Notre Dame’s annual Blue and Gold spring game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC Sports Network, returning to Notre Dame Stadium after a one-year hiatus.
It’s sometimes improper to read too much into spring game performances, given that these players will have had 14 practices to work on their craft and impress coaches before taking the field Saturday. Plus, given the game is on TV, Notre Dame probably won’t reveal much in terms of play-calling (why would it show a blitz package, for example, that could help opponents scheme against it in the fall?). But scrimmaging in front of a crowd in a televised game is the closest Notre Dame can come to replicating a game-day atmosphere during the spring and summer doldrums.
With that atmosphere comes an uptick in pressure and a glimpse into how some of Notre Dame’s players in key roles will handle it. While most of the focus Saturday will be on the quarterbacks (more on them Friday), there are plenty of other players with intriguing storylines heading into Notre Dame’s 15th and final spring practice.
WR Torii Hunter Jr. (Redshirt Junior)
Notre Dame’s leading returning receiver, by all accounts, has had an excellent month of spring practice despite splitting his focus between football and baseball. With Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, it’s been Hunter who’s emerged not only as a top target, but as a leader in Mike Denbrock’s receiver room.
We’ve only seen flashes of what Hunter can do on Saturdays, but he’s generally had to take a back seat to Fuller and Brown. Watch for Notre Dame to move Hunter around to different receiver positions — slot (Z), wide (W) and boundary (X) — in a showcase of his flexibility in the Blue and Gold game.
TE Alize Jones (Sophomore)
One of the more intriguing wrinkles to come out of spring practice was Jones getting a shot at playing X receiver in addition to tight end. Tight ends coach Scott Booker said earlier this month he’s trying to push Jones into being a complete tight end, not just someone who could be a factor in the red zone and on third downs. But what if the 6-foot-4.5, 240-pound Jones does well on the boundary, too? That’d give Notre Dame’s offense plenty of flexibility as it looks to replace all those targets lost by the departures of its three leading receivers from 2015.
Maybe Jones’ career path follows the one paved by Devin Funchess, Michigan's super-athletic 6-foot-5, 230-pounder who was named the Big Ten’s Tight End of the Year in 2013 and caught 62 passes for 733 yards as a wide receiver in 2014. It’s too early to tell, but Jones has sky-high offensive potential, and Notre Dame coaches are still figuring out how best to use it.
DE Jay Hayes (Redshirt Sophomore)
After a rocky first two seasons on campus, Hayes switched from defensive tackle to weak-side defensive end this spring and has practiced well at his new position. Listed at 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, Hayes is bigger than you’d expect for that position — Romeo Okwara, for example, weighted 270 pounds there last year.
But Notre Dame is in desperate need of pass rushers to offset the departures of Okwara and Sheldon Day. If Hayes’ strong spring carries over into the fall, it could go a long way toward helping Notre Dame keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2016.
“We’ve got an ascending player,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “But I think the position change for him has definitely helped motivate him and help him gain the positive attitude he has right now.”
LB Nyles Morgan (Junior)
At or near the top of the list of players who’ve had an impressive spring is Morgan, who finally gets to take the reins of the Irish defense after two years behind Joe Schmidt at Mike (middle) linebacker. Morgan’s physical traits aren’t in question — he racked up 47 tackles as a freshman despite only playing about four games’ worth of snaps — so how he applied the knowledge of the defense he gained as Schmidt’s understudy was the more relevant thing to watch this spring.
“(He’s) most improved in the communicating area,” VanGorder said. “He does a good job of running our defense, he knows it well and he does a good job.”
While Notre Dame’s defense was porous when it came to allowing big plays last year, Schmidt’s ability to communicate the calls and get everyone on the same page helped keep things from going from bad to disastrous at times. For Morgan, though, the Blue and Gold game will be his first taste of non-garbage-time snaps in a semi-competitive setting. All eyes will be on his ability to communicate the defense and align the front seven.
S Max Redfield (Senior)
Speaking of those big plays, the culprits on many of them were Irish defensive backs. 2016 will be Redfield’s third and final year in VanGorder’s scheme, and this defense can’t afford to continue to allow explosive plays if it hopes to improve off last season’s results. We heard earlier in spring practice about how early-enrolling freshman Devin Studstill was taking first-team reps over Redfield, which VanGorder said wasn’t done to light a fire under Redfield.
Notre Dame will probably be running a vanilla defense on Saturday, so reading into individual results for VanGorder’s players may be a little bit difficult. But the last thing anyone on the sidelines or in the stands wants to see is the kind of back-end communication breakdowns that’ve plagued this defense for the last two years.
For on Notre Dame's spring game, listen to Notre Dame Insider JJ Stankevitz's podcast with J.B. Long previewing what to watch for on Saturday. (link: http://www.irishsportsradio.com/episode/12356/still-independent-five-players-to-watch-in-the-notre-dame-spring-game/ )