Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ten Things to Expect from the Spring Game

Notre Dame's 15 spring practices will come to a close this Saturday with the Blue and Gold Game. For the first time ever the game will be televised in its entirety on Versus which means a record number of fans will get a sneak peek at the 2011 team.

This intrasquad scrimmage will be the Irish Faithful's last taste of football until the South Florida game. Today we examine ten things to expect from the contest ranging from Brian Kelly's vocabulary to Everett Golson's legs.

#10: A Subdued Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly has been known for having a lot to say to his player throughout the course of a game, specifically his quarterbacks. While the majority of time there's some vocabulary peppered in that has Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins yelling "EARMUFFS!" to the other Holy Cross Priests, that won't be the case this Saturday.

Why? Because Versus will have Kelly mic-ed up for the entire contest. Fans will get a glimpse of the hands-on instruction he's so adept at giving, it'll just be the PG version.

Asked if he'd be willing to wear a microphone for the Michigan or Southern Cal games, Kelly quickly responded, "absolutely not."

#9: A More Confident Dayne Crist

Every practice report that's trickled out from spring camp has reiterated the same thing over and over again: Dayne Crist looks infinitely more comfortable this spring. Interviews with the front runner for the starting quarterback job confirm it as well as praise heaped upon him by his head coach.

Crist talked about how last year during the season he was worried about ten different things as he approached the line of scrimmage and never felt like he had a good enough grasp of the offense to let it rip. Now with over a year of experience within the system and with a much deeper understanding of the offense he's poised to make huge strides.

Expect to see a much smoother and more confident Dayne Crist, but not for long since the head coach announced plans to limit both his and Tommy Rees' snaps.

#8: A Robby Toma Breakout

Want a breakout star to emerge from the spring game? Look no further than slot receiver Robby Toma. With the limited number of running backs available, it's reasonable to expect that Kelly will give the green light to air things out a bit. Toma is an underrated commodity at this point in his career and will provide a playmaking safety net for the pair of young quarterbacks that will get the majority of spring game reps.

Toma is extraordinarily quick and might have the best hands on the team. His ability to run precise routes and tendency to wiggle for the extra yard or two at the end of every run will make him a factor this fall. Saturday will provide many people's first extended glimpse of a potential sleeper for when the real games start.

#7: A Walk-on Running Back Bonanza

Notre Dame has exactly one scholarship running back on its roster right now that is not banged up: starter Cierre Wood. A thin group to begin with entering the spring, injuries to Cameron Roberson (torn ACL) and Jonas Gray (knee) have decimated the backfield. Gray returned to practice this week but one can't help but assume he'll be limited in a game that doesn't count.

Rather than risk Cierre Wood's health with extended time, expect walk-on tailbacks like Patrick Coughlin to see plenty of snaps. Kelly plans to run live whenever Golson and Hendrix are in the game because he wants to see them run his offense. In order to do that though, Kelly needs some bodies at running back.

Will any walk-on seize their ultimate Rudy moment and earn themselves a shot at legitimate PT in the fall? You never know...

#6: A Peek at the True Spread Option

Odds are almost 100% that either Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees will receive the starting nod to start the season this fall. Combined they've started for an entire season, seen a lot of game action, and have gotten the bulk of first and second team reps under center since Kelly took over last spring.

Unfortunately for Kelly though, neither is the type of running threat ideally fits his spread option offense. In order to maximize the potential of the spread the quarterback needs to be a legitimate threat to run on every play. The read option--a staple play of the spread where the quarterback makes a split decision after the snap to either hand the ball off to the running back or run it himself--is not nearly as effective when the defense is 99% certain the running back is getting the ball every time.

The two young quarterbacks sitting behind--Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson--Crist and Rees fit the mold of Kelly's prototype quarterback. Both are not only excellent passers (Hendrix has a howitzer for an arm), but are also athletic threats to take off and run. The dual threat they present is exactly what Kelly needs in the long-term.

Once things kickoff in the fall, expect a big chunk of the spread offense to stay in Kelly's back pocket. But this Saturday everyone will catch of glimpse of exactly what it will look like once the keys to the car are handed to a quarterback with wheels.

#5: An Aaron Lynch Sack

Mega-stud defensive line recruit Aaron Lynch has been on-campus since January and has already made a big impression on the coaching staff. His explosiveness off the snap is something Notre Dame hasn't seen since Justin Tuck was manning the defensive end position.

Lynch still has plenty to learn and is very raw, but expect him to find his way to the quarterback at least once this Saturday. When he does he'll only throw gasoline on the fire of hype that's surrounding him, something that probably doesn't bother him in the slightest.

#4: How Dominant the Front Can Be with Big Lou

Notre Dame returns four starters along an offensive line that improved by leaps and bounds over the course of last season.

Against Southern Cal and Miami, they dominated the line of scrimmage and allowed both the running game and passing game to thrive.

So why would I go and predict that they're going to be dominated? Because the defensive line returns all but one player in the two-deep and they replace the graduated Ian Williams with 340 pounds of Louis Nix.

