Notre Dame’s 86th annual Blue-Gold spring game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC Sports Network, giving fans a window into the final full Irish practice until preseason preparations begin in August.
Since the scrimmage is on an invite-only basis, you’ll have to tune in to NBCSN or stream the game on NBC Live Extra to watch. But there’s plenty to watch for on Saturday:
1. Everett Golson’s pocket presence, ball security
No spring storyline is more important to Notre Dame’s success this fall than the quarterback competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. All eyes will be on these two players throughout the first half, as they’ll be live to put them in as close to a game environment as you’ll see on a practice field in front of about 3,000 fans.
Don’t read too much into the stat lines of each player, though — remember, the Blue-Gold Game is just one of 15 practices allotted to Notre Dame during the spring, and these guys have been live in scrimmage portions of previous practices. But for each quarterback, there are things to keep track of that could be indicative of their respective standing in the competition heading into the summer.
For Golson, the two things coach Brian Kelly pointed to are pocket presence and ball security. We all know about Golson’s fumble issues last year — he had 12, losing eight — which Notre Dame cannot afford again this fall if it hopes to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Watch for how Golson secures the ball when he's hit on running plays or chased out of the pocket by someone like Romeo Okwara or Isaac Rochell.
Pocket presence goes into taking care of the football, too — offensive coordinator Mike Sanford has drilled it into Golson’s head that all pockets are not created equal, so how the senior adjusts to those different dynamics could offer clues to whether or not his interception issues (14 last year) are a thing of the past as well.
2. Malik Zaire’s accuracy
Zaire is established as the better running quarterback in the competition, and he proved to be capable of firing solid throws off play-action against LSU in the Music City Bowl. But his throwing mechanics still need some work.
Sanford has been working with Zaire on narrowing his base on throws to prevent him from falling off when throwing across the field or to the sideline, which is largely where those accuracy issues crop up. Zaire has a strong arm and coaches believe his mechanics are fixable — and as Sanford said, if he can get Zaire to the point where he’s a reliable passer combined, with his running ability he’ll be a great quarterback.
3. Jerry Tillery.
Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore admitted Tillery, an early-enrolling freshman from Shreveport, La., has slowed down a bit toward the end of spring camp. But the hulking 6-foot-6, 300 pound defensive tackle has been among the most roundly praised players by coaches this spring, as he’s stepped in for the injured Jarron Jones and done plenty to get him in the discussion for this fall’s nose guard rotation.
Coaches like the way Tillery uses his hands and his ability to play with leverage despite his height, but more than anything, he’s impressed as a quick study and a coachable player this spring. Keep an eye on No. 99 on Saturday, because you’ll probably see plenty of him this fall.
4. Blown coverage.
We’ve heard plenty about how much Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have improved as communicators, and they’ll have one more afternoon this spring to prove themselves worthy of that praise. Blown coverages were a huge problem for this duo last year, one that became more glaring after Joe Schmidt suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Navy.
While Kelly said Redfield and Shumate made significant strides leading up to Notre Dame’s bowl game last December, some miscommunication allowed LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings — a pretty sub-optimal passer — to throw a 75-yard touchdown to an open receiver over the middle. Don’t panic just yet if another one of those pops up on Saturday, but without much of a safety net behind them, Redfield and Shumate can’t afford to be prone to those mistakes when the games start mattering Sept. 5.
5. C.J. Prosise.
By all accounts, Notre Dame has succeeded in cross-training Prosise at running back in addition to his slot receiver duties this spring. He ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run in last week’s scrimmage and has impressive vision and instincts for someone who’s never been a true running back before.
The Theo Riddick comparisons may not be entirely warranted — Prosise is more explosive but hasn’t had the chance to prove himself as a tough-as-nails, physical runner — but expect Notre Dame to use him in a similar manner, motioning him out of the backfield to create mismatches in the slot. Don’t be surprised if Prosise cuts into Greg Bryant’s touches, too, either in the spring game or this fall.