Rakes Report #166: One more road to cross, one more risk to take (The 2021 Blue-Gold Game Review)
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1) Certainly not the most exciting spring football game but I think it was a useful exercise after weeks of analysis via highlight reels, and hey it’s always nice to see the sun shining on the golden helmets and some fans in attendance. You never want to read too much either way into Blue-Gold performances but this confirmed a lot of rumblings and theories: Quarterback seems solid, front seven could be oppressive, secondary is intriguing, still plenty of work to do across the board on offense.
(If you missed the game, here are the highlights.)
2) While I understand the competition is still open per Brian Kelly, I basically saw what I needed to from Jack Coan, even if he faded a bit as the game progressed. He opened the proceedings with a strike downfield to Joe Wilkins, moved around in the pocket well, showed a little bit of escapability and already has an old-man connection with Avery Davis, which should prove useful. (I also expect it’s quite easy for quarterbacks to bond with Michael Mayer, who sat out.) The one concern might be a wobbly offensive line combined with Tommy Rees* maybe pushing Coan too far outside his comfort zone (something the former Badger seems game to explore the limits of) and no outside receiver stepping up but Coan seems capable of going into Tallahassee and winning, which is my number one concern at the moment.
* Rees being wired up during practice is a fun watch.
It’s kind of nice Coan is a capable hired gun, with no outsized expectations or history with the program. Granted, any time he misses a throw this fall there will be calls for Tyler Buchner to come in, but I imagine the staff is going to have a little more patience. Drew Pyne had a couple pretty throws and some less impressive efforts, but seems like a capable option if it comes to it. Buchner was a mix of best and most reasonable case scenario: Some gorgeous throws, some shiftiness in the run game and a couple dumb things that can be ironed out over the next 16 months before he takes the field in Columbus. Coming into this game I felt pretty good about the quarterback position and coming out of this game, particularly with the wind whipping about, that stance remains.
3) You never want players to be injured but provided Kyle Hamilton, Drew White and Jarrett Patterson are all one hundred percent healthy for August their absences from most of spring practices could have been minor blessings. Sure, it would have been helpful for Marcus Freeman to get to see two key chess pieces on the field and for Patterson to gain some chemistry with his trench brethren, but the three are pretty much sure things and their absences opened up so many reps.
This is perhaps tied to the most promising news of spring, which is that Houston Griffith and Shayne Simon earned captaincies for the Blue-Gold Game due to their efforts in offseason workouts. Simon came through with a nice interception as part of a monstrous effort from the front seven. How many guys would you be comfortable out on the field at linebacker or line? It’s a high tally*, and that’s not counting potential freshmen popping. Griffith didn’t have any highlight plays, but both he and D.J. Brown earned post-scrimmage praise from Kelly. Cam Hart mostly looked the part at corner, which was nice to see after weeks of good rumblings, and we saw some positive work from K.J. Wallace, Justin Walters and Ramon Henderson. Considering this level of talent and Freeman’s track record, it’s hard not to imagine that the Irish defense will have them in every game this fall.
* Let’s try: MTA, Hinish, Ademilola Bros., Foskey, Botelho, Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, Drew White, Bo Bauer, Simon, Liufau, Kiser. This doesn’t count Ehrensberger, Keanaaina or Osafao-Mensah, who had nice plays on Saturday, nor Prince Kollie, who was named the nation’s best linebacker as a high school senior.
Important to note as we discuss all angles of this game that the defense was playing nice, not throwing anything too complicated at the offense. Using that filter, I guess we should feel even better about Freeman’s side of the ball and have some more concerns about Rees’, but things probably would have looked easier with Mayer out there. Really excited to see how nasty things can get for the opposition this fall when there is a furtherance of the defensive scheme.
4) I am not going to sit here and pretend I can analyze the offensive line play from that game, but I will note that considering how closely the athletic department and NBC Sports work togther I don’t think a Blake Fisher halftime package would have been signed off on unless someone in South Bend thinks he’ll be making an early impact. Rocco Spindler didn’t get a package but he did earn plenty of discussion from the booth (and some life lessons trying to block Kurt Hinish). This is a situation where I will trust that the level of talent — and ideally, a healthy Patterson — will keep this unit above water, but we’ll find out in September. Considering the number of playoff-caliber teams that have featured true freshmen offensive linemen, Fisher or Spindler’s presence as opening weekend starters wouldn’t bother me. They’re not three-star prospects being thrown into the fire due to giant holes on the depth chart, but elite recruits who have already earned praise from some of their grizzled defensive counterparts.