Nix doesn't have the stamina necessary to make a prolonged impact, but he'll play enough that people understand how much he elevates the potential of the defense.

He's an immovable mountain of a man that commands a double team no matter who he's lining up against. The extra blockers he occupies will clog the middle of the offense while freeing the linebackers to make more plays in the lanes Nix creates.

He won't be out there very long because he's physically not able to last yet, but when he's in there expect the run game to hit a brick wall. Some people may be upset when the ground game isn't effective. They should be smiling instead, because Big Lou and friends could be something special.

#3: An Even Faster Paced Offense

When Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame, he said he wanted the Irish to play at a breakneck pace, one they were completely unaccustomed to under the previous regime.

He wanted faster practices, he wanted faster game speed, he wanted faster water breaks. It was all about efficiency and speed.

It took awhile for things to sink in, and Kelly even had to abandon his speed offense in favor of a more controlled tempo when Rees took over for Crist. The Irish averaged about 65 plays per game last season. This year, the head coach wants that number up between 80 and 85.

If that seems like a sizable jump, it is. What will make that transition easier, though, is the fact that the entire team is far more comfortable with the operation than they were last year. The learning curve has softened quite a bit and the hurried nature of practices and games now comes as second nature to most.

Expect Kelly to push his team to the limit in a scrimmage. He'll insist on them finding a gear they didn't think they had to test just how much they can handle.

#2: The Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson Show

While Crist and Rees are a clear notch above Hendrix and Golson in the race for starter, the latter two prospects will be wearing blue jerseys instead of red.

What does that mean?

They're going live in a way that would make Bill O'Reilly proud.

Kelly wants to see both of his rising freshmen quarterbacks run the offense they fit so well. In order to do that, they're going to have to take hits that the head coach simply won't risk on Crist or Rees.

So while fans won't get to see much of the top two on the depth chart, they'll get a nice, prolonged look at what the future holds with the ballyhooed backups. That dynamic will create a much more entertaining show for the fans since it will be real scrimmaging instead of touch football with the quarterbacks.

#1: A True Glimpse of What's to Come This Fall

Many people say that spring games mean nothing and fans shouldn't read too much into what they see, since it's still five months away from the opening game.

I'm here to tell you those people are wrong.

I have attended five spring games (every year from 2005-2009) and watched last year's online. Every single one of them provided a pretty accurate preview of what was to come the next fall.

Spring 2005: Brady Quinn spread lasers all over the field in a late-April blizzard. He transformed into a completely different quarterback than he was under Willingham and the offense looked like a juggernaut. I knew leaving that they'd be able to put points up on anybody. I just didn't know if our defense could stop anyone.

Right on the money.

Spring 2006: They looked good and the defense looked a little better, but things just weren't as in sync as the previous year for whatever reason. I left thinking they just didn't look quite as sharp as the previous year.

Once again, pretty spot on.

Spring 2007: We looked terrible. I just spent five minutes looking through a Thesaurus trying to find the highest form of terrible. We couldn't block, we couldn't run, we couldn't throw. The quarterbacks threw more touchdowns to the defense than the offense.

Other than that, everything looked great!

I left Notre Dame Stadium thinking there's no way we could be that bad...could we?

Yes. They were that bad.

Spring 2008: They looked better, but by no means were they a finished product. Jimmy Clausen had improved and it appeared that cracking the three-yards-per-carry mark was at least a possibility. Mediocrity was the name of the game and it signaled to me that plenty of growing pains would happen come fall.

Pretty accurate, though the growing pains were worse than I thought.

Spring 2009: Jimmy looked great and the offense looked like a well-oiled machine. We still couldn't run the ball, even on our Swiss-cheese defense, but who needed to run it when we had such a ridiculous aerial attack to fall back on?

Right on the money with the offense, though I never thought our defense could be so bad.

Spring 2010: Everyone on offense looked like they were thinking too much and somewhat overwhelmed by analysis paralysis. By no means was it ugly—in fact it was infinitely better than 2007 and much better than 2008—-but it was clear that a Parseghian-esque resurrection just wasn't in the cards.

Another pretty accurate forecast.

The biggest difference between Weis and Kelly is the fact that Kelly's squads improved over the course of the year. Weis' seemed to peak early and plateau if not completely fall off the map. Perhaps that's why his spring games were always such a clear indicator of what was to come.

Will Saturday's game provide a true glimpse of what's to come? I say it will.

The nice thing is that it'll be an indicator of what to expect in September, not necessarily in November like it was under Charlie.


  1. I agree with pretty much everything except that we'll see the offense run at blazing speed tomorrow. Kelly admitted that he wants to slow things down in this game, and that the team will actually huddle.

  2. I believe he said the first half would be run like a live game, the second half would be more teaching where he'd interrupt between plays to instruct and point things out.

  3. They can't seem to make any completions without Floyd. They are showing troubles throwing as well as a minimal running game. I'm a bit concerned. Defense is going to be the key to this Irish team this fall.