Spring football came to a close in South Bend yesterday with the annual Blue-Gold Game. It is always difficult to extrapolate too much useful information from spring games.
Is the offensive line terrible or the defensive line that good? These questions are almost impossible to answer. That problem was further compounded this year by Brian Kelly announcing beforehand that he was going to run a generic defense.
"We won’t do a lot defensively, you won’t see much. You’ll probably leave going, ‘Wow, our defense didn’t get the kind of progress that we were hoping.’ I’m just preparing you for that right now," Kelly said. "This is going to be set up for offense from that standpoint because we want to get out there and show some exciting football. But we know at the end of the day, our defense has made great progress this spring."
Despite all of those things I did come away with several observations. It was great that und.com broadcast the game live over the net but it was also a bit of a downer that they have not posted a full replay or the cutup version that shows all of the plays. They do have the highlights and some post game interviews up though. The last couple of years they posted that cutup with all of the plays and I was able to watch it several times which was nice. The end result is that instead of watching the thing 10 times in an effort to try and get a better feel for all the position groups I got one shot at it. Despite this I had several takeaways and observations. Here it goes.
To lead things off Coach Kelly received verbal commitments from three more players for the class of 2011. It is comforting to see these early commitments on the defensive line and at offensive tackle. Throw a quality safety or two in there and this class might be cooking with gas. Links below to the ISD write ups on the three new commits.
Now on to the game itself. The teams were mixed and matched to be relatively even so there was no 1s vs 1s or 2s vs 2s etc. It was a little wet outside and I liked the fact that both teams were on the same sideline. One team one fight. The first half was a pretty decent look but in the 2nd half the coaches let the clock run, and went deep into the roster.
The offensive line is tricky to call having absorbed everything in one shot and knowing that the defense had a hand tied behind their backs. This is what I came away with. Is there a center in the house? Tough to say. Fifth year senior Dan Wenger should be the guy but he is getting pushed by Braxton Cave and neither of them looked great. Chris Watt was a late addition to the mix there in the last week but I failed to make any real observations on him yesterday. I expect that position battle to rage throughout fall camp. Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson are solid at the guard positions and will be the strength of this offensive line. Stewart could end up finishing up his career on a very high note. Taylor Dever seems to have locked down the right tackle spot as has Zack Martin on the left. I didn’t really notice either of them yesterday which is probably a good thing. We’ll see how the two deep pans out in the fall but as of now the only lock em’ up starters I see are Stewart and Robinson at the guard positions. The competition at the other three spots will be interesting. I'm a little nervous about quality depth at tackle.
I thought Dayne Crist looked pretty good all things considered. Crist has a lot on his shoulders bouncing back from a knee injury and learning an entirely new system. I was a little nervous watching him run around with that big knee brace on but at the same time I was relieved that he was able to fully participate this spring. That will be huge for him heading into the fall. I think Crist will ultimately emerge as a Brady Quinn type of leader for the offense. I’m not saying it was warranted in Clausen’s case but no one will ever question Crist’s "character." I think if he stays healthy he will come into his own and do a great job next fall. He has a ton of natural talent and will work his tail off to get there quickly. In the event Crist doesn’t stay healthy….
Nate Montana can be a serviceable backup. I was pleasantly surprised by Nate. His resemblance to his old man is striking, especially with that red #16 practice jersey on. Nate went 18 for 30 with 3 TDs and 1 INT. His comfort level should continue to increase through the summer. As of today he’s not a world beater but if necessary I think he could manage the game and distribute the football as required.
I am pleasantly surprised to be saying that I really liked the running game. Weis was never really able to establish one and that was probably the one trepidation I had about the Kelly hire. I’m tired of not being able to line up and get 3rd and 2 and I’m tired of 3 incompletions on 1st and goal from the 5. I’m not saying those days are totally in the rearview mirror but the running game looked pretty damn good yesterday. It was at least considerably better than I was expecting. Coach Kelly has a nice run element in his version of the spread and I particularly enjoyed all of those counters. The offensive line seemed to block them pretty well (love the pull) and for the most part the backs were able to capitalize. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more of that next fall.
The Irish have plenty of skill players. The backfield is really deep with 4 kids that can all play. After yesterday I am on board with moving Theo Riddick to the slot to get the ball in his hands. There are plenty of quality running backs on the roster. Armando Allen is solid as the starter and I like him running, receiving and blocking. Cierre Wood is coming on and with 4 years remaining he could be great. His 10 carries for 110 yards and 2 TDs showed flashes of the recruiting hype that followed him to campus. Jonas Gray also looked very good and has great feet for a big back. I’m a huge Robert Hughes fan but I think that poor kid is about to get lost in the shuffle as a senior. That is really too bad but with those other three guys looking sharp it is going to be hard for big Robert to get many touches.
