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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s young offensive skill players, veteran defensive linemen set to star in today’s Blue-Gold Game

Former Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph joins Connor Rogers to talk about what makes new Irish quarterback Sam Hartman so effective through the air and on the ground.

The very nature of an intrasquad scrimmage reduces what Notre Dame can learn from today’s Blue-Gold Game at 2 p.m. and available exclusively on Peacock, but it does not eliminate lessons entirely.

Most notably, the Irish will get extended looks at both Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman (Gold team) and rising junior Tyler Buchner (Blue team). The skill positions are stacked a bit in Buchner’s favor, but Hartman’s career of touch on deep passes should still make for a highlight or two. For that matter, with receiver/cornerback Lorenzo Styles’ Friday entry into the transfer portal, the Notre Dame coaching staff may take from Buchner’s receivers (Deion Colzie, Chris Tyree, Tobias Merriweather, Braylon James, Rico Flores plus tight end Holden Staes) to supplement Hartman’s (Jayden Greathouse, Matt Salerno, Jayden Thomas). In fact, expect that.

Regardless of today’s quarterback showing, expect Irish head coach Marcus Freeman to compliment both Hartman and Buchner afterward and perpetuate the nominal quarterback competition into the summer.

“We’ll name a starting quarterback when I’m fully confident we have one starting quarterback,” Freeman said last Saturday. “Both of them could be starting quarterbacks for us right now. They’re both improving. … If you can have a competition and two guys are getting better, that’s what you want.”

While the quarterbacks may be the top-line item to watch today, the more pertinent displays will come from young receivers and running backs. Jadarian Price burst onto the scene in last year’s Blue-Gold Game, something unfortunately diminished by a summer torn Achilles, which will also keep him sidelined today. But in that same ilk, sophomore Gi’Bran Payne was the first player drafted in Thursday’s Blue-Gold Game draft. If Payne impresses like Price did a year ago, that will serve three functions.

First of all, it will inspire obvious depth behind leading backs Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, the latter of which will not play today. Secondly, it will give Price a bit more of a runway to get back to health; if Notre Dame enters preseason practices knowing it can trust three backs in September, then the Price timeline to be 100 percent full-go after that costly of an injury could become less pressed and reach into October out of caution. Lastly and similarly, a Payne emergence would further solidify senior Chris Tyree’s move to receiver, where he is suddenly needed.

Tyree catching a deep pass from either Hartman or Buchner would go a long way to building momentum behind that position move this summer. He has the speed and physicality needed at receiver, it comes down to route-running and hands, mostly the route-running.

The same can be said of the three early-enrolled receivers. Expecting Greathouse, James and Flores to all burst onto the scene in Dublin may be a reach. Just logically, at least one of them should slow in the preseason. Freshmen usually do. But with only nine scholarship receivers expected on the roster next fall — including Tyree, former walk-on Matt Salerno and yet-to-arrive freshman Kaleb Smith — at least one of that trio will be needed. Greathouse has the luxury of going against preseason All-American cornerback Benjamin Morrison, while Flores and James will be facing up with Jaden Mickey and safety Xavier Watts. A physical snag over any of those proven defensive backs would provide a psychological boost for the young pass-catchers this summer.

Therein lies an under-discussed reality of these spring exhibitions. Little shown will impact any fall expectations. Hartman could go 9-of-16 with an interception and a touchdown and the coaching staff would chalk it up to just a middling practice day. But if a young receiver can prove to himself, once and for all, he can compete with a proven defensive starter, that thought alone can inspire further work all summer long. Success begets success, so to speak.

Offensively, Freeman has insisted there has been consistent progress despite what has been seen by the media in a couple open practices. He framed it in that quarterback conversation, but his praise was about the offense as a whole.

“We’ll name a starter at some point, I know we have to, I don’t plan to let this thing go into the season,” Freeman said. “... There were no turnovers [in last Saturday’s scrimmage] — we had a fumble on offense, that was the only turnover in the scrimmage today.

“Those are the little things that say, ‘Okay, you are progressing as an offense. You’re doing the little things efficiently.’ That’s really good to see. There were no interceptions thrown, guys seemed to be executing at a high level.”

A pessimist could assume that comes at the defense’s expense, that once again Al Golden’s defense is not forcing turnovers, that the receivers are beating the cornerbacks. But that overlooks the knowledge that the back-seven of Notre Dame’s defense is rather experienced, and it dismisses the reality that many of these practices and scrimmages innately favor the defense.

It gets to know the offensive plays, it can harass the quarterback a bit, and split-unit defensive lines typically fare better than split-unit offensive lines.

By splitting up the Irish offensive line, the coaching staff removed a chance to evaluate the starting five’s cohesion, and it tilted the odds toward the defensive line a touch. Then again, apparently the defense can pressure the quarterback on only one of every four snaps.

Freeman did not expand on that rule on Thursday, so some clarification will be needed before “kickoff” today. (Kickoffs are not live.) Presumably, it means you cannot blitz more than the defensive linemen except for one play on every set of downs. That will give the developing offensive lines a chance to focus on blocks and not on blitz assignments. It will also give individual defensive linemen chances to shine.

Jordan Botelho, Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Nana Osafo-Mensah are all somewhat known commodities, but if one of them repeatedly beats a future first-round draft pick at tackle, then a summer of hype will follow.

Offensively, focus on the young position players today. Defensively, any individual lineman that gets by Joe Alt or Blake Fisher is someone to view as a starter in Dublin in exactly 18 weeks.

That’s it, only 18 weeks until the Irish face off with Navy in Dublin. That game will be on NBC. Today’s scrimmage is on Peacock.

WHEN: 2 p.m. ET
WHERE: Peacock
WHO: Play-by-play from Tony Simeone, analysis by former Irish tight end Kyle Rudolph with former Irish safety Kyle Hamilton joining Caroline Pineda for sideline reporting.

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