Well, what did you think?
Notre Dame fans got their first extended look at the revamped 2017 football team yesterday with the playing of the annual Blue-Gold game in the similarly revamped Notre Dame Stadium. This game/practice had a little something for everyone. Long touchdown runs from the running backs, a few plays under center, NINE sacks from the defense, two interceptions from the secondary, dazzling plays at wide receiver, and 39 of 54 for 580 yards from the two quarterbacks.
As a rule, it’s important not to take too much away from what we see once a Saturday in April every year. It really is just a practice. The team is just dressed up in the uniforms, the band shows up, fans tailgate, and NBC puts the game on TV for people like me to enjoy.
There is no game plan. The team doesn’t look to peak for this event. It’s just that the last practice every year is called a game and we all get to comment on what we saw. So let’s talk about it, position by position, leaving no stone unturned.
The biggest story coming out of the day was the play of Ian Book, who looked every bit like a player who could fill in for Brandon Wimbush if needed and be an effective leader of the Notre Dame offense. He was crisp, he was decisive, he was accurate, he made the correct throws. He even showed some pretty nifty athleticism. This is pretty big news for the football team and Brian Kelly. As Kelly mentioned postgame, Notre Dame has had to play their #2 quite a bit during his time at Notre Dame, and he can’t afford to have a season derailed should something happen to Wimbush. Book was easily one of the bright spots on the day.
Wimbush for his part also looked good, and I’m not buying the he struggled part. He was 22 of 32 for 303 yards a rushing touchdown and two picks. He looked comfortable to me in his first action as the guy in front of the stadium crowd. He was clearly frustrated at times with his red jersey and the defense will have to play him much differently once the threat of run is real.
He made several throws on the day that were magnificent, the best of which was the rolling right, drop a dime in perfect stride, to Chase Claypool that ended at the Notre Dame one. It was simply a special play. The interceptions brought the inevitable chatter of “maybe Ian Book should get more of a look as the starter”, but that’s a little silly. Turns out, throwing against the #1 defense is harder than the #2 defense, which had walk-on corners trying to guard Kevin Stepherson.
All in all, this is a position to feel very good about.
As has been said many times this season, this is a very talented group. Adams broke a long run where he made Jalen Elliot look a little silly in the middle of the hole, Williams made a cut and go for 38 yard touchdown, and Tony Jones introduced himself with several nice plays. All three of these guys are going to be heavily involved in the offense this year, especially with Jones’s ability to catch the ball, and we saw two backs in the backfield a number of times yesterday.
Given how the backs were utilized, it’s also very easy to see why a player like CJ Holmes would be extremely useful to the running game and out of the backfield. His versatility will be very well utilized under coordinator Chip Long.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
One of the strongest unit performances of the day for me, this group made all the plays they were asked to make. EQ looked as smooth and confident as ever out there and he looks to pick up where he left off last season. The revelation, of course, was Miles Boykin who looked every bit the break out player we have been hearing about the last couple of weeks. He made a number of nice receptions, all against the starting defense, and caught the ball very well, which was a struggle for him last season with the broken finger. His size is clearly a problem and he showed a nice ability get separation.
Chase Claypool flashed on a number of plays, Finke broke free on a slant for a catch and run, Sanders scored on a deep ball, and Stepherson also showed himself to be the smooth operator when his opportunity came up.
At tight end we saw a lot of the ways Chip Long gets this group involved on offense, and they look to be featured much more than they have been the last couple of seasons. Brock Wright and Cole Kmet have to be very happy with their decisions right now.
The size of this group gets talked about a lot, but the prospect of a EQ-Boykin-Claypool-Alize quartet with Alize Mack at tight end is hard to pass up. They are rugged, fast, and just really big. That group has to see the field a lot together next year.
One of the few groups that left me wanting on the day, which was really surprising. If last seasons underwhelming performance hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t think much of it, but it did happen and it gives me pause. They just didn’t look like the dominant group they are projected to be and incredibly they struggled in pass protection, which was unexpected given Notre Dame’s inability to rush the passer. They gave up nine sacks (some of which were a little shaky, given the quick whistle on the red jersey’d quarterbacks) while Wimbush and Book were under a steady stream of pressure.
Not panicking, but this group isn’t to be penciled in as a significant strength just yet, especially given what we saw from Tommy Kraemer in pass pro at right tackle. Still a work in progress.
The flip side of the offensive line struggling is that means the perceived weakness of the team, the defensive line, looked pretty good. Daelin Hayes looked vastly improved, which is the best news of the day, coming up with three (legit) sacks and recording seven tackles. He used up Tommy Kraemer at right tackle pretty good, which is what you want to see him be able to do. Jay Hayes even used a speed rush that left Mike McGlinchey lunging to no avail, so maybe Mike Elko is magic after all.
With the help of the secondary at times, the defensive line held up pretty well in the run game, which is what you want to see. Notre Dame has the talent at linebacker to make plays behind them if they can take up blockers and muck up the play. They weren’t dominant, of course, but it was nice to see some solid play there.
Linebacker And Rover
First, lets all revel in the destruction Nyles Morgan brought to Quenton Nelson and Josh Adams in the middle of the first quarter. He crushed Nelson in the hole, literally knocking him four yards back, then came off that and tackled Adams for a two yard gain. It was beautiful.
In all, this is a good group, especially with Drue Tranquill finding his happy place at the Rover position, which is really good because he is now too big to play safety. Tranquill was especially impressive, darting in and out of the backfield and being the biggest playmaker on the defense. Wish we could have seen more of Bilal in this spot, because someone has to play it if Tranquill gets dinged up.
Liked what I saw from Martini and Coney as well, it’s just nice they are finally getting quality coaching at this position. Reserve Jonathan Jones flashed at times as well, he is certainly not averse to contact.
The starting corners of Love and Watkins are good and they are confident. Watkins is ready to go. Luke warm on Pride and Vaughn, but they weren’t bad, just didn’t see the playmaking from them. It’ll be interesting to see what Crawford can give them when he is full go, because it really seems like a secondary that includes Julian Love at one of the safety spots gives them the best unit, but that’s just me.
It was an up and down day from the safeties, but I came away more encouraged than not. They were out there making plays that we haven’t seen much at safety lately. The play that led to the Jalen Elliot interception was especially excellent. Nick Coleman soft peddled from his safety spot, read the Alize Mack in route, broke hard and made the play, which Elliot cleaned up. It was an all around good play by the entire defense, every route was locked up.
It wasn’t all good though, the tackling left a lot to be desired at times, which unfortunately led to the Adams touchdown run. But there were good signs of quality play and freshman Isaiah Robertson looked more than intriguing out there with his size. Not fully confident in this group, but better than I did before I saw them in action.