Notre Dame

Five storylines to watch in Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game


Five storylines to watch in Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game

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.

[MORE: Notre Dame will have clear picture of QBs in spring game]

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.

[MORE: Notre Dame aims to remove the unknown from Malik Zaire's game]

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.

[MORE: Notre Dame will kick off 2015 season in prime time against Texas]

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.

[MORE: Notre Dame confident in Redfield, Shumate's improvements]

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.

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.