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Defensive success in next week’s Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game would look like ...

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Clemson at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 05: Clemson Tigers tight end Davis Allen (84) battles with Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Xavier Watts (26) in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Clemson Tigers on November 05, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Notre Dame finishes its spring practices in eight days with the annual Blue-Gold Game (April 22 at 2 ET, exclusively on Peacock), the second offseason, so to speak, will commence. That intrasquad scrimmage will inspire a summer’s worth of hype or worry from the public, but the 14 practices preceding it are what will have led to any surprising roster moves afterward. No one, coach or player, will make a long-term decision based solely on the Blue-Gold Game.

Therein lies the truth of the spring exhibition. It is but one practice out of 15, and it is an abridged one, at that, when factoring in the running-clock cameos from reserves in the nominal fourth quarter. It is the only spring practice when only 22 players are involved at a time throughout it.

Whether Wake Forest transfer quarterback and presumptive 2023 Irish starter Sam Hartman stars or not will mean less to Notre Dame’s coaches than how he has fared over the last month trying to learn a new playbook while building chemistry with inexperienced receivers. Those reported and understandable struggles may lead to an uneven showing next Saturday.

Then again, an uneven offensive showing could simply be a promising indicator for the Irish defense. There really is very little way to separate one thought from the other in an intrasquad scrimmage.

If Hartman is intercepted twice, that could easily be interpreted as continued development from senior safety Xavier Watts. Watts may be both the best story on Notre Dame’s roster in 2023 and the most pivotal piece of the defense. A former receiver, he made the choice last preseason to fully commit to a position change to safety rather than rejoin the depleted receivers corps. On the depth chart, catching passes was a clearer path to playing time, but Watts had realized he might be a better safety than receiver in the long-term.

By now, he looks like a clear starter on the defensive backline while senior Ramon Henderson and sixth-year DJ Brown compete to join him. They both have more experience, but Watts’s athleticism has elevated him into a leading role.

Defensive coordinator Al Golden will need that athleticism to yield turnovers, an Irish deficiency through much of 2022. Sure-tackling is a necessary and underrated asset from a safety, so Watts already represents a high floor, but if he can get his hands on a couple Hartman passes next week, that may be more positive news than negative, even if the summer will then be spent worrying about Hartman’s mild gunslinger streak.

Similarly, Notre Dame’s cornerbacks are further along in their ascension than the Irish receivers are. Both positions were woefully recruited for chunks of the 2017-21 resurgence, but cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has been able to restock his position quicker than receivers coach Chansi Stuckey has, partly because he needs just three quality players to have a top-line rotation and partly because he had a two-year headstart on Stuckey.

Notre Dame’s receivers are no longer the depth-shattered worry that cost the Irish for the 13 games between the 2021 Fiesta Bowl and the 2022 Gator Bowl, but they are not yet at a point where preseason All-American Benjamin Morrison needs to worry about getting beaten repeatedly. If Hartman struggles to find Chris Tyree deep or Jayden Thomas along the sideline, that could be nothing more than reinforcement that Notre Dame’s secondary may be a strength in 2023.

Whether that includes rising junior Lorenzo Styles catching passes or defending them, that truth about the secondary should be remembered amidst any criticism of the passing game.

Hartman may also find himself under pressure, as Golden’s second season has apparently brought a new mixture of blitzes, using linebackers in more unique fashions. If Jack Kiser and Jaylen Sneed are blowing past Notre Dame’s new starting guards, that is a veteran and a playmaker doing what they do best. It does not mean Andrew Kristofic, Billy Schrauth, Michael Carmody and Rocco Spindler are all lost causes.

Offensive lines take time to coalesce; if no other truth was gleaned from September of 2020, September of 2021 and September of 2022, let it be that. Remembering that should be Liam Eichenberg’s and Josh Lugg’s legacies, as they had to repeatedly preach it.

Sneed, in particular, frustrating Hartman and/or Tyler Buchner next week would bode well for him doing so in the fall and providing the Irish desperately needed linebacker depth.

The dichotomy of the spring game is that it is impossible to know which is reality. Any Notre Dame failure also means Notre Dame success. Any Irish letdown also suggests Irish development.

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