Notre Dame Football 2017 Spring Game: What We Learned

Brandon Wimbush - Notre Dame QB

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.

Quarterback

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.

Running Back

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.

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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.

Offensive Line

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.

Defensive Line

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.

Secondary

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.

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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.

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5 comments

  1. Bruce Gregory Curme 3 months ago

    I was not at the game, but I got a good report from my brother Dave who was there. He says there was some good hitting going on. That’s a good sign. He also reports that the defense seemed to know what it was doing for the first time in several years. That is a great accomplishment for only 15 practices with a new system. Nice! He noted that the offensive line was having trouble with some of the defenses it saw (4, 5, or 6 on the D-line). Frank V said something similar in the article above. That may or may not be OK – an offense with a new coordinator and/or a new QB is usually going to be behind the defense for the first two or three games of the season – but surely they need to hit the weights over the summer, and learn to work together. According to Dave, everything else looked good – even special teams looked better. All in all, I’d say I’m satisfied at this point, especially when my brother said this: “They actually looked like a Notre Dame team ought to look in the Spring.”
    It’s a long time since I’ve heard him say that.

    Bruce G. Curme ’77 ’82

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  2. Damian 3 months ago

    It was good to see ND on the field again, but as so many noted, you can’t read too much into this game. Overall, I think there was balance between offense and defense I thought, some good things, some that needs work. But in an intra-squad game like this balance is probably better. If one side totally dominates, that’s more an indictment of the opposing side, say if the offensive side was completely dominant, what does that say about the defense? Or vice-versa. That’s why it makes it very dangerous to predict how the season will go after the BG game.

    There is work to be done. I won’t get my hopes up this year because they have been dashed too much in the past. But, at the same time I’ll keep an open mind. There are a number of new coaches at key positions this year so we’ll see how that affects the end results. Ultimately what matters is how may W’s there are at seasons end.

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  3. pete calco 3 months ago

    It’s hard to tell with these spring games how a team will perform in the fall. I can see Notre dame going anywhere from 12 and0 to 7and5. So many variables involved in this.

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  4. duranko 3 months ago

    There were other subtexts yesterday.

    Wimbush inherited one trait bequeathed from Kizer: he holds on to the ball too long. As Jim Tressel used to say “An incomplete pass is a good play!” Wimbush must be coached, by Tommy Rees, to
    throw the ball away when that is the optimal remaining solution. Also, he will be grilled and drilled
    all summer about not throwing the ball into a crowd.

    The vaunted First team offense has some distance to go.

    But the best thing that happened yesterday was that the defense, especially the front seven, left
    brimming with confidence after having a lot of success disrupting the backfield and the quarterback..
    Players, especially the ND types, want to believe, have faith, in their coaches. But yesterday made
    that belief easier as they saw the first fruits of the lessons that have been taught by Elko, Elston and Lea. That will turbocharge their efforts through the summer, in the weight room and in individual
    skill development.

    As with the offense, there is work to be done, but this defense will be no gimmee.

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  5. Smokeyrob 3 months ago

    I SAW MANY IMPROVEMENTS FROM LAST YEAR. I THINK THE D WILL SURPRISE PEOPLE. THE SCHEDULE WORRIES ME. NO EASY GAMES HERE. COMPARE IT TO BAMA, MICHIGAN, OHIO STATE, THE IRISH HAVE IT MUCH TOUGHER. AS NICE AS IT IS TO SEE GEORGIA ADDED TO THIS YEAR’S SCHEDULE. DID WE NEED THEM. IF THE IRISH HAD THE TALENT THAT THE TOP PROGRAMS POSSESS IT WOULD NOT MATTER WHO WAS ADDED. HOWEVER, I ALSO WATCHED ALABAMA IN THEIR SPRING GAME. THE TALENT DIFFERENTIAL IS HUGE. IT IS NO SECRET WHY BAMA IS GREAT EVERY YEAR. FOR THE PAST EIGHT YEARS THEY HAVE GOTTEN THE TOP PLAYERS. THE GAP IS CLEAR IN THE TRENCHES. BAMA’S PLAYERS AERE HUGE, AND QUICK. IF THE IRISH EVER CATCH UP TO THE TOP PROGRAMS IN RECRUITING THEY CAN CONTINUE TO ADD TOUGH GAMES EVERY YEAR. HOWEVER SWARBRICK NEEDS A REALITY CHECK. YOU CANNOT MAKE YOUR SCHEDULE HARDER EVERY YEAR WITHOUT AN UPGRADE IN TALENT. TIME TO GET REAL. LOWER THE ADMISSIONS RESTRICTIONS OR START ADDING EASIER GAMES. THIS YEAR’ SCHEDULE WOULD BE TOUGH FOR BAMA TO GO UNBEATEN!

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