Notre Dame defense creates pains, gains for Irish QBs

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A not-quite-unexpected byproduct of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder installing his unconventional, unpredictable and decidedly unconservative defensive scheme this spring has been the increase in migraines for Notre Dame quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.

But it’s a welcome byproduct, at least from Irish fifth-year head football coach Brian Kelly’s vantage point.

“I want our quarterbacks to see it all,” Kelly said Wednesday after wrapping up the 14th of 15 NCAA-allotted spring practice sessions. “They have seen more exotics and more things than they will see next year at any one time. And it’s difficult on them. But I’d rather have it be difficult, so when I go into that meeting, we have great meetings that we can teach off of and learn off of and get better at. And our quarterbacks understand that.

“They know right now that when it comes to pocket presence and route progression and how they protect themselves, they are not even close to where they need to be. Now having said that, what they’re seeing is really some 500-level stuff.

“So it’s all good stuff, and I’d rather have it that way than have them line up like ducks. And then we get to the fall, it’s like, ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that, coach.’ ”

It probably will be fall, though, before the Irish fans get to see VanGorder’s philosophy with all its bells, whistles and culture shock. The version unveiled Saturday for public consumption at the 85th-annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium (12:30 p.m. EDT) figures to be heavily sanitized.

In fact, it won’t actually be a game per se, as much as an exhibition. For the third straight spring under Kelly, it will be the football equivalent of golf’s Modified Stableford system, with points awarded for things such as big-chunk passes and two consecutive first downs on offense, and three-and-outs on defense.

Kelly cited a lack of offensive linemen for his impetus to continue the non-traditional tradition.

There will be no kickoffs, no punt returns — just fair catches — and nothing that will allow the game to exceed the two-hour viewing window that television partner NBC Sports Network has allocated. Kelly will be miked up for the game for TV, which could prove to be the most unpredictable element of the day.

“It’s an important day for us,” said Kelly, even in light of the anticipated vanilla-ness of the play calls on both sides of the ball. “It’s hyperbole for (the media), but for me it’s important, because I need Everett out there, I need Malik out there, I need (wide receiver) Chris Brown out there.

“These guys need to keep practicing, and we need more film where we can sit down and coach them and teach them, because it all means something. It’s an important practice, and even more so because there’s a little more to it, because it’s tackle.”

Georgia on their minds

Kelly’s assertion last August on WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat that Notre Dame wanted to get a Southeastern Conference team on a future schedule and that Georgia would seem to be a “natural matchup” appears to be gaining momentum.

CBSSports.com’s Jeremy Fowler reported Tuesday that according to an anonymous source, there’s the possibility that a home-and-home series could be slated in 2018 and 2019.

“There have been ongoing talks with Georgia, but they’re not specific to 2018 and ’19,” Notre Dame senior associate athletic director John Heisler said Wednesday. “That’s one possibility, but really everything’s on the table. We’re exploring all the possibilities of what might make sense for both sides.”

That could include a Shamrock Series game, ND’s annual off-site home game which last season was played in Arlington, Texas.

“We’re looking for matchups down the road that geographically make sense to us,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That Atlanta area — that SEC area — is a big area. We’ve hit Dallas. We know that that’s a big area for us. We’re going to keep looking for geographic areas that make sense, and we’ve got to look at geographical areas that we’re recruiting,”

Thirteen players in the Rivals Top 100 prospects for the 2015 recruiting cycle are from Georgia. That’s tied for the second most nationally with California and Texas, and behind only Florida (17). In fact, those four states comprise 56 of the Top 100. In comparison, the Big Ten geographical footprint, even with newcomers Rutgers and Maryland included, totals eight top 100 players.

Georgians TJ Jones and Stephon Tuitt, both projected NFL draft picks next month, recently exited the roster. That leaves defensive end Isaac Rochell from the Peach State, with punter Tyler Newsome joining him in June.

“Jack has been talking for a while about trying to get an SEC team on the schedule,” Heisler said, referring to ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick, “because it’s the only major conference that we haven’t been able to get on our future schedules. It just makes sense to explore this.”

Women’s hoops fans

Kelly tipped his cap Wednesday to the No. 2-ranked Notre Dame women’s basketball team, which fell 79-58, to No. 1 Connecticut Tuesday night in the national title game in the first matchup ever between two unbeaten women’s teams on that grand stage.

“The undefeated run they had was amazing,” Kelly said. “And then I think just the fact that they’ve done it consistently, playing in the Final Four four consecutive years. That consistency is what all of our programs here at Notre Dame, in particular football, want to aspire to.

“It’s that consistency year in and year out, playing for championships, and (coach) Muffet (McGraw) is really the one that’s been able to do that. She’s kind of set the bar real high and we’re all proud of her accomplishments and our women’s basketball team, even though they fell short. Clearly, we would have loved to have been at full strength.”

Starting center Natalie Achonwa missed the national semifinal Sunday and Tuesday’s championship after suffering a torn ACL in her knee.

“That doesn’t take away from anything UConn did,” Kelly said. “They’re an extraordinary basketball team, but we’re very proud of our ladies.

“The excitement that our women’s team created on campus this year was in a lot of ways very similar to what football did when we went undefeated (in 2012). Our players were talking about it. When our players are talking about it and it gets their attention, you know that it’s been pretty exciting on campus.”

Personnel matters

•Starting offensive guard Steve Elmer missed practice Wednesday with an illness, but Kelly expects the sophomore-to-be to be available for Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.

“We’ve run through a number of guys with some stomach ailments,” Kelly said. “This is probably our fourth or fifth guy. It’s just kind of run through the team.”

Elmer still could end up playing right tackle in the fall. What will eventually determine that in August is whether sophomore-to-be Mike McGlinchey is a stronger option at right tackle than Matt Hegarty or Conor Hanratty are at left guard. Elmer would be plugged in at whichever spot is open.

•Kelly cited ND’s offensive and defensive lines, and later the running backs, as the three position groups that exceeded his expectations this spring.

The biggest individual surprise player came from one of those units – backup offensive guard Colin McGovern. The sophomore-to-be, who redshirted in 2013, has worked mostly at tackle this spring out of necessity.

“He came in off a (knee) surgery,” Kelly said. “He was a little bit behind in fall camp. He lost his confidence a little bit, but he’s had a really good spring for us.”

•As opposed to former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who took up residence on game day Saturdays in the press box, his successor, Brian VanGorder, will roam the sidelines, both Saturday and when the season starts for real on Aug. 30 vs. Rice.

“I’ve always left it up to the coordinator preference-wise,” Kelly said. “Very rarely have I mandated it per se. And Brian feels very comfortable being on the field, because of his experience being on the field.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson (5) throws while outside linebacker Ishaq Williams(11) defends during Wednesday's spring practice at Labar Practice Complex. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