• It’s going to be very difficult to keep freshman wide receiver Kevin Stepherson off the field this fall.
Early-entry freshmen frequently make quick impacts these days, but not always. Stepherson was impressive from the start of spring drills and finished on a high note in the Blue-Gold Game with four catches for a game-high 70 yards.
There are two things about Stepherson that stand out: 1) he gets open all the time and 2) he always catches the ball. Okay, not always. In fact, DeShone Kizer lofted a perfectly-thrown deep ball that fell like a raindrop out of the sky into Stepherson’s hands and he dropped it.
But that clearly has been the exception to the rule this spring. The kid is a ball catcher. No reason why that can’t carry over into the fall.
Stepherson also impressed as a punt returner. The action wasn’t live, so all he was doing was fair catching the football. But he so easily and nonchalantly caught the football that that too was impressive.
There’s another thing about Stepherson that we commented on early in the spring. His legs seem to be unusually long for his 6-foot-0 frame. That makes him a deceptive deep threat as he stretches out his stride and runs by people.
Brian Kelly said that they have to find a way to get Stepherson on the field this fall. The best way to do that is to put him at the X and move the veteran, Torii Hunter Jr., around since he’s well-versed at all the wideout positions. Let Stepherson settle into a position and he should have a noteworthy rookie season.
Interesting, however, that as the spring concludes, Notre Dame’s top wideouts are Hunter, Stepherson…and Alizé Jones.
• The stats favored DeShone Kizer (10-of-17 for 113 yards) over Malik Zaire (6-of-15 for 120 yards). Kizer’s deep ball to Stepherson that was dropped would have been at least another 40 yards. That has nothing to do with this assessment. The Blue-Gold Game performances are almost always overrated.
Kizer remains the better all-around quarterback. Zaire is still the better runner, as evidenced by his beautiful 13-yard touchdown run, which was a red-zone conversion for a touchdown.
Over the course of the spring, based upon what the media observed, Kizer will stay ahead of Zaire.
Kelly said all the right things after the scrimmage. He said Zaire narrowed the gap that Kizer created by leading the offense to a successful 2015 season. He added that Kizer continues to need to make plays that lead to red-zone scores.
Said Kelly: “I think I’m going to have to make a judgment call.”
At this juncture, it would be surprise if he chose Zaire over Kizer.
• It was not a day to truly judge the linebackers in such a pass-heavy game. There were 45 running plays – 13 by Dexter Williams -- and 52 passes. Nyles Morgan, who we were all looking forward to seeing as the newly christened Mike linebacker, rarely had opportunities to just line up, fill a gap and make a tackle on a running back.
It seemed like every time I keyed on Morgan, the quarterback was play-action faking, keeping it and then running away from Morgan. But by all accounts, Morgan had a solid spring and definitely laid the groundwork upon which to build heading into the summer.
It would be dangerous to completely buy in to the notion that Morgan suddenly can get everyone lined up, has it all figured it, and is ready to perform at a consistently high level this fall. The kid missed way, way too many run fits during the brief times he played in 2014-15 to say it’s all behind him.
By the same token, Morgan is on the upswing, feels much better about himself, works his tail off, and has no roadblocks toward a starting role this fall. The arrow is pointing up. That’s the best one could hope for without having games to play to prove himself. That will have to wait until the fall.
• High marks for Max Redfield, who truly used the Blue-Gold Game to show that he is a player and that his best football is in front of him. He had a bad angle on Dexter Williams’ touchdown run and couldn’t make the tackle.
But Redfield played hard, treated each situation as an important one, and supported the run beautifully. He was physical and got into the lower body of several ball carriers.
Nice effort by Redfield and a nice springboard into the off-season.
• Among the matchups Irish Illustrated pointed to as battles of interest heading into the Blue-Gold Game were the Jay Hayes vs. Mike McGlinchey clash and the Jerry Tillery vs. Quenton Nelson square-off.
