10 things to watch at Notre Dame's Blue-Gold Game. Hint: Drew Pyne's performance is one
SOUTH BEND — The 93rd annual Blue-Gold Game will take place at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday at 1 p.m.
It's will mark the 15th and final session of Spring football practice as fans get a look a sneak peek at the 2022 version of the Fighting Irish.
With Spring starting to blossom, there's plenty of new energy with the Irish program as it creeps toward the Sept. 3 season opener at Ohio State.
There generally isn't too much surprising to glean from these Spring football scrimmages, but that doesn't mean we won't learn something. Here are 10 things to watch Saturday afternoon:
1. How will Marcus Freeman run the show?
This will be the first spring game of the Marcus Freeman era since he was promoted from defensive coordinator in the aftermath of Brian Kelly's departure in December.
Naturally, all eyes will be on the rookie head coach.
It's not clear what to expect, but the way the Irish practice during Saturday's scrimmage should include game-like intensity as players battle to make an impression or shore up starting spots.
It will be interesting to see how Freeman interacts with both his players and assistant coaches, particular when he sees something he doesn't like.
2. Will it be QB Drew Pyne's time to shine?
Last year's starting quarterback Jack Coan is headed to the NFL Draft, leaving an obvious question mark at the most important position on the field.
Saturday was expected to be a showcase of the spring QB battle between Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne.
That energy was zapped Wednesday when Buchner showed up for the team draft wearing a brace on his right ankle and a noticeable limp. Freeman said that Buchner missed a stair and twisted his ankle and will not play as a precaution.
"(Buchner) got 13 really, really good practices in," Freeman said. "I'm pleased with that part of it."
Pyne will play quarterback for both teams. Can he use this opportunity to his advantage? Pyne won't be tabbed the opening day starter after even the most superior of performances Saturday, but there are steps he can take to impress Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
1. Take care of the football — No fumbles or interceptions.
2. Have offensive control — Show superior knowledge of the playbook.
3. Make the right calls — Prove that defensive recognition is a strength.
4. Escape ability — Buchner is perceived as the more athletic of the two. Close that gap.
5. Leadership — This is the perfect time to make his voice heard and lead by example.
With so much practice time under his belt, sitting out the Blue-Gold game shouldn't be detrimental Buchner. Freeman will sit down with Rees after the game and evaluate all Spring practices, not just the final one.
The real QB competition starts in August.
3. Thin or deep at wide receiver?
Many questions surround Notre Dame's receiving depth. Kevin Austin, statistically the team's best receiver last season, is entered in next week's NFL Draft.
So, who will step up on the edges?
The Irish have a blend of graduate seniors and sophomores that new wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey has gotten a good look at during Spring ball.
Players like Braden Lenzy, Lorenzo Style, and Jayden Thomas have had more eyes on them with Avery Davis (third-leading WR in 2021) recovering from an ACL injury and Joe Wilkins Jr. sitting out most of Spring after surgery to repair a fractured foot.
It's no secret that receiver is one of Notre Dame's thinnest position groups, even with Davis or Wilkins. Will we see anything to change minds Saturday?
4. The 'Mayer' of South Bend
The spotlight in 2022 will be on tight end Michael Mayer. He is coming off an 840-yard, seven-touchdown season as a sophomore.
He is a big, aggressive and passionate player who should be a pre-season All-American.
His most important job Saturday will be to test the defense as a dominant offensive threat and not get hurt. It will be interesting to see what kind of looks defensive coordinator Al Golden will throw at him.
5. Harry's back. How will Hiestand tweak the offensive line?
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand came out of retirement to help bring Notre Dame back to prominence at the position. Hiestand did that during his first stint with the Irish, regularly sending prodigies to the NFL.
Attrition and injuries took its toll on last year's line, but the unit continued to improve as the season progressed.
Hiestand's offensive line features tackles Joe Alt (left) and Blake Fisher (right). Guards Andrew Kristofic and Josh Lugg are also presumed starters. They will be on different teams on Saturday, but it will be interesting to if Hiestand fiddles a little with positions.
Some offensive lineman will split time between both teams and wear green jerseys.
Notre Dame won't have center Jarrett Patterson who is recovering from a torn pectoral muscle. Expect to see Zeke Correll and Michael Carmody filling in.
Freeman said he expects the offensive line to be a strength for the offense.
6. Rotating linebackers
Perhaps the most stacked position for the Irish is linebacker, with a blend of experienced seniors and underclassmen with bright futures.
