Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game rarely is about the game. It’s about individuals, their development, and the key one-on-one matchups that occur during the glorified scrimmage that gives Irish fans a much-needed “Notre Dame football injection” three-and-a-half months since the last game and four-and-a-half months prior to the next one.
This one has a bit more of a “game feel” to it because of the intended format. Head coach Brian Kelly wants a 1s vs. 1s battle, at least through the first quarter and into the second, and in particular, a real test for the No. 1 defense.
A shortage of two full sets of offensive linemen prompts a mix-and-match approach, which gives the Blue squad an edge in numbers (three starters: Alex Bars, Hunter Bivin and Sam Mustipher) although the Gold squad has an advantage in proven talent (Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson).
Additionally, the flip-flopping of 25 players – mainly offensive linemen – could prompt the balance of power to shift significantly at any point in the game.
For now, here is our best guess at the advantages one team has over the other and some of the more interesting individuals/matchups that have Irish Illustrated’s interest piqued heading into Saturday’s annual clash.
• Balance of power: Kelly wants quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire pitted against one another. Kizer will commandeer the Blue squad with Zaire representing the Gold. Both will go live. Edge to Zaire with Notre Dame’s best receiver this spring – Torii Hunter Jr. – although Kizer has the dynamic and versatile Aliz’e Jones to feature.
Other receivers at Zaire’s disposal will include long, crossing-route weapon Miles Boykin and walk-on slot receiver Chris Finke as well as tight end Durham Smythe. Kizer has improved slot receiver Corey Holmes and catch-everything-within-reach rookie Kevin Stepherson.
Note: Tight end Nic Weishar will miss the Blue-Gold Game with a high ankle sprain, which on the surface benefits the Gold team greatly. However, Aliz’e Jones will play for both sides.
• Safety first: Irish Illustrated has detailed the concerns at safety this spring. What Max Redfield has in experience is balanced by his inconsistency and lack of a playmaking history. Talented freshman Devin Studstill is, at the end of the day, a second semester senior in high school. Drue Tranquill has difficulty on the hash and is coming off a torn right ACL. Avery Sebastian, a sixth-year senior due to multiple injuries, looks like a player coming off multiple injuries.
Advantage Blue team with Tranquill-Studstill at safety. Aliz’e Jones vs. Sebastian downfield could result in some offensive explosions.
• Defensive line advantage: The Blue team has Rochell and likely starters Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery up front. Has Jay Hayes moved past Andrew Trumbetti at rush end? That likely will be determined in the fall, but Hayes will work with the Rochell-Jones-Tillery trio.
Of great interest is Hayes vs. left tackle Mike McGlinchey in a matchup that will tell us quite a bit about how much progress Hayes has made while also giving us a glimpse of McGlinchey’s progress in his move from right to left tackle.
Jonathan Bonner will play for the Gold defensive line, and he’ll be going up against perennial backup Jimmy Byrne at left tackle. If Bonner is one of the most improved players on defense – as coordinator Brian VanGorder recently said – Bonner should have an opportunity to prove it.
An interesting interior line matchup will be Gold defensive tackles Daniel Cage and Elijah Taylor against Blue offensive linemen Mustipher, young guard Trevor Ruhland and new starter Hunter Bivin. Of particular interest is the Mustipher-Cage matchup.
• Linebacker advantage: The Blue squad features inside backers Nyles Morgan and Asmar Bilal. Morgan will start this fall. Bilal has run with the No. 1s all spring, but in reality, when everybody is healthy, Te’von Coney and Greer Martini likely are ahead of Bilal on the depth chart at the Will.
The Gold inside backers will be Josh Barajas, who is a developing physical presence, and walk-on Kier Murphy, although veteran Sam linebacker James Onwualu helps even up the balance of power at linebacker.
• Running back advantage: Kelly’s praise of Dexter Williams as a downhill, between-the-tackles runner sheds additional light on the running back situation. In Tarean Folston and Josh Adams, the Irish have a pretty dynamic one-two punch. Williams’ development makes this one of the strongest positions on the team.
Saturday, Folston and Williams will be on the Blue squad. Only Justin Brent among the running backs is expected to float between teams.
• Additional matchups: Isaac Rochell vs. Mark Harrell. Significant advantage Rochell, but look for Bars to rotate to the Gold squad to create a challenging matchup for both and a chance to see just how far Bars has come after suffering a broken left ankle during the ’15 season.
Torii Hunter Jr. vs. Shaun Crawford. Notre Dame’s best wideout vs. the most skilled of the Irish cornerbacks – minus Cole Luke’s experience.
Miles Boykin vs. Nick Coleman. A couple of rookies doing battle with Boykin’s length a great test for the scrappy, developing Coleman.
Aliz’e Jones vs. Ashton White. When Jones lines up at the W, White will have the matchup. White has a great opportunity to put his name on the mind of Brian VanGorder and secondary coach Todd Lyght heading into the summer.
Jerry Tillery vs. Quenton Nelson. VanGorder said Tillery has been inconsistent this spring. He better come prepared to play Saturday against Nelson, who exposes inexperienced defensive tackles.