McGlinchey had little-to-no trouble with Hayes, who lined up at times from a two-point stance as well as head-up with McGlinchey. There doesn’t appear to be that much in Hayes’ pass-rush repertoire. He used a spin move a couple of times to no avail. McGlinchey didn’t have much difficulty maximizing his leverage advantage.
On the flip side, it looked like a pretty good performance by McGlinchey at the left tackle spot.
Hayes made significant progress this spring. He still has a ways to go, but at least the Irish can go into the summer feeling pretty good about the rush end position with Andrew Trumbetti, Hayes and the promise of Daelin Hayes.
I said on a couple of occasions that I didn’t think the action in the Blue-Gold Game between the hashes was played at 100 percent full speed. With a guy like Jarron Jones, who just wanted to get through the day unscathed after coming off ankle and knee injuries from a year ago, it’s completely understandable.
Not sure, on the other hand, what motivates Tillery. Make no mistake, Tillery made an impact at times and made a couple of plays. But there were other occasions when it didn’t look as if Nelson had to do more than throw a shoulder into Tillery to stymie him, particularly when Tillery was double-teamed.
Tillery has got to find another gear. In fact, he may be two gears behind on some snaps. With undersized Elijah Taylor and game but still inconsistent Micah Dew-Treadway as the backups behind Tillery, the Irish have some serious issues heading into the summer along the defensive line.
When the ’15 season end, you looked at Isaac Rochell, Jones, Tillery and Trumbetti and thought there were the makings of a pretty good defensive line. Not as confident in that assessment as the spring comes to a conclusion.
Rochell will be very good and Jones, once he has a full off-season, will be the best he’s capable of being come fall. Serious doubts about the three-technique and some real promise at rush end, although if I were an opponent assessing Notre Dame’s defense going into the fall, I would attack that rush end in the run game, which would in turn put the onus on Morgan to make plays from his Will linebacker spot.
• Our – as in the media’s – sample size is small. A few half-hour observations early in the morning, one two-hour practice session last weekend and now a Blue-Gold Game. Not much in the grand scheme of assessing your kicker, who only attempted a handful of field goals to observe.
But of the dozen or so attempts we saw from Justin Yoon this spring, he was not sharp, consistently leaving kicks wide right. Not by a lot, mind you, but just enough to keep the ball outside the right upright.
Every kicker goes through periods of inaccuracy. Yoon was 15-of-17 on field goals last season, including a successful conversion of his final 12 attempts. There likely will be a time over the next three years when he isn’t hitting 88 percent of his attempts in live competition.
But as the Irish head into the summer, kicker is far down the list of concerns.
• Picking up where he left off, however, was punter Tyler Newsome, who has an absolute rifle for a leg and continues to show a deft touch, not just inside the 20, but even finer inside the 10-yard line.
Newsome, who received a game ball from Kelly after the scrimmage, punted for both the Blue and Gold squads. In addition to averaging 52.7 yards on seven punts, Newsome also dropped one inside the five that rolled out at the one and another that settled inside the 10 like a wedge shot.
Newsome is the best of all worlds. He regularly boots 50-yard plus punts with hang time and is as good at getting punts to nestle into the turf as any former Notre Dame punter that comes to mind.
• Around the gridiron: We could devote an entire story on the spring turned in by Torii Hunter Jr. His one-handed grab on a deep ball from Zaire defended by Nick Coleman was the play of the day. Suffice it to say he is a star in the making…Equanimeous St. Brown suffered a left shoulder setback during the Blue-Gold Game. That’s what happens when Daniel Cage catches up to the play, makes the tackle, and allows all 315 pounds to fall on St. Brown. To St. Brown’s credit, he came back into the game. That’s a good sign. Suffering injuries on a consistent basis, however, is a concern. His off-season weight training is crucial…Dexter Williams capped off a nice spring with 13 carries for 44 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown run. The Irish look like they have another weapon at running back, which makes that a very strong position.
• The final and perhaps most important Snap Judgment: Never put too much stock in Blue-Gold Game Snap Judgments. Evaluating a scrimmage with constant mixing and matching of lineups can be very misleading.