosise. “I’m going to play the 11 best players and wherever the 11 best players are, they’re going to be on the field.

“I’m not going to paint him into any particular position or category. If he’s the best running back, he’s going to start. If he’s the best wide receiver, he’s going to start. It’s our job to get the best 11 players on the field, and right now, it’s hard to make a case that he’s not one of the best 11.”

Those are pretty strong words, and most interpreted them to mean that Folston and Bryant need to pick it up, which is true.

I’ll take some liberties here to inject my opinion about what Kelly stated, admitting that I don’t have all the facts. But I believe what Kelly really was saying was that Bryant better show marked improvement and consistency, otherwise he’ll fall to third team behind Folston and Prosise.

Folston is still the best running back on the team. He’s proven his skill and value down the stretch of each of the last two seasons, and there was nothing in Folston’s performance Saturday that would indicate he’s taken a step back. Maybe that wasn’t the case throughout the 15 spring practices, but Folston still is a marvelous talent who has mastered that little skip step that extricates him from jams in the backfield and propels him upfield, where he becomes very dangerous in the open field.

Prosise showed once again this spring that if you put him at a offensive position and give him time to work on the assets needed to be a success at said position, he’s going to adapt quickly and give his team another weapon.

On Saturday, Prosise showed off his vision in traffic, the power he brings to the position at 220 pounds and, as he did on his 50-yard touchdown run against LSU in the Music City Bowl, the burst to suddenly shift into another gear and run by people that we consider to be fast, but aren’t fast enough to keep pace with Prosise when he accelerates.

Prosise’s 11-yard run late in the third quarter of the Blue-Gold Game was one example of what makes him so unique. As he did against the Tigers, he saw an opening and immediately kicked it up a notch. In a heartbeat, he ran by a wave of defenders, and then put a physical bump on Max Redfield along the sideline, propelling Redfield backwards onto his butt.

In typical Prosise fashion – all business, no flamboyance, understated – he simply bumped helmets and upper bodies with Redfield as a show of respect, and then trotted back to the offense.

In traffic, Prosise shows outstanding vision, finding lanes to run without wasted motion or, again, flamboyance. He just finds the hole and hits it, and he has the physicality and leg drive to add a few yards.

Could his pad level be a bit better? Sure, he’s 6-foot-2, not 5-foot-9, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue.

This is not to say that Bryant played poorly Saturday. In fact, some of his best work came later in the scrimmage when focus for all the players participating in their final minutes of spring drills has a tendency to wane.

Two of Bryant’s better runs were a three-yarder on 3rd-and-2 where his second effort got him a first down, and a seven-yarder on the very next play in the red zone where he shook the hand-tackle attempt by Jerry Tillery.

But he also seemed to resign himself to short gains earlier in the scrimmage when a defender got into his body early in the run. Bryant has to show more strength and determination every time he touches the football because, as we learn every season, those touches from the running back position can be difficult to come by. He seems to need more moves in traffic to get from point A to point B than Prosise does. Prosise just finds it and hits it.

Bryant simply cannot let opportunities slip by, such as the deep ball from Malik Zaire late in the first half in which Bryant stuck up one paw – and missed – as opposed to putting both hands out and stretching out to make the catch.

A diving 30-yard gain isn’t a 55-yard touchdown, but it’s a helluva lot better than an incomplete pass. That type of play/effort leaves an indelible impression on a coaching staff, one that will carry into the summer.

The Irish have three incredibly gifted running backs with two more coming. It will be a talented, deep running back corps in the fall. But I suspect that if there were a real depth chart on Kelly’s desk, it would list Folston first, Prosise second and Bryant third.

The quarterback battle

When objectively assessing the competition between quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, it requires the removal of emotion.

A segment of the Notre Dame fandom turned against Golson and began clamoring for Zaire shortly after the Florida State game when Golson’s penchant for turnovers – 14 interceptions and eight fumbles lost in ’14 – contributed to a complete reversal of fortune from the first half of the season.

Then Zaire started the Music City Bowl, carried himself like a veteran, earned game MVP honors, and seemingly put the quarterback competition into a “heated rivalry,” as Dan Hicks and Doug Flutie repeatedly referred to it Saturday.

And yet upon the conclusion of 15 spring practices, nothing had changed much since the fall. To be sure, Zaire can now be looked upon as a quarterback who can lead the Irish to victory whereas before the LSU game, he was a complete unknown.

Golson remains the best quarterback. No, he doesn’t protect the football as well as Zaire, or at least he didn’t last season. But his accuracy throwing the football and his understanding of the big picture of the offense remain several strides ahead of Zaire.

Zaire makes it a legitimate competition with his vast confidence, his ability to make plays that contribute to the greater good of the offense, and his superior read-option skills, which includes a burst of speed and power that Golson does not have, just as Zaire does not have the accuracy of Golson through the air.

