Notebook: Could ND defense surprise in Blue-Gold Game and beyond?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly made it clear on Wednesday that wannabe quarterbacks Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones will remain defensive tackle and spectator, respectively, for Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.

The two 2014 defensive line starters campaigned on Twitter and, apparently, at practice to be dual threats, at least when it comes to the play to start the second half Saturday that Kelly has acquiesced control over to a fan.

“I think when we gave the ball to Irish Chocolate, Louis Nix, there a couple of years ago, they feel like they should be part of the offense,” the Notre Dame head football coach said, referring to nose guard Nix’s fourth-quarter, two-point conversion scramble in the 2013 spring game (see video below).

“I will tell you, they will not come near the offense, either one of them. That will be reserved for Everett and Malik."

That would be true quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, the purported headliners in Saturday’s spring practice-concluding showcase (12:30 p.m. EDT). The 86th-annual rendition will be played at the LaBar Practice Complex, not Notre Dame Stadium, where expansion/renovation construction forced a Plan B.

Even with temporary bleachers, the seating capacity at LaBar is expected in the 2,500 range, so tickets are by invitation only and not available to the public. Last year’s Blue-Gold game drew 27,986 onlookers.

Irish fans can follow the game on TV (NBC Sports Network) and radio (WSBT 960 AM, 96.1 FM). And what they’re likely to see, ignoring the skewed Stableford-equse scoring system, is a defense that’s much more competitive with the offense than last season’s final national rankings might suggest.

The Irish are coming off their best offensive showing in the Kelly Era (32nd in total offense) and the worst in his five seasons on defense (71st).

Kelly’s optimism for the closing of the gap isn’t about an offensive regression this spring, but rather a surge from a defensive unit that returns 10 starters and has a deeper understanding of second-year coordinator Brian VanGorder’s complex, NFL-style scheme.

Kelly also suggested that the X’s and O’s have been revised and simplified a bit, contributing to a defensive resurgence.

“I think the thing we struggled with a little bit was tempo,” Kelly said of opposing offenses in 2014. “And we’ve worked really hