With Notre Dame’s spring football season concluded with yesterday’s nationally televised Blue – Gold game and no football to keep us busy for a few months, it’s overreaction season. It happens every year after the Blue – Gold game because of the nature of the “game”. Anyone who struggled is a bust and those unheralded players who shined should obviously be starting right? If only it were that easy.
Let’s unpack all of the overreactions from yesterday and see what is actually cause for concern and what are some areas of optimism that appear valid starting on offense.
Ian Book still isn’t throwing the ball downfield
We heard a lot all spring about the coaching staff wanting Ian Book to take more chances downfield. In yesterday’s spring game with literally nothing on the line, we didn’t see a whole lot of chances taken. Book had no quarterback competition to win and yesterday’s stats were meaningless, but we still saw a lot of short and intermediate throws.
Two throws did stand out of Book’s 21 pass attempts though. One was a perfectly placed 43 yard throw downfield to Chase Claypool. All of those were “air yards”and the ball was placed right where it needed to be over the safety. It was a beautiful throw. Only problem was, it was the only time Book really let it rip like that. Given the circumstance, it was a little disappointing that there weren’t more throws like that.
On a positive note, we also saw Book fire one down the seem to Cole Kmet in the second half. The pass was just a bit too tall for Kmet and it fell incomplete. It’s rare for an incompletion to be a positive, but that’s a throw Book wasn’t attempting last year. With the talent Notre Dame has on the edges and the weapon they have in Kmet, that will be there all year for Book. If he starts throwing it and hitting it, this offense becomes very dangerous.
Book’s first quarter touchdown pass to Michael Young was encouraging too. Book moved up in the pocket and let the play develop instead of dumping it off or taking off running. We didn’t see that all that often last year – especially in the Cotton Bowl.
Overall it was a solid day from Book where we saw some incremental improvement in his game. Look for the staff to work with him more in fall camp on taking those downfield chances. As Chris Simms noted on the telecast, Book doesn’t need a cannon arm for defenses to respect it. If he doesn’t push it downfield more in the fall though, opposing corners are going to creep up to take away those short and intermediate throws that Book is deadly on.
Phil Jurkovec looked shaky at best
Perhaps the most common overreaction to yesterday’s spring game is the “sky is falling” mentality around backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec. No one, Jurkovec himself, would say that the current freshman had a good day throwing the ball. He was hesitant in the pocket and he was off on some easy throws.
For everyone freaking out though, remember how bad Deshone Kizer looked in the 2015 spring game as a then freshman? Kizer looked like he didn’t belong in college football as he played behind Malik Zaire and Everett Golson. We all know how that turned out for Notre Dame and Kizer during the 2015 season. So relax just a tad.
Jurkovec has the tools and athleticism to run this offense at an extremely high level. In fact, he’s got better raw tools than Book. Whether or not he ever puts it all together and actually runs the offense better is still unknown. And remember, Brandon Wimbush also had better raw tools than Book too so there’s no guarantee it happens.
Yesterday was a great learning experience for Jurkovec though and he still has plenty of time to develop his game to the point that he can run this offense well in a game situation. Just because he was shaky playing largely with a backup offensive line against a backup defensive line that features players who would be starters elsewhere doesn’t mean that it’s time to declare him a bust like some have on Twitter.
Jafar Armstrong looks like a #1 Running Back
One of the biggest positives for me from yesterday’s scrimmage was the fact that Jafar Armstrong looked like he can be Notre Dame’s #1 running back. He might not rip off 90 yard runs like Dexter Williams did a year ago or Josh Adams two years ago, but he looked thicker than he was a year ago and was not afraid to lower his shoulder. That is a very positive development for a running game that, while effective overall, has been too reliant on the big run.
Armstrong ended the game with 85 yards rushing on 9 carries and 71 yards receiving on 4 receptions to display his versatility. Now, he did have a bad fumble on a hell of a play by Jalen Elliott where the Irish safety came from behind and punched the ball out perfectly. That’s a play Armstrong has to be more aware of in the fall.
Since we’re talking overreactions here, let me present to you of the case of Junior Jabbie. Back in 2007 Jabbie came out of no where to steal the show at the Blue Gold game. He drifted back into obscurity in the fall. Armstrong won’t fall off completely, but let’s remember that this was just the spring game. Still, yesterday Armstrong showed a lot of growth.
Bonus overreaction: Jahmir Smith as the 3rd running for Notre Dame is very good. Smith surprised me with how good he looked simply because we had not heard much about him up until now. Smith ran with a great pad level though and ended up bouncing off a tackle early on for a big gain. Again, it was just a scrimmage after all, but Smith looked promising.
We saw a glimpse of the speedy sophomore receivers, but not the whole package
We heard A LOT this spring about how the talent in the sophomore class was going to reshape the wide receiving corps this year but we only got a small glimpse of that yesterday. Lawrence Keys got a chance to run a few jet sweeps which was a really nice development but they totaled just 7 yards combined.
Receiving wise, we didn’t really get to see much from Keys, Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin, or Joe Wilkins though Wilkins did have a real nice 27 yard catch and run where he spun away from the defense and nearly scored. This does not mean that the talent everyone saw all spring isn’t there, it just means we didn’t see much of it.
Brian Kelly and staff weren’t going to show the entire offensive package for these guys yesterday with the game being televised so there is not reason to be concerned here even if the immediate overreaction is “where was all this speed we heard about.” There were enough encouraging signs with the utilization of all four to indicate that the receiving corps will be just fine in the fall.
Notre Dame’s offensive line struggled with the pass rush
This is one of the most common overreactions because the defensive line was getting pressure all day. As Greg noted earlier, Liam Eichenberg didn’t have the best day on Saturday. Guess what? A lot of tackles are going to have their best days dealing with Julian Okwara and the rest of the deep Notre Dame defensive end rotation.
What’s important here is that Jarrett Patterson looked sharp as the starting center. We didn’t see any real hiccups snapping the ball or in his mechanics as a center. That is a huge development given he never really played center until this spring. Give him another couple months of working with Matt Balis to add some more strength and we could be looking at a really good long terms tarting center.
Other than Patterson and Eichenberg, the rest of the line didn’t really stand out positively or negatively. This line is going to get tested day in and day out in practice by what we all saw to be a deep and talented defensive line.
We’ll unpack the defensive side of the ball later and then eventually special teams where all of the overreactions unfortunately might be valid.