5) Mixed bag at receiver. Davis looked like a capable senior slot option, and Lawrence Keys, Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins all had a couple flashes amid a bevy of targets, as did George Takacs, who will be the number two tight end after Mayer. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Mitchell Evans, a towering three-star early enrollee who did not look out of place during his first semester with the program, and hey, Lorenzo Styles, Jr. was in the mix early. That wasn’t a performance to make anyone think “Well, receiver is set, no reason to worry” but considering the rotating quarterbacks, wind and quality of defense, it didn’t cause any additional concerns.
Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree remain deadly options in both the run and pass games while C’Borius Flemister still carries the ball as if he’s getting vengeance on the opposing defense for some centuries-old ancestral betrayal. If the offensive line and/or Rees scheme can give these guys any kind of room, they’ll make the most of it, and they’ll likely do some damage even if everything around them is flailing.
After a tough close to last season, it was nice to see Jonathan Doerer make a couple easy ones. Jay Bramblett still doing his thing and most importantly we made it through a competitive football game (and spring as a whole) without any calamitous injuries.
6) Another really nice NFL Draft for the Fighting Irish*, even if it would have been great to see JOK and/or Liam Eichenberg go in the first round. Their nine total selections this year trailed only Alabama and Ohio State (10 each – Georgia also had nine). Their 21 picks over the last three drafts is sixth, behind Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, Georgia and, somehow, Michigan. Want to go wider? Top 100 picks over the last decade has the Irish tied for fourth with Clemson, behind (yeah, you guessed it) Alabama, Ohio State and LSU. Same song stuck on loop: Among the best in the nation but still a tier behind the true best of the best, particularly when it comes to first rounders.
* Full accounting:
2nd round: Eichenberg to the Dolphins, Aaron Banks to the 49ers, JOK to the Browns
3rd round: Tommy Tremble to the Panthers, Robert Hainsey to the Bucs
4th round: Ian Book to the Saints
5th round: Daelin Hayes to the Ravens, Ade Ogundeji to the Falcons
7th round: Ben Skowronek to the Rams
Undrafted free agents: Shaun Crawford to the Raiders, Nick McCloud to the Bills, Brock Wright, Tommy Kraemer and Javon McKinley to the Lions.
I understand some Irish faithful still believe Kelly is a terrible coach who would be easily replaceable despite all the evidence to the contrary, but at some point wouldn’t you start to wonder with all the wins and all the guys being selected by NFL franchises that perhaps this isn’t all just an elaborate ruse and the program actually is in really good shape? Just kidding, of course not.
7) In the immediate aftermath of the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson, we recorded a podcast and discussed how it was hard to kick the sense instilled in us as Notre Dame fans that the bottom would fall out the following season. It didn’t, and in perhaps the best sign of the program’s health, an 11-win Irish campaign was mostly ignored by national media and greeted with a shrug from fans, an unfathomable reaction five, ten or 15 years prior.
Last year I really did not have much in the way of expectations due to the fragile nature of the season and all the flux surrounding it but the Irish came through with another very successful autumn. If they can do it again — despite losing so many key contributors to the NFL and coming in at 123rd out of the 127 teams in Bill Connelly’s returning production rankings — that would just be another testament to the sturdiness of the program. It’s the old adage of not rebuilding but reloading, and while the Irish might lack the raw material to compete for a title this year, they still have the firepower to not fall too far off the pace, at least in theory.
We’re still months away so this view could change but the upcoming season has an almost ethereal quality to it at this point, tough to fully wrap arms or head around. We can be certain there will be games and there will be fans and also a Wisconsin transfer is likely to be making a one-year cameo at starting quarterback which is not a thing we’ve dealt with before and unlike past or future seasons there is no clear Measuring Stick Game to point at in the offseason, just a quartet of contests against teams that could conceivably finish in the top ten and a crate of away landmines. Things could go wrong with offensive line or receiver to the point it ripples to the backfield and throws everything off, but the Irish should be favorites in most of their games.
Preseason Magazine Stalwart Phil Steele has predicted that Notre Dame will be 7th in the first AP poll, which seems silly considering roster churn. But then you note that immediately following the Irish are North Carolina, Iowa State and Cincinnati, so having Notre Dame ahead of them feels fine. And then you think about what the Irish still feature on their roster and their track record of recent years and….I guess why not?
There are absolutely ways this fall could go sideways, but for now the state of the union remains strong. As seen by draft success, development is among the best in the nation. Recruiting is good and seemingly getting better, the clearest relative weakness of the program right now and the key to taking the final step. Let us now hope for four productive months of development and an offseason news cycle that is kind to us.
Take care of yourselves and each other. Go Irish, Beat Noles.
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