Linebacker JD Bertrand, last year's leading tackler, won't play as he recovers from left wrist surgery. In his place has been Bo Bauer, who has had a strong spring and is a good coverage linebacker. The other linebackers feature Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau, a projected starter in 2021 who missed the entire season with an ankle injury.
The rotation will allow fans to watch rising sophomore Prince Kollie and early enrollee Junior Tuihalamaka.
7. Secondary without Cam Hart
The feeling about the cornerback position is similar to the receiver: It could be thin. The cornerbacks have been without Cam Hart who had surgery on a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
TaRiq Bracy has turned some heads this Spring ball in Hart's place opposite Clarence Lewis. Sophomore Ryan Barnes has also made plays during practice.
Fans will also get a first look at early enrollee Jaden Mickey who has impressed with his play and confidence.
8. Transfer Brandon Joseph's addition at safety
It is rare that a team loses an All-American and gains one in the transfer portal. Notre Dame did that in January with the addition of former Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph, who slides into Kyle Hamilton's spot.
Hamilton is expected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick Thursday.
Joseph has made an immediate impact. After the eighth practice, safeties coach Chris O'Leary said that Joseph had an interception in almost every practice, and he was a game-changer.
It will be the first chance that fans get to see Joseph in action, and they may see him make a big play on Saturday.
9. Looking into the future
Some young players keep an eye on, especially because their roles could increase in 2022.
⦁ DL Tyson Ford — The freshman defensive lineman is a tremendous athlete and has natural power that could make him a force for offensive lineman to deal with.
⦁ RB Audric Estime — The sophomore running back had a limited carries in 2021, but he moves up the totem pole with the departure of Kyren Williams. He is big and athletic, and has the potential to push around defenses.
⦁ WR Jayden Thomas — The young receiver has made some plays during spring practices open to the media. This is the time to show coaches that he is a playmaker.
10. What will Al Golden's defense look like?
This will be the first chance to see defensive coordinator Al Golden's defense at work. Last season, he was the linebackers coach for the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL and coached in the Super Bowl.
He, along with the players, have spoken in great detail about how the defense has an emphasis on takeaways. One area they plan to attack is by punching the ball out and recovering fumbles.
Another thing to keep an eye on is how heavy Golden decides to go on man-on-man or zone coverage with his defensive packages. This defense could be the strength of the team, especially when healthy.
Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game
What: 93rd annual Notre Dame football Blue-Gold Game
When: 1 p.m., Saturday
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
Watch: Streaming on Peacock
Weather: Partly cloudy skies and temperatures at kickoff in the upper 70s and rising.
Blue-Gold Game rosters
COACH: Deland McCullough
QB: Drew Pyne, Steve Angeli
RB: Chris Tyree, Jadarian Price, Chris Velotta
WR: Griffin Eifert, Jayden Thomas, Conor Ratigan, Moses Rodgers, Braden Lenzy, Henry Cook
TE: Kevin Bauman, Michael Mayer, Charlie Selna, Hakim Sanfo
OL: Rocco Spindler, Zeke Correll, Michael Carmody, Caleb Johnson, Joe Alt
DL: Justin Ademilola, Howard Cross III, Gabriel Rubio, Nana Osafo-Mensah, Aiden Gobaira, Osita Ekwonu, Tyson Ford
LB: Bo Bauer, Jack Kiser, Prince Kollie, Jaylen Sneed, Nolan Ziegler, Colin Gutzmer
CB: Jaden Mickey, Philip Riley, Jayden Bellamy
S: Brandon Joseph, Xavier Watts, Marty Auer, Mike Graves
LS: Michael Vinson
K: Josh Grupe
P: Chris Salerno
QB: Drew Pyne, Ron Powlus
RB: Logan Diggs, Audric Estime, Chase Ketterer
FB: Davis Sherwood, Barret Liebentritt
WR: Lorenzo Styles, Deon Colzie, Jack Polian, Matt Salerno
TE: Mitchell Evans, Andrew Yanoshak
OL: Quinn Murphy, Blake Fisher, Andrew Kristofic, Tosh Baker, Josh Lugg, Brennan Wicks
DL: Isaiah Foskey, Rylie Mills, Jacob Lacey, Alexander Ehrensberger, Joshua Burham, Jason Onye
LB: Marist Liufau, Junior Tuihalamaka, Will Schweitzer, Christian Opperman
CB: Clarence Lewis, TaRiq Bracy, Ryan Barnes, Chance Tucker, Jaden Simonson
S: Houston Griffith, Ramon Henderson, Justin Walters, Eddie Scheidler
LS: Alex Peitsch
K: Josh Bryan
P: Bryan Dowd