THE BLUE-GOLD GAME DECEPTION
I refuse to get caught up in the cliché that is the Blue-Gold Game.
Every year, we go into the spring game with a “what we want to see” attitude toward the practice-game finale. Rarely does it come to fruition.
From Charles Stafford to Junior Jabbie, there have been a few instances in which “stars” emerged in the Blue-Gold Game without a meaningful correlation to what would occur in the fall.
Nothing that happens this Saturday in the Blue-Gold Game will significantly alter my opinion of the players we have studied and dissected for the last six weeks. It will simply be another piece to the growing puzzle that is Notre Dame football in 2017.
If Brandon Wimbush throws an interception or two, or if Tony Jones Jr. fumbles, I’m not going to alter my opinion of an entire spring practice.
In fact, it probably wouldn’t hurt in the long run if Wimbush struggled a bit. Why? Because he’ll use that as motivation to improve, which is a huge part of what makes Wimbush’s upside so high. That and a ridiculous amount of physical talent.
All that being said, there are a few players whose performance Saturday will carry more weight than others. Here are the players that are of the most interest. The bulk of my focus in the Blue-Gold Game will be on the line play.
-- Daelin Hayes: Physically, there’s a ton to like about the promising sophomore defensive end. But at this point, we – the media – do not know how Hayes will hold up against the run. He looks to be an exciting pass-rush component, but that will be negated if he can’t play the run consistently well. I’ll be watching him more than any player Saturday. He’ll be paired against Mike McGlinchey, so we should learn quite a bit when it’s 1s vs. 1s.
-- Tommy Kraemer/Liam Eichenberg: Presuming that Kraemer gets the bulk of the reps with the No. 1 unit – Eichenberg should get his opportunities as well – they’ll be going up against Jay Hayes. Based upon the inexperience of all three, I’m not sure we’ll come to a conclusion after Saturday. But this is a battle that should at least give us a barometer of which direction all three are headed.
-- Interior Defensive Line: Jerry Tillery/Jonathan Bonner vs. guards/center Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher should provide us with plenty to assess the direction of Notre Dame’s questionable interior defensive line.
-- Safeties: If you’ve read our practice reports, watched our Instant Analysis and listened to our podcasts, you’re aware of our concerns with the last line of defense. If Notre Dame’s big wideouts/tight ends are frolicking through the deep middle of the field Saturday, the problem we’ve detected still exists.
Even if that doesn’t happen in the Blue-Gold Game, the safety play will remain a concern, although a solid showing in Notre Dame Stadium on April 22 would be progress.
MORE SAFETY TALK
The most interesting comments by Brian Kelly in Wednesday’s press gathering were his thoughts on the safety positions. I asked Kelly about the safety situation, and he began listing all the candidates.
As I’m apt to do, I interrupted him because I knew the players vying for the positions. I wanted to know whom he thought he could count on back there. He then listed the three frontrunners – Jalen Elliott, Nick Coleman and Devin Studstill. He said Drue Tranquill would play safety in situations.
Kelly didn’t mention early-entry freshman Isaiah Robertson, but I suspect Robertson has the ability to put his name in the running as he continues to pick up the system.
Then Kelly offered this:
“If it’s third down, we’ve got five corners and we like our corners. We can insert a corner and maybe one of those corners can go out and play half. Not a run fit guy, but maybe a half-fit player.”
My first thought, which was wrong, was that he would take Donte Vaughn or Troy Pride Jr. and see if they could play some safety. I was thinking that Julian Love, as the best cover corner this spring by far, would remain strictly at cornerback.
But I wasn’t thinking about Shaun Crawford, who I “penciled in” as the nickel. A healthy Crawford, of course, can play cornerback, which allows Love – who played safety against Army – to slide to the back rung.
It ultimately turned into a bit of a humorous situation when Kelly said:
“We’re talking about maybe playing two-man and half over the top, a ball hawk, a guy that can play the ball in the air, a smart guy…That should eliminate like eight guys, so you guys can figure that out.”
Added Kelly: “There’s only one guy that we can look to moving back there, and again, it will be in a specialty situation.”
That guy, of course, is Love, which is a very exciting scenario. Having Love, Crawford and Nick Watkins as three of the four defensive backs would shed a whole new light on the secondary and the safety positions in particular.
MORE SPRING THOUGHTS
• The high-water mark of Notre Dame offenses under Kelly was the 2015 season when the Irish averaged 34.2 points and 466.4 yards total offense per game. The 2017 offense should exceed that. It has to if it’s going to compensate for the defensive shortcomings.
• I like early-entry freshman left guard Aaron Banks. He has size, is in better shape than I think anyone anticipated and moves well. There’s a lot to work with, which is important with Quenton Nelson 99 percent certain to walk out the door following his red-shirt junior season (2017).
• Kelly continues to sing the praises of sophomore-to-be Khalid Kareem, who expended a year of eligibility last season by playing ever-so-briefly in four games. If Kareem has anything to offer this defensive line, they need him – now. We just haven’t seen what Kelly has seen.
• The sooner Jamir Jones moves from Mike linebacker to defensive end, the better. Not that he can’t play on the second level, but the need up front is pressing. He’s a big body that is only going to get bigger.
Of course, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are out the door after the 2017 season, so the Irish will have a decision on their hands with Jarron’s younger brother.
How quickly guys like Kareem, Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and incoming freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Jonathon MacCollister develop will play a role as well.
YOU THE MAN(CINI)
Trey Mancini, former slugger for the Fighting Irish, was an eighth-round draft choice of the Baltimore Orioles in 2013 following an outstanding three years at Notre Dame.
With the Irish, Mancini hit 28 home runs and knocked in 133 runs. He was a career .345 hitter at Notre Dame with a high-water mark for home runs as a sophomore (12) and RBI as a junior (54).
In four years in the Orioles’ minor league system, he hit 54 home runs with 275 RBI in a little more than 2,000 plate appearances.
Last September, the Orioles called up the right-handed hitting Mancini, and in five games/14 official at bats, he hit .357 with three home runs.
Mancini made the big club to open the 2017 season and has picked up where he left off. In 14 games this season/27 official at bats, Mancini has four home runs.
In 41 career official at bats, Mancini – a first baseman -- has 14 hits (.341), seven of which are home runs.
It still doesn’t look as if Mancini will get full-time at bats with the Orioles. Big-time boppers Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo – a couple of 31-year-olds -- form a pretty impenetrable wall for Mancini to break through.
But this guy needs at bats. It just may have to come with someone other than the Orioles.