But what I was most impressed with was the crispness and execution the first unit showed on both sides of the ball.
While head coach Charlie Weis wouldn't say the performance was flawless, and gave his team a C+ grade, I'd say the first units played about as well as anyone could expect.
We didn't see false starts on offense. We didn't see confusion at the line of scrimmage. We didn't see totally blown assignments. We didn't see glaring errors on the field. We didn't see Brady Quinn with happy feet. We didn't see holding. We didn't see defensive backs blowing assignments (minus one play, but it was the second unit defense).
We did see a very crisp and efficient performance on both sides of the ball.
Let me say that the difference in talent was obvious between the Gold team and the Blue team, but just the efficiency of the first units was remarkable.
Probably the most important thing I saw on Saturday was a group of football players having fun again. That will go a long way in fall.
A number of players impressed me on Saturday. Let me say that some guys might've played well and I didn't notice as I was trying to focus on certain players and still call the game for the radio. Anyway, here are my thoughts.
Darius Walker reminds me of Emmitt Smith more and more every day. He's got fantastic feet in traffic, and that quick burst to move in and out of traffic with ease. The best thing about Walker is his vision and he's just a pure, natural running back. Walker, like Smith, doesn't blow you away with any one aspect of his game, but he does do all things very well.
The beginning of the game was not productive for sophomore running back Travis Thomas as he tried to find any crack of daylight while running the football. However, as the game went on, Thomas started to find creases and he used his quickness to get through them. Thomas has a nice burst and the ability to make people miss. He also showed his power by literally running through an Irish defensive back on an impressive carry. Thomas at least gives the Irish a very legitimate option at halfback.
I don't remember the Irish ever having this many quality tight ends even though only three stand out. All three could start at a number of top schools and I expect all three to be a big factor on offense next season. But the most impressive thing I saw from the tight ends on Saturday, blocking. These guys laid some wicked hits while blocking for the running game. Sophomore John Carlson got hurt in the game, but he sure looks like he's going to be a great one next year.
I was very impressed with Notre Dame's linebackers. Hoyte and Mays still plug a hole, but guys like Maurice Crum, Joe Brockington, Mitchell Thomas and Abdel Banda can really run. The ND linebackers also covered very well in the passing game which was impressive.
Brady Quinn has already taken a huge leap under Weis in my mind. He's decisive, he's searching for options, he's got a real presence in the pocket and man, he made some beautiful throws today. The two TD passes were impressive, but he also made a number of throws down field that were outstanding. I expect him to have a very big year.
Wide receiver Rhema McKnight looks much quicker this season. He's got that burst and that ability to make people miss. I expect Weis to use McKnight much more in the vertical game than the previous staff did. McKnight beats coverage and gets by guys when he has the ball in his hands. Jeff Samardzija also made an impressive grab.
The defensive line was also very impressive. Chris Frome put a tremendous amount of pressure of the quarterbacks all day. Travis Leitko also spent most of the afternoon in the backfield. Trevor Laws also looked outstanding with his quickness and tenacity. While the competition wasn't the best, swarming is the only word that could be used for Saturday's performance from the defensive line.
But what about the defensive backs? Let me say that Mike Richardson has improved a tremendous amount. Richardson isn't overly fast, but he played with excellent technique on Saturday. He's always been a guy who loves to hit and they're letting him play physical at the line of scrimmage, which is his game. Again, not the best competition, but something to be optimistic about nonetheless.
I was also very impressed by Anthony Vernaglia's nose for the football. I still think Vernaglia's best position is that "apache" linebacker position, but what do I know? He'll be a very good safety for Notre Dame, but I do think he could be a tremendous linebacker as well. He's cat-quick and loves to hit. He can cover a lot of ground out there and seems to have the knack to find the football.
I guess the best thing I can say about the secondary is they didn't give up a lot of big plays. I don't think they'll be the best secondary in the country, but I do see them improving already.
If I had any concerns after Saturday it would be a lack of depth along the offensive line. The Gold team offensive line looked lost and outclassed most of the game, but they did start to find themselves at the end of the game—albiet in the absence of Laws and Beidatsch inside.
The Irish will have to find some players that can step up along the offensive line in the near future. We're not sure if the interior play of Laws and Beidatsch was that good, or the play of the second unit offensive line was that poor. Regardless, it's a concern because it was clearly obvious they were getting man-handled at the line of scrimmage.
However, any offensive lineman will tell you that playing experience is everything, and for these five players, they were receiving their first real playing experience of their careers. They should only improve from here.
It's important to remember that the Blue offense didn't face the USC defense on Saturday. It's also important to know that the Blue defense didn't face the USC offense either. In reality, we really don't know what to expect in the fall of 2005 until they play a game, and Irish head coach Charlie Weis would be the first to tell you that.
Overall, Saturday's performance was a breath of fresh air. Two things were obvious to me if nothing else. This team knew what they wanted to do and executed it without any confusion or mental errors, and this team was having fun again.
I can't be more impressed with the early returns from Charlie Weis and his staff. I think good things are on the way.