Game FormatIn a much-needed departure from last season, Saturday's contest will have the fan-friendly advantage (and novel concept) of a normal football game's scoring system.
"We've balanced out the teams. We've kept some positional groups together, for example on defense we wanted to keep the corners together, but maybe the safeties won't be," Kelly began. "We've tried to balance the teams so it's not a 1s-versus-2s. We want it to be very competitive.
"Normal rules will apply other than no winners, no losers in (special teams)," he offered, "In other words we'll execute the special teams (but) in terms of punts it will all be fair-catch (Kelly added the defense would ‘cover the fair catch'); PAT, field goals – we won't block them.
"And no kick-off/kick-off return," Kelly noted of a common practice to avoid spring game injuries among the inherently violent coverage units. "We'll spot the ball on the 30-yard line after any scores and to start the game."
"Other than that we want to run the first half as a game situation. We'll go in at the half and assess where we are at that point," Kelly said. "In the second half, all things will be the same, the difference may be that we may run the clock in the third or fourth quarter depending on where we are."
One thing fans should know is that the team's defense won't be nearly as porous as it appears on the field Saturday afternoon. The game situation is set up for the offense to succeed.
"We won't do a lot defensively…you won't see much," Kelly admitted. "You'll probably leave (the game) saying, ‘Wow, our defense didn't get the kind of progress that we were hoping.' I'm just preparing you for that right now," Kelly continued. "This is going to be set up for offense from that standpoint, because we want to get out there and show some exciting football. But we know at the end of the day, our defense has made great progress this spring."
From our limited viewing sessions, the defense appears far ahead of the offense, though quarterback Dayne Crist's lack of mobility during recovery from ACL surgery and the protected status of tight end Kyle Rudolph (shoulder surgery) contributed to that end as did the installation of a drastically different offense.
Game Day PersonnelInjury precautions are part of spring ball, and Saturday will be no exception. But fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the program's new signal-caller won't be disappointed.
Less than six months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, Crist will take the field in a red No 10 jersey.
"He'll play every snap, every single snap," Kelly offered, noting that all of the quarterbacks will be in red jerseys, signifying no contact. "I think it's important, where we are now," he continued of the team's dearth of experienced quarterbacks, "that we have all hands on deck."
"We're moving some people around on the offensive line," Kelly noted with a chuckle. "I need to be judicious and not set these guys up for some hits they really shouldn't take."
In addition to QB restrictions, Kelly stated that running back turned wide receiver competitor Theo Riddick will also be protected due to off-season shoulder surgery.
"We'll be smart with guys like Darius Fleming; you'll see a cameo from him; a cameo from Kyle Rudolph. Some guys like that we want to protect. In today's practice – after 13 practices (this spring) – we had every player out (in pads) for practice today. So that's a great sign for us and we want to keep that for the (end of) the spring."
Saturday: "Practice No. 15" or Something Special?Kelly noted in December that the months leading up to spring ball were more important than the actual 15 practice sessions of the spring. But with the oft-publicized quickened pace; the increased physicality; the heavy installation period nearly complete, can Saturday's controlled scrimmage serve as a better evaluation session than a standard two-hour practice?
"I think every opportunity that we get out in a competitive situation and we can run our offense and defense, absolutely," Kelly said. "Friday's practice, even though it's a walkthrough, we're going to be able to get something out of that. There's no question (the Blue Gold Game) is really important for us that day. We hope to make it exciting for our fans, but more than anything else, we need the work."
As for Kelly's personal approach, it will be business as usual. Almost…
"I don't know that the Stadium (makes a major difference), other than the great atmosphere and for me to be in the Stadium for the spring game will be pretty cool," Kelly admitted. "But other than that its really about giving these guys a chance to be on the field and learning about what we're trying to do here."
Part of that learning process was, in Kelly's word, bringing the fight back to the Irish. A team that folds in eight of nine November games cannot be described as "tough."
That should not be an issue next fall, and the necessary metamorphosis is underway.
"We've made some really good progress. The first thing is that we've installed some of that ‘toughness.' Kerry Neal, a senior (OLB), had a pretty good calf injury. He gutted it out and got back to practice in two days.
"Theo Riddick played the entire spring. Dayne Crist went through the entire spring. We're starting to develop some of that toughness that I was talking about," Kelly noted with pride. "Shaq Evans had a shoulder coming in and out showed a great amount of toughness as well. So we're building that toughness more than anything else as I see."
News and NotesA popular topic of fan and media conversation throughout the spring has been the surprising lack of conditioning and consistent focus (read: a case of the "dropsies") by the Irish receiving corps.
Kelly views the upcoming three months as crucial to the unit's development.
"We're a work in progress. It's going to be (continued) work every day. They're doing some good things but we just need all summer," he said of the nine-man group that's expected to gain at least three more members from the incoming freshman crop. "That ‘unconscious competence' where (the quarterback knows) where he's going to be coming out of the break. We don't have that yet.
"We need more time," Kelly offered. "We need all summer and we need pre-season camp. They're working hard (but) I can tell you this: the one thing that will be absolutely crucial is their work volume will have to go up this summer. Coach Longo (the team's strength & conditioning coach) knows that those receivers just got tired for us too quickly in our offense and we'll work hard on that."
Readers with collegiate eligibility remaining take heed: Offensive guard Chris Watt, a sophomore-to-be withheld from action last season was seen snapping at the tail end of practice.
Kelly half-jokingly addressed the situation.
"If anybody else is interested in snapping the football, we're always looking for centers," Kelly stated. "We're just trying to get him some technique as we go into the summer. It's another skill he can work on," Kelly said of Watt. "He's a tough physical kid; he's got a low center of gravity. He may be a center down the road. We just wanted to give him something to work on heading into the summer today."
Today was Watt's first exposure to the position this spring. "I pulled him out after he dribbled a couple of them (shotgun snaps) back there and spent some time with him," Kelly noted of his attempt to keep Watt's confidence intact.
Freshman Fodder: Kelly was asked if he has factored the addition of incoming freshman into the equation this spring.
"The quarterbacks, obviously. We're bringing them in as June so we'll factor them in. And the wide receivers. Those guys will have special attention," he offered.
"I think we're pretty good about where we are defensively in terms of depth defensively at all positions. I think it will be pretty hard for someone to crack (the depth chart) there but maybe an inside ‘backer could pop through. Maybe a defensive linemen, in some instances, but really I think its more about the quarterbacks and the wide receivers."
Incoming quarterbacks include Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa while Austin Collinsworth (also a safety prospect), Bennett Jackson, and Daniel Smith (another who could jump to the defense) will join early enrollee Tai-ler Jones as first-year receiver competitors.