All spring long, Notre Dame’s defensive players touted the freedom they felt playing in new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme.
They did their best to make sure it was clear they weren’t trying to say the new defense was better than the one Notre Dame used under former defensive coordinator Clark Lea. That defense allowed the Irish to finish among the top 15 in scoring defense each of the past three seasons, so clearly it worked for Lea and the players he put on the field.
But with Lea off to Vanderbilt, as his alma mater’s head coach, the Irish defense fully embraced a new perspective from Freeman.
“The defense is free,” said senior linebacker Shayne Simon. “It has freedom with it. It’s not as gap-oriented or gap-sound, I guess maybe. It allows us to have freedom, go play, be fast and try to make plays.
“Coach Freeman’s big on that: winning our one-on-ones and defeating the man across from you.”
Simon did exactly that early in the second quarter of Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. With the Gold offense starting to move the ball with quarterback Jack Coan and running back Kyren Williams, Simon halted the momentum with an impressive interception.
Simon, who was the captain of the Blue team, matched up with Williams, who was lined up as a slot receiver, and anticipated an out-breaking route. He jumped the route to snatch the ball before it could even get to Williams.
“I tried to stay inside, force him to go outside and jump the outside route,” Simon said. “I’ve seen it before in practice. I’ve seen it plenty of times on film. I tried to make a play there.”
Saturday’s spring-ending scrimmage was filled with defensive plays as Blue beat Gold 17-3. The Irish coaching staff attempted to split the teams evenly, but it became clear that even while learning a new scheme, Notre Dame’s defensive depth is two steps ahead of the offense.
Kelly made sure to point out after the scrimmage that the offense wasn’t exactly scheming things up on Saturday. He wanted to see individual players win individual matchups. The defense did its share of that.
“What was pretty clear was that we have depth on the defensive line,” Kelly said. “We can rush the passer and certainly we’re going to play with some physicality.”
Four of the first five drives of the game ended with third-down sacks by defensive linemen Justin Ademilola, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Howard Cross III and Isaiah Foskey. Quarterbacks Jack Coan and Drew Pyne wore red jerseys and weren’t allowed to be tackled, so the officials blew plays dead when they felt either quarterback would have been sacked.
That made it easier for the defenses too. Pyne and Coan were each sacked four times.
The defense was allowed to tackle freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner, which made him harder to sack. He was sacked only once, when defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah beat left tackle Tosh Baker around the edge and stripped Buchner of the football.
The other forced turnover came on a Pyne pass intended for wide receiver Lawrence Keys III. Freshman safety Justin Walters dove in front of Keys to snag the interception in another one-on-one matchup for Freeman’s defense.
“We wanted to go out and win our one-on-ones,” Simon said. “We tried to dominate on the front and dominate in the secondary. Whatever call was called, just play as best we can.”
Keys gets loose
Despite the defensive effort, Notre Dame’s offense was still able to find big plays in the passing game. The Blue and Gold teams combined for 16 completions of 15 yards or more. Four of them went to Keys, who finished with a game-high 115 receiving yards on five catches for the Blue team.
His longest reception came on a 41-yard pass from Pyne, who tried to hit Keys less successfully on multiple occasions.
“We have a good connection,” Keys said of Pyne. “We sit down and watch film together. Last year we were really close also, it just didn’t show that much until this year. We both had a chance to actually get out there on the field and play ball together.”
Keys, a senior, has a chance to change his career trajectory this fall. He only managed to catch 18 passes for 185 yards the last two seasons for the Irish. Only five of those catches came last season as he dealt with injury issues.
The 5-foot-10, 173-pound Keys focused on becoming stronger in the offseason to keep him healthy and make him a more versatile player. He knows from watching the careers of Notre Dame wide receivers before him that patience can be powerful.
“I learned from a lot of the guys in the past that left here like Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, Chris Finke, Javon McKinley,” Keys said. “Those guys actually helped me improve my game. It made me who I am today.
“Now is the time, so I have to step up and play a bigger role now that those guys are gone. But those guys left a lot of tools with me that they had here, and I’ve carried them over. It was definitely worth the wait.”
Tight end depth
Michael Mayer could have played Saturday, but the sophomore tight end was operating at 80-percent healthy, so Kelly chose to keep him sidelined.
That opened the door for plenty of action for all of Notre Dame’s healthy tight ends.
The oldest of the group, senior George Takacs, caught three passes for 32 yards on the Gold team. Kelly joking called him "Old Man George."
“George is an undervalued player on our roster,” Kelly said. “He can make plays for us. He's a talented player, and it was nice to see him have some success. He’s going to have more success moving forward.”
Freshman Mitchell Evans caught three passed for 59 yards on the Blue team. Fellow freshman tight end Cane Berrong was one of four players to play for both teams. He totaled two receptions for 11 yards.
“Those young guys are all capable players who can certainly pitch in,” Kelly said.
• Notre Dame escaped Saturday without any new injuries of concern. Kelly said a mild hip pointer for Walters and a slight hamstring issue for wide receiver Jay Brunelle were the only minor injuries reported.
Beyond Mayer, 14 players were held out of Saturday’s scrimmage. Nine of them were out with previously discussed injuries: wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. (foot), quarterback Brendon Clark (knee), safety Kyle Hamilton (ankle), nose guard Jacob Lacey (shoulder), linebacker Paul Moala (Achilles), offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson (foot), defensive tackle Gabe Rubio (elbow), defensive end Will Schweitzer (knee) and linebacker Drew White (ankle).
Five players were sidelined with undisclosed issues: tight end Kevin Bauman, offensive lineman Hunter Spears, long snapper Alex Peitsch and wide receivers Griffin Eifert and Greg Mailey.
• Junior linebacker Jack Kiser finished with a game-high eight tackles for the Blue defense. Fellow junior linebacker Marist Liufau led the Gold defense with five tackles and two tackles for a loss, including one sack.
• The running game didn’t provide many highlights Saturday. Sophomore running back Chris Tyree, who finished with a game-high 43 rushing yards on 10 carries, owned the longest run of the day at 16 yards. The only other run that went beyond 10 yards came from walk-on senior Leo Albano on a 14-yard carry in the fourth quarter.