Spring weather finally rediscovered the city of South Bend this week, just in time for a little tackle football scheduled inside Notre Dame Stadium.
With temperatures expected in the high 60s to lower 70s at kickoff (12:30 ET) and no precipitation in the forecast, head coach Brian Kelly and his seventh-edition Irish will showcase – at least for one competitive half – the program’s oft-discussed quarterback competition between incumbent DeShone Kizer and 2015 early-season starter, Malik Zaire.
“That’s why I have them on two different teams competing against each other,” said Kelly of his decision to return to a Blue vs. Gold format rather than the offense vs. defense scrimmages showcased from 2012 through 2015. “Both of them want to be the starter. Badly.
“We split the squad, we tried to get them balanced as best we could and let this be one more evaluation tool for both of these guys in this game. It’s important to them. For us to (instead) make it offense vs. defense and they’re in red jerseys, I don’t know how much you get out of that. Part of this is for the quarterbacks and giving them this fair chance to really lead their team and distinguish themselves in the game.”
(Note: Check Tim Prister’s forthcoming game preview for a Blue Gold rosters breakdown.)
MORE THAN A DRESS REHEARSAL?
Ideal conditions and the presence of former Irish luminaries such as Brady Quinn, Lou Holtz, and a pair of reigning Super Bowl Champions, Ryan Harris and David Bruton as honorary captains is expected to add to the festive atmosphere.
“The weather is going to be great so it opens it up to more people to get in to see the stadium, what we’re doing with the development of that,” said Kelly. “But as I told the team, more importantly, we have a lot of guys that are going to step into some roles that they haven’t been in before and I want them to treat this like a game situation. This is not a glorified scrimmage to them. They better be focused and locked in. I want their demeanor to be such that they’re getting ready to compete in a game.
“I’ve always tried to get this game to be as realistic as possible given what your roster looks like. For example, I don’t want Nyles Morgan, who’s probably going to be the starting middle linebacker unless something crazy happens, I don’t want to find out what he’s like at Texas. Let’s find out what you’re like in the locker room tomorrow. He’s just one example of a number of guys. Tomorrow is that opportunity and that’s why we created the scenarios.”
Kelly offered that while regular football scoring (thankfully) returns for Saturday’s matchup, a few game-specific items won’t be present.
“We’re not going to use two tight end (sets). I think from an offensive standpoint we’ll kind of slow it down and defensively we won’t be quite as aggressive with pressures but it will be traditional scoring across the board.”
At least four freshmen-to-be viewed Friday morning’s practice, three of them future pieces in secondary coach Todd Lyght’s defensive backfield, Jalen Elliott, Troy Pride, Jr., and Donte Vaughn.
Vaughn and Pride project as cornerbacks upon arrival while Elliott is slated for safety duties.
“I think all of those defensive players are coming in with the attitude that they’re going to compete and have a fair chance to get into the two-deep,” said Kelly. “That’s what we’ve told them, that’s how we feel. They’re here with their eyes wide open. They’re in meetings (this weekend) and they’re excited and anxious about coming in here and competing in their first year. That’ s our expectation.
“I don’t think (quarterback) Ian Book is here thinking he’s going to start (in 2016) but I think Ian Book is here with an excitement that he can’t wait to get on the field to compete. The other guys, the defensive players, they’re here to go play right now.”
MOST IMPROVED, MOST IMPRESSIVE
The past week’s interviews with Irish defensive coaches unearthed names such as Jonathan Bonner, Jay Hayes, and Shaun Crawford among those pegged for major improvement – or in Crawford’s case, a lasting impression – this spring.
Asked to chime in with the most improved players from the offensive side of scrimmage, Kelly stated, “I’d probably put Dexter (Williams) up there. I would say that (offensive guard) Hunter Bivin would have to be up there. But if you ask me about a particular player, I would say, just because of the volume he’s gotten, it’s Torii Hunter.
“He’s done everything: X, Z, W…J, whatever we’ve asked him to do, he’s developed his game as more than just an inside receiver. He’s had to play outside, inside, so he’s developed more ball skills, more awareness of his position than probably any wide receiver.”
Kelly offered earlier that Williams had recently turned heads due to his physical, “downhill” running style. Bivin began the 15-practice session competing at both right tackle and right guard and appeared to settle into the latter with Alex Bars manning the former over the spring’s final two weeks.
Everything but the football: Inclement weather relegated the Irish inside for much of spring practice over the last four weeks, but that Midwestern reality didn’t limit all of the squad’s efforts to improve the specialty units.
“I believe this has been the best special teams development that I’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Kelly. “Devoid of being able to be outside and catch the football the way we’ve wanted to, the elements of blocking, tackling, structuring it, bringing in some coaches to talk in clinics, we’ve had competition in drills – I really feel that this has been our best spring in focusing on the areas we wanted to get better and having a clear understanding of where we are going into the fall.
“The only thing that’s uncertain now is who’s going to catch the ball back there and we can sort that out early on in August. It was the other areas we really wanted to hone in on and I think we did a very good job of that.”
Among the best special teams performers (the highest point producers per an undisclosed scoring system) according to Kelly were starting right cornerback Cole Luke, backup corner Devin Butler, and starting running back candidate Josh Adams.
“Those three guys stood out in terms of what they were able to accomplish for us in special teams,” Kelly said. “Those three guys will be centerpiece to what we’re doing.”
Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght added the name of redshirt-freshman cornerback Ashton White as one that could compete on each of the Irish “Run Teams” (punt and kickoff coverage and return) next fall.