That being said, there was ample evidence of an improved Golson in the read-option Saturday. He looked more decisive, he looked more confident running it, his “eye discipline” when reading the actions of the defensive end were improved, and his anticipation of the telltale signs that tell a quarterback exactly what’s going to happen on a read-option “if that guy does this” is much better.

Hicks and Flutie walked us through video evidence of Golson maintaining his depth on the read-option instead of creeping toward the line of scrimmage at the mesh point. By holding his ground and not drifting to the line of scrimmage, he buys himself some space and prevents a defender from being able to defend two players – the quarterback and running back – simultaneously.

What Zaire’s fans will remember are the beautifully-thrown 68-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller, his well-thrown ball to Bryant that should have been caught, and the better overall numbers than Golson. All positive signs that the Irish have two quarterbacks and not just one.

And yet from the moment Zaire stepped on the field Saturday – including pre-game warm-ups – Golson was overall the more accurate passer. Zaire completed a higher percentage of passes in the scrimmage, but he was not the more accurate throwing quarterback Saturday. His decision-making – on a play-by-play basis – was not better than Golson’s. On the first snap he took, Zaire threw one up for grabs to Corey Holmes that Matthias Farley easily could have picked off.

Other than his failures of the past, and some tipped balls at the line of scrimmage Saturday, there is no reason to suspect that Golson was beaten out or out-played by Zaire this spring or that Zaire – as the only quarterback on the field -- gives Notre Dame a better chance to win.

Is Zaire a better leader than Golson? That’s a legitimate arguing point and a big reason why this is such a competitive situation. Zaire’s personality is that of a person who wants to reach out to his teammates and pull them all together with him. That’s not Golson’s personality, which is integral to leading a team, and that’s true off the field as well as on.

But Golson is potentially a great college quarterback with the wherewithal to lead this talented team to victory. He can sling it with the best of them in college football, and if the work that Mike Sanford has put in continues – it certainly showed Saturday – Golson has the skill set to be one of the great stories in college football in 2015.

To be sure, two-quarterback systems on the collegiate level have a poor track record, and yet Kelly and his offensive staff cannot put more weight on track records when it comes to the quarterback position in 2015.

In order for this to work, in order for the chemistry to remain solid, in order for the Irish to maximize their talents at quarterback and to take full advantage of what the rushing attack offers behind the aforementioned offensive line, Golson and Zaire both need to be involved.

That’s a juggling act, and a tricky one at that. But that’s the task facing Kelly, Sanford and Mike Denbrock. Golson and Zaire need to be a tandem in 2015 for this to work. It also would help considerably if the defense wouldn’t allow 40 points per game, as it did over the final eight games of the 2014 season.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the quarterback situation is the least of Notre Dame’s worries because finding chemistry and balance of playing time is essential, it still comes down to stopping the run, generating a pass rush and not playing like a sieve on defense. That’s much more concerning than finding a happy medium with two incredibly gifted athletes/quarterbacks who can serve as the triggermen for an offense that has the capability of averaging, oh, I don’t know, 37 or so points per game with a ceiling potentially higher.

Flutie said two quarterback systems “undermine your leadership, your authority on the field…How are you a leader when you’re standing over on the sideline on 1st-and-10, and the other guy’s out there? Or when you drive the ball inside the 10-yard line and the other guy comes in? It’s just very difficult to get a rhythm and be a true leader of the team.”

In theory, Flutie is right. But the Irish find themselves with a two-quarterback system and need to work from there. It’s not always going to be easy, but it’s doable because both bring a shipload of talent to the equation.

Young receivers emerge

It hasn’t been easy for still-freshman receivers Justin Brent and Corey Holmes to make their marks. Both played as freshmen, using a year of eligibility, although both played very limited roles and burned a year of eligibility in the process.

Brent is known more for being the 11th man on special teams that didn’t make it to the field in a game late in the season as well as the mischievous young lad off it. Holmes never really got into the flow of anything significant in 2014, playing in just the first two games of the season.

Credit goes to those two young men for making their presence known Saturday, which is a Blue-Gold Game tradition of bit players showing off their wares in the spring finale.

Other than Will Fuller, who had the 68-yard score, Holmes turned in the most noteworthy performance among the receivers with three catches for 37 yards, including a springy 21-yard reception that showed his ability to get off the ground and make a catch in stride, and then stay on his feet for additional yards. He came close to scoring a late touchdown on a couple of red-zone slants and a ball thrown high along the end zone sideline, but couldn’t come up with the grabs.

Brent got inside leverage on cornerback Devin Butler in the red zone, and then took advantage of safety John Turner’s attention being diverted away when tight end Tyler Luatua, who popped free down the middle of the field. Zaire’s pass to Brent was a bit behind him, but Brent skipped off the ground, pulled it in, and then regained his stride for a 29-yard touchdown.

It would be a mistake to get overly excited about a Blue-Gold Game performance. (This is where we reference Junior Jabbie and Charles Stafford, who had superstar-like Blue-Gold Games.)

But it was important that these two youngsters finished on a strong note because guys like Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle, C.J. Prosise and Durham Smythe are six guys who will get more opportunities to catch passes from the outset of the 2014 season than Brent and Holmes. And then there are four freshman wide receivers coming in whom Kelly noted as viable options in the fall.

It’s awfully early to be talking about the crossroads of a collegiate career when you haven’t even taken final exams to conclude your freshman year. But such is life in the competitive world of major college football, and that’s where Brent and Holmes find themselves upon the conclusion of spring drills.

The new race team

The NBC called it the “new race team” – Brian Kelly is the owner, Mike Denbrock is the crew chief and Mike Sanford is the driver. Suffice it to say that it’s a team that remains a work in progress.

But you have to like the personalities that Denbrock and Sanford bring to the equation with Kelly. The way they handle their roles and the way they set their egos aside make this a very interesting and potentially lethal brain trust.

Said Kelly: “(Sanford) has exceeded all of my expectations so far. He’s the kind of guy that can turn the room upside down. I don’t want to be the guy every day counted on to come up with the idea. I want this to be a collaborative effort, and a guy that has some of the best and newest ideas is Mike Sanford.”

It’s just words and it all sounds good. But a statement such as this appears to be rooted in truth. The possibilities are very promising.

Around the gridiron

It appeared to be a toppling Mike McGlinchey that inadvertently landed on Nyles Morgan’s foot/leg on the opening drive of the game, causing Morgan to limp off. To his credit, Morgan came back and played, although he got bounced around by Notre Dame’s offensive linemen a few times as well as little Amir Carlisle, which was a fairly common sight when Morgan was forced into the lineup last year following Joe Schmidt’s injury. By the same token, we also saw Morgan pursue a wide run that neither Schmidt nor Jarrett Grace would have come close to (although Grace, a longer athlete than Schmidt, might have diagnosed it and used his foresight to get in position to track it down.)…Not sure what the deal is with the footing at the LaBar Practice Complex, but skill-position athletes were falling down all day, including during pre-game warm-ups. The turf seemed unusually soft with too much give…I don’t think Jerry Tillery’s ability was exaggerated. He uses his hands at the line of scrimmage like a veteran, and the fact that he took other visits long after committing to the Irish and that he is a curious person by nature and a young man who thirsts knowledge make him an interesting study as we go forward. He did hit a wall late in spring and his productivity leveled off. But at the very least, he’s shown the consistent ability to hold the point of attack, and his length allows him to reach ball carriers in the trenches that a player with a shorter wingspan would have difficulty reaching.

Tyler Newsome was sound kicking, nailing a 30-yard field goal and all three extra point attempts, although had the field-goal attempt been from 35 yards or more, it would have been wide left. He nailed a couple of 50-plus-yarders punting the football, but you’d much rather see a series of 41-yarders than a 51-yarder here and a 35-yarder. One short line drive punt in the offense’s territory would have been a big play had returners been live. He also hit a punt 37 yards from the goal line and plopped it into the middle of the end zone, which is a disappointing lack of touch…Hunter Bivin tackled defensive end Andrew Trumbetti on the second team’s opening drive, prompting an easy holding call…Of the defensive line back-ups, I’d put Jay Hayes at the top of the most impressive of No. 2s Saturday. He was active, aggressive, and difficult to get hands on…On the touchdown pass to Justin Brent, credit goes to John Montelus on Trumbetti and Mark Harrell on Jacob Matuska for quality pass blocking… By the way, there was no play clock Saturday, so if it seemed like the quarterbacks had an unusually long amount of time to change plays…

Yes, Nick Watkins was beaten deep by Will Fuller, and yes, Nick Watkins missed a tackle along the sideline when he had Greg Bryant squared up. But this is an exciting young prospect with outstanding size at cornerback. He flat beat out Devin Butler for the job, perhaps paving the way for Butler’s move to safety, which seems to be more a media creation than reality at the present time…Very, very encouraged by the potential of Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield to form a dynamic safety tandem…It was Sam Mustipher who dribbled that shotgun snap back to Everett Golson in the second quarter. We saw that happen a few times in limited viewing opportunities this spring…They say the camera adds pounds? Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah looked much too large to be effective. But there’s a whole bunch of time between now and the start of fall camp, and Cage was active and pretty mobile for a guy as big as a trailer…The “Inebriated Irishman” play sent in by a fan never stood a chance. Kelly wanted Redfield to intercept it and return it for a touchdown to get the defense back in the game. One thing is certain: Zaire needs a lot of work high-pointing passes…Credit to Torii Hunter, Jr. for a brilliant leaping grab over the middle. He took a blow to the head on the tackle and then jogged off…Nice instincts by young tight end Nic Weishar, who created a seam for himself inside the five, bounced off the tackle attempt of walk-on safety Drew Recker, and scored in the waning seconds of the scrimmage. Credit to quarterback Montgomery VanGorder as well for buying time rolling to his left and giving his receiver a chance to make a play. Quite honestly, it’s a rare day a walk-on quarterback (he was on scholarship last year) makes a play like that.

 


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