Michael Floyd will be an NFL receiver. He didn’t see a ton of balls yesterday but we already know what he can do. He’s serious but a lot of the other receivers also have the ability to thrive in this offense. Theo Riddick will be fine. Duval Kamara looks trimmed and should contribute. Shaquelle Evans and Deion Walker welcome to the party. They both flashed some skills yesterday too. John Goodman is also pretty solid. The nicest surprise at receiver was freshman T.J. Jones. He is going to contribute right away and might be very special before his career is over. His 4 grabs for 56 yards and a TD was very impressive for a 17 year old early enrollee. The aggregate combination of these kids has the ability to put a lot of pressure on a defense. As a group the receivers also blocked well today. I love that. The receivers in general still have some work to do but Kelly is a task master and I think he will ensure that they get there. I’m having a hard time not getting too excited about these guys….
The tight ends are going to cause some serious problems for opposing defenses. Kyle Rudolph is a pleasure to watch. Good luck covering that kid with a linebacker. I hope he sticks around for two more seasons but the NFL will be all over him if he comes out after next year. He will play on Sundays for a long time. It was also nice to see Mike Ragone healthy and looking solid. He grabbed 6 passes for 75 yards and a TD. Two good tight ends can wreak havoc in this offense especially with other playmakersdrawing attention on the outside.
Overall I think the offense will be okay. Early in the season the learning curve will most likely still be apparent and as a result the offense may show some inconsistency as they continue to gel and learn the system. If the running game can be effective early with those 4 backs that will allow Crist to ease into the system a little more without having to completely carry the load right away. I think he’s up to it but taking a little pressure off of him early will be a good thing. Why not run a little more than expected and let Allen, Wood, Gray and Hughes do their thing? If the running game is solid early then the chances of early success for the offense will increase exponentially. By mid season I think the offense will hit its stride and be able to hold up its end of the deal down the stretch.
I think the defensive line will be just fine. I really like the starting three. Ian Williams looked pretty solid on the nose and I’m a big fan of both Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis- Moore at defensive end. Both Johnson and Lewis-Moore could be special before all is said and done. I’m not too sure just yet about Cwynar behind Williams on the nose but Tyler Stockton showed up on a few plays. I did think that Emeka Nwanko, and Brandon Newman also looked pretty solid at defensive end. I think the overall depth on the defensive line is pretty good and expect that they will be able to hold up their end of the deal which will allow the linebackers to make a lot of plays.
Manti Te’o is awesome. Like Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph he will definitely have a nice long NFL career. Also like those guys he is living proof of just how important it is to recruit top line players. The kid is a pleasure to watch. I will consider myself lucky if he plays in a gold helmet for 3 more years. Te’o is also emerging as the leader of the defense as well which is perfect. I have a serious affinity for awesome middle/ inside linebackers. A few of the other LBs are coming along nicely as well. I was pleasantly surprised by Carlo Calabrese on the inside too. He’s old school tough and really surprised me in coverage. Steve Paskorz, David Posluszny, and Anthony McDonald also looked pretty good.
I also really like the depth at outside linebacker. Brian Smith, Darius Fleming, Steve Filer and Kerry Neal will provide a solid 2 deep. On that note hello Steve Filer, he was everywhere yesterday with 12 total tackles to include 2 for a loss. I expect to see Filer heavily involved next fall. I really like the outside linebackers a lot. In the vanilla package that was used for the scrimmage they spent a lot of time with a hand on the ground showing a four man front. It will be interesting to see how they line up against Purdue in September.
The corners looked a little better yesterday but I have to say I didn’t notice the safeties too much. I think the Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton mix at corner will be fine but I’m still concerned about how things are going to shake out at safety.
As a group the defense seemed to be doing a much better job of actually tackling the ball carrier! There appeared to be more wrapping up and a lot less shoulder throwing. Let's hope that a sign of better things to come. I really think this defense has a chance to play very well. If they can do so early that will also provide Crist and the offense a little slack while they get into rhythm.
Overall I feel pretty good about this team heading into the summer. I could really care less where they end up ranked in the preseason. I think this team has the potential to have a nice season that may surprise some people. While the entire team must continue to master the new system I think the X factors right now are Crist, the offensive tackles and the safeties. I can’t wait for the season to start.
In the mean time I am really looking forward to LB Coach’s thoughts from yesterday and we will hopefully see that in the next few days. Now that spring is complete and we have a better picture of the position groups we will discuss all of them in the next few weeks. As per usual don’t hesitate to leave a comment and join the discussion.