As new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was introduced to the Notre Dame faithful this spring, one of the continual talking points has been his ability to find roles for his players. Building sub-packages and schematic tweaks to utilize the talent on the roster, VanGorder's main edict has been to find roles for players to help the Irish win.
After watching Saturday's Blue-Gold game, perhaps VanGorder should step into the offensive meeting rooms as well. Because for the first time in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish have the offensive weapons to scare defenses.
Now, they've just got to find a way to get everybody on the field.
Spring delusions is a deadly disease that's infected football fans for years. Playing against an opponent they see seven days a week, offenses routinely light up backup defensive backs and vanilla schemes, promising hope for a brand new day, only to be shocked into reality when fall rolls around.
(Don't believe me? Gunner Kiel's 300-yard spring game has Cincinnati fans infected already.)
But the look of Saturday's 85th annual Blue-Gold game was different. After four years of rebuilding a depth chart to fit Kelly's offensive needs, it appears the offense is finally on its way to being the big-play threat that people had been expecting.
First, the quarterbacks. Both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire executed the offense efficiently, building on an important spring, as quarterback is the focal point of Kelly's spread attack. Even taking the yardage numbers and ban on contact with a very large grain of salt, neither quarterback threw an interception, a rarity in a spring game and something we haven't seen in South Bend in almost 20 years (my search for box scores ran cold in 1998).
If competency and stability at the quarterback position was the only accomplishment this spring for Kelly's troops, it'd have been a successful spring. But the depth emerging at skill positions should make Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock very happy.
After turning to TJ Jones in nearly every situation last year, 2014 should have a distinctly different look. For much of the past four seasons, Kelly and the offense has relied on a small handful of key contributors. But this year, the strength of this roster is the depth it possesses.
That was on display Saturday. Rising junior Chris Brown's five catches were half of his entire regular-season total. Corey Robinson built on a strong spring by making a few highlight-reel grabs. Will Fuller continued to make big plays. Torii Hunter Jr. looked good after being talked up during bowl preparation. Add to that group DaVaris Daniels, who awaits a rubber stamp from the school's administration before his return in June, and the outside receiver position is set.
"We got a very competitive situation with Robinson, Daniels, Fuller, Brown, (Amir) Carlisle," Kelly said after the game. "We've got a nice situation there. I think it's a just competitive situation. We've got to get the best players on the field, because the tight end is going to be on the field as well."
Carlisle's inclusion in that statement likely signifies that any lapse in confidence last season didn't impact his ability. While the former USC running back isn't a natural fit in the backfield, his ball skills and athleticism make him a custom fit for the slot receiver position, a spot where Kelly's tried just about everything to get production these past four seasons.
On Saturday, both Carlisle and C.J. Prosise, the two top candidates for the position, had big games. After challenging Prosise to up his game this spring, the 220-pound receiver answered the call with the type of explosive play that we've only heard about.
The passing game is only half of the equation. Both Golson and Zaire will unlock the zone-read scheme that was abandoned with Tommy Rees under center. The option to "call it and haul it," a philosophy often mentioned but rarely executed by Kelly, should finally put the type of no-huddle, hurry-up that Oregon and Auburn utilize to great success, on the table as well.
Saturday's game showed that the backfield looks to be in great shape. After Cam McDaniel led the team in rushing last season, Tarean Folston emerged down the stretch as the team's top back. But Greg Bryant's 100-yard day showed the Irish have another weapon there.
While a three-back platoon is more manageable than the crowd Tony Alford coached last year, carving out opportunities for the Irish backs will be something that needs managing as well.
To project what the Irish offense looks like come August 30th is a fool's errand. But that's never stopped anybody. How Kelly and Denbrock decide to utilize their five skill players is a fascinating exercise.
Senior tight end Ben Koyack will be a key piece to the attack. He's the Irish's only true in-line blocking option, though Durham Smythe is getting closer. Koyack will be more than serviceable in the passing game as well, with a breakout season likely for the 6'5", 261-pound senior.
But beyond that, finding the right combination of quarterback, running back and receivers makes for a busy offseason. Kelly acknowledged that finding the right personnel groupings is still ongoing.
"To go three‑deep at the running back position is a good thing," Kelly said. "And to know that you have two quarterbacks that certainly can compete at that position, as well. I think we answered some questions there about units more so than maybe about one individual."
Those questions will make this offseason a busy one. They'll also continue to be answered in June, where NCAA rule changes now allow Kelly and his staff to work with their players both on and off the field.
That means more opportunities to see a young group of talented receivers improve. And after hunting to find personnel that can go four wide, competition to even get on the field will be at its most fierce in years.
"We're talking about three positions and arguably you've got half a dozen guys there that can compete," Kelly said. "So what's going to be the deciding factor for me is, I'm not settled on any one of those guys right now. I think it will be a very competitive situation. I think they are going to push each other and we're going to be the beneficiary. Notre Dame's offense is beginning to be the beneficiary."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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