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Conversations with the Coach: Blue-Gold Game

Hello to all of you OFD readers! Coach here. I am writing this piece at the request of Whiskey who asked me to watch the Notre Dame Spring Game and comment on things that I saw from the ND defense.

Before I continue, let me say that I normally wouldn’t watch this game, but I watched it this year because I wanted to see what the team’s attitude and demeanor would be after such a successful end run to the 2010 season. Obviously, I watched it a little closer in trying to accomplish the task that was assigned to me by Whiskey.

I normally do not closely follow recruiting classes because I am not really interested in high school accomplishments and the reputations that players bring to a college campus. I only care about what I see them do when they get to the college gridiron. There are always kids with big high school reputations that fail to live up to them at the college level, and other lesser known kids who end up becoming mainstays. I have to say that, in Saturday’s game, I saw a couple of young kids that were exciting to watch. Looking at some of these newcomers and knowing what ND has coming back in 2011 in the way of seasoned players, I think we can expect an exciting and successful season from the Irish in 2011.

I regret to say that I saw little of note from the ND defense. That was not because the defense played poorly, but because the coaching staff used the game to work on their base defensive play and did nothing other than just a plain, vanilla 3-4 with cover 2 and cover 3 in the secondary. I did see one interesting thing, however, from their base 3-4 alignment. We know that ND will walk an OLB out on an inside receiver vs. a twin receiver set, but I thought it was interesting what they did vs. trips and four wide receivers.

Against these sets, they walked that OLB out on an inside split receiver, and ALSO walked an inside linebacker out to play underneath coverage on a split receiver as well. They may have employed inside backers, aligned head up on slot receivers, last year, but I didn’t notice it like I did Saturday. Of course, doing this allowed them to stay in Cover 2 in the secondary. I guess this is plain vanilla in the Diaco 3-4, but I found it interesting.

Overall, the secondary played well and gave up only a couple of big plays that I can think of. One was a 20 or 25 yard completion from freshman QB Andrew Hendrix to Deion Walker to end the first half. The other was a 15 yard touchdown pass from freshman Everett Golson to John Goodman. Other than those two plays, the only other big play that the defense gave up was a 27 yard scramble by Golson. All in all, I would say that the defense played pretty solid base D, gave up few big plays and the secondary kept most everything in front of them and generally had receivers covered.

Now let’s talk about a few individuals on defense. First of all, it is hard to make much of a comment on the defense as a whole since most returning starters never took the field and the few who did were only out there for 3 or 4 plays. So, any analysis of defensive play is a crude critique of younger kids with little or no game experience. A mere handful of kids stood out in the game to me and my comments on their play follow:

Ishaq Williams
This kid is an incoming freshman and had a solid game. He has great size and talent, but I think he was slowed just a little in his lack of knowledge of the ND scheme and his position responsibilities. You could see his talent in his play, but he seemed just a little tentative. He may also have been suffering from a case of the butterflies from the awesome experience of playing his first game in Notre Dame Stadium before a crowd. Nevertheless, he played a very solid game and forced one fumble. He will be a factor on the ND defensive front in the future. As I said, he has size, speed and quickness.

Louis Nix
My goodness, this kid is huge! This kid came in at 380 pounds and the coaches have him down to 340 now. He is not slow footed for a kid that big, but it was obvious that he gets a little short winded and will have to work on his size and conditioning to be a factor, series after series, on defense. Think how this kid will play if he gets down to 295 or 300 pounds. I can’t wait to see him. He was a bit of a factor vs. the run on Saturday and managed to make a couple of big plays despite looking a little fatigued. He might end up being a great Noseman for the Irish before he is through.

Danny Spond
This is one of those kids that you just have to have on your team and need to find a place for him where he can make a contribution. Spond is a little undersized and short on raw talent, but he obviously knows his responsibilities and techniques on defense and does not make mistakes. He will not start for the Irish this fall, but, in a pinch, would make a good substitute if a starter goes down. He won’t get you beat.

Spond is the kind of kid that, with the game on the line, will surprise everyone by making a big play to throw the decision back in ND’s favor. The thing that I noticed about him is that, play after play, he continues to show up at the ball and show up at the ball and show up at the ball. And when he gets there, he packs a decent load. He would get my vote for defensive player of this game if not for, that’s right, you guessed it.........

Aaron Lynch
This kid is for real! At 6'6" and 265 pounds he already has the size to be a "BCS caliber" 3-4 Defensive End. We’re just starting there. He is very quick, very fast, very aggressive and packs a wallop when he gets to the ball. I have already commented that other incoming freshman who played in this game were obviously awestruck by the experience of playing in ND Stadium for the first time. This kid was not! He played like he had been playing there all his life.

Whiskey tells me, and Eric Murtaugh has written on this site, that there are "experts" out there on other sites who are nitpicking this kids play on Saturday. Pleeeeaaaase! I guess everyone needs something to write about. Yes, I agree, the kid has a tendency to run around blocks. This is not a good thing, but kids with his talent can get away with it. The coaches will have to work with him on a few things like that. Let’s remember, this kid is supposed to still be in high school! He should be getting ready for final exams, the prom and graduation! He’s not supposed to be kicking veteran, Division 1 college offensive linemen’s butts. Yes, that is correct. Aaron Lynch played just about every down on defense for the Blue Team. In fact I don’t remember him ever coming off the field.

Lynch played against the ND starting offensive line and treated them like the high school kids he mistreated last fall. Vs. The pass, no one was able to block him. He has the swim technique of an NFL veteran. I would like to meet his high school position coach. He dominated the LOS. You cannot run away from him. He will run you down from behind. He hustles and plays like a kid possessed, and he brings a heavy load when he gets to the ball. I love this kid! How did ND get so lucky as to land a kid like this?

Did all of you stick around long enough to see the next-to-last play of the game? Let me describe it for you. Quarterback Matt Mulvey drops back to pass. Lynch pressures him and forces him to step up in the pocket and throw a six yard completion to a receiver who stutter steps and then heads up field for an 11 yard gain before being run down from behind by.....that’s right, you guessed it, Aaron Lynch, who forced the Quarterback to dump the ball off in the first place!

I could go on and on about this kid, but it is time to stop. Yes, he is making some technique errors right now. That’s what college coaches are for. They teach kids to eliminate those errors and play good technique. You can coach good players to play good technique. But you can’t coach them to be big, you can’t coach them to be quick, you can’t coach them to be fast, you can’t coach them to have a nose for the football. Aaron Lynch has all of those things. He has two veteran defensive ends to beat out to start this year and I don’t know if he will do it. But, if I was Bob Diaco, Aaron Lynch would be in the game at DE in every passing situation. It will be very entertaining watching offensive linemen trying to protect their quarterbacks from Aaron Lynch.

That is about it from the Defensive side of the ball. That is all that Whiskey asked me to do. However, I just have to make a couple of comments concerning the offensive side of the ball. First of all, the sloppy playing conditions seriously diminished our ability to get a "true" look at anyone, especially skill players. I still think that Tommy Rees is the man at QB. Dayne Crist probably has better leadership demeanor, and a little more experience, but that’s all.

Rees is one of those guys that just wins. I think he threw some bad passes on Saturday, but he threw some of the best passes of any of the 5 Quarterbacks that played in the game as well. Rees proved himself when the chips were down and we all thought that last season was a lost cause. The team will rally around a player like this. He leads by example and gets results. That being said, the two freshmen Quarterbacks also showed some potential.

Everett Golson has the potential to be exciting and has a rocket arm and great speed. But, he has a long, long way to go to master the Kelly Offense. Andrew Hendrix can run as well, and he looks a little more confident with the Kelly Offense right now. I think it is interesting to note, that neither Crist nor Rees moved their teams effectively. That changed to a degree when the freshmen Quarterbacks got in the game. I would say that their success was due to the dimension that they brought to the table as runners. That gave the "vanilla" scrimmage defense something to defend that "vanilla" doesn’t account for. That’s my take.

One last note if you don’t mind. Eric commented that no receivers stood out in this game. I would respectfully disagree. Roby Toma really caught my eye. You may remember that he was sort of an extra bonus for ND when they landed Manti Te’o. Toma played on offense sort of like Spond played on defense. He kept turning up at the ball and turning up at the ball. Toma led all receivers in the game with 6 receptions for 64 yards. He reminds me of Wes Welker who is now with The Patriots and Kelly used him in the same way that Bill Belichick uses Welker just throwing the ball to him underneath and in the flats. He is not afraid to run across the formation and catch the ball underneath in traffic.

A receiver like Toma forces blitzing ILBs to stay at home or else feel the sting that a good check down receiver brings to your house party. Or, he nickle and dimes you to death until you are forced to account for him and then Floyd burns you for a quick six. A receiver like Toma can be a factor. I know that he plays Riddick’s position, but he played it well on Saturday. He might be an occasional factor for the Irish this coming fall. I would certainly not be concerned if the Irish found themselves in a situation where they had to play him. He gets my vote for offensive player of the game on Saturday.

Okay, these are my thoughts on Saturday’s Notre Dame Spring Game. I am very excited by what I saw. All analysis aside, I think that we can all look forward to an exciting and successful 2011 campaign from The Irish. If Bob Diaco will put some serious effort into defending the option offenses of the service academies, and is successful, we might be treated to one of the most successful Irish Football seasons that we have seen in more than 20 years.

Thanks for the opportunity, Whiskey! Go Irish!