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Notre Dame spring game: What we learned

4/18/2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame's annual Blue-Gold spring game had a different look and a new address this year, as Notre Dame Stadium construction forced the scrimmage to the LaBar Practice Complex. There was a new scoring system — the Gold team (defense) mounted an epic comeback to top the Blue (offense), 36-34 — and some fresh faces. But at the end of the day, the Irish exited this spring the way they have so many others in recent years: With a quarterback competition.

Here are five takeaways from Saturday before everyone turns the page to the summer:

1. Notre Dame has a pretty good problem at quarterback. Both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire looked more than capable Saturday of leading the Irish come fall. The two quarterbacks were live for the first half and split time with the first team, and they looked impressive: Golson finished 7-of-15 for 83 yards with one interception, adding 24 rushing yards and a score on the ground, while Zaire was 8-of-14 for 137 yards with two touchdowns, adding 40 rushing yards. The one interception — the lone turnover between the two — was the result of a hilarious fan-submitted play call to open the second half, in which Zaire handed off to Golson, who bided his time in the backfield before launching a deep ball to Zaire, who had the ball wrestled away from him by safety Max Redfield for the pick. Head coach Brian Kelly was pleased with duo's performance, but he wasn't tipping his hand entering the summer: "We keep working on each individual and where they need to continue to grow individually, and then the decision on playing time will take care of itself. They can't control that. All they can control is what's in their purview and that is the fundamentals of what we've asked them to work on, and the rest they can't really worry about; it's not their call."

2. But will both be here come summer? That remains the million-dollar question until at least next month, when Notre Dame holds its spring graduation. If Golson graduates, he'll have the freedom to transfer elsewhere and play his fifth year immediately this fall. He would have no shortage of suitors. But his silence all spring — he again didn't speak to the media after the game, nor did Zaire, who had at least spoken earlier this spring — does nothing but fuel speculation about his future, no matter what Kelly says about there being no indication that Golson is thinking of leaving. (Defending national champion Ohio State — which may or may not have a better quarterback situation than Notre Dame, depending on whom you ask — has seemed to do a nice job of silencing speculation around their signal callers, having allowed two members of their three-man race to speak publicly this spring.)

3. The defense has a new edge to it. Forget the, ahem, final (winning) score and big second-half plays. Fans saw a defense filled with playmakers who seem to ready to fulfill their potential — from Redfield (game-high six tackles) to the always reliable Jaylon Smith, whose cross-training between the Sam and Will linebacker spots this spring will allow the Irish defense to make the most of their deep and talented group of linebackers this fall. When one guy went down last season in Year 1 of coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme, everything fell apart. But without starters Joe Schmidt and Jarron Jones this spring, the defense adjusted nicely, which was evident Saturday. Both players should be back at full strength this summer, and they might even get another reinforcement if suspended corner KeiVarae Russell is cleared to return as well. "Coach says it all the time: We need physical players here," Smith said. "We've kind of got a bad rep of being soft and intelligent, smart guys at Notre Dame. But along with that, we have to have that mental and physical mentality, and we have the capacity. It's just about turning that switch. So it's something that we're emphasizing, and as a leader I'm on them every day."

4. C.J. Prosise will be tough to keep off the field. You can't ask a question about the running backs without Prosise being inserted into part of the answer, one way or another. The receiver started taking more carries this spring essentially out of necessity, as Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant were the Irish's only scholarship running backs this spring. But the move has paid dividends, as Prosise showed Saturday with 12 carries for 64 yards, including an impressive 15-yard run down the sideline in the second half. "I think it’s my size and my speed," Prosise said of what he does well. "I’m a big enough guy to be outside, tall enough to play receiver and also a big enough guy to be in the backfield running some inside plays and stuff like that."

5. The offensive line depth is the best it's been. Notre Dame's first six offensive plays were runs, with five of them designed runs and Golson taking off on the other when things broke down. Were we seeing shades of the Music City Bowl win over LSU, when the Irish ran on 51 of 77 plays while getting both quarterbacks plenty of action? Perhaps. Like that game, Saturday's scrimmage was turnover-free — save for the trick play, which we'll blame on the fan — and the Irish trotted out an offensive line that featured four guys who started in that 2014 finale. The Irish often abandoned the run early last season, but with the experience they have back up front, sound play offensively will be much easier to come by. The depth certainly has made this spring more fulfilling for the Irish, as they have been able to more accurately measure the rest of the team's progress as a result. "I think it's the deepest," Kelly said of this offensive line, his sixth at Notre Dame. "So I think you probably go seven, eight is really the difference here. And I thought what was really revealing to me today is that when the quarterbacks flipped, it was hard to tell whether it was the first offensive line or the second offensive line."