NOTRE DAME — Notre Dame football wrapped up spring football following its annual Blue-Gold scrimmage game Saturday, April 12.
The Blue Team — consisting of the entire offense — got out to a quick start and ended up winning 63-58, staving off a Gold Team rally.
How did each position look in their 2014 public debut?
Quarterbacks: Sophomore Malik Zaire got the start, but don't read into that too much. Brian Kelly mixed up first- and second-teamers on both sides of the ball. Zaire played like a starter though, stealing the spotlight from Everett Golson's triumphant return.
Zaire was all smiles after a 18-for-25 passing performance for 292 yards and two touchdowns. He was quick and accurate and boasted a big arm. Golson wasn't as impressive, posting a modest 13-of-24 for 154 yards and zero passing touchdowns. He did run in a score, winning a footrace against Jaylon Smith.
Both quarterbacks struggled in the pocket, though, as a result of inconsistent pass protection.
Running backs: Greg Bryant, who didn't get in until the third series, made the run of the game off a 51-yard scamper in the second half. Bryant made a lot of unnecessary moves in the open field — Kelly even joked, "I just don't know what those moves against air are" — but there's no denying the sophomore's speed.
All three tailbacks — Bryant, Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston — looked comfortable and effective catching the ball, something that was used as a specialty last year but will be a necessity this fall. Early in the game, the pocket collapsed and three defenders swarmed Golson. He dumped a middle screen pass to Folston, who took it for 11 yards.
"To go three deep at the running back position is a good thing," Kelly said.
Wide receivers: Undeniably the most question-mark-riddled area of the offense, receivers C.J. Prosise, Chris Brown and Corey Robinson gave coaches something to think about over the summer. Beyond one wide-open drop by Brown, Kelly noted that the receivers were consistent across the board.
"What we were looking for was a little bit more consistency from our wide receivers," Kelly said. "C.J. Prosise was not, in my opinion, having great practices, and he flashed today."
Golson and Zaire stretched the field with their targets all day, hitting Brown on a 47-yard sprint and Robinson on a pretty 37-yard grab up the sideline.
Tight ends: Ben Koyack settled in with three receptions for 29 yards, but coaches primarily tested the tight ends' blocking abilities. Kelly nodded to sophomore Durham Smythe's in-line blocking, saying "the game comes easy to him."
Offensive line: Not the greatest showing for an injury-stricken, depleted offensive line. The unit gave up eight "sacks" (quarterbacks were no-contact, but they were touched eight times).
The chemistry will come when the injuries heal, and Kelly is in no rush to name a starting five until fall camp.
Defensive line: Kelly said "identified playmakers" such as Sheldon Day were yanked early so others could get more exposure. Romeo Okwara took advantage, ripping through the offensive line for three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
But beyond Day's established dominance and Okwara's flashes Saturday, the Irish are still searching for an established pass rush presence.
"We're going to find other ways to bring pressure," Kelly said. "Everybody across the country does. ... You have got to find ways to get after the quarterback, and it's not necessarily just those big guys that put their hand on the ground."
Linebackers: Jaylon Smith was another one of those "identified playmakers" who didn't see a whole lot of time, but he made the most of the time he was in. Smith even got a taste of the inside of the field, pass rushing like crazy and even tracking down Folston at one point to stop what would have been a big play.
Despite a solid pass rush, the offense punched the defense early and often with quick scores and easy yards. But Kelly assured that this wasn't the full look of the defense, that coordinator Brian VanGorder held back most of the defensive looks.
Secondary: There wasn't much to celebrate in the first half with a unit that was systematically picked apart by Zaire and Golson.
Josh Atkinson had a surprisingly solid day. The speedy cornerback, who had been all but cast aside as a third-stringer, not only broke up three passes but tracked down Bryant on his 51-yard burst. Elijah Shumate also recorded a pair of aggressive pass breakups in the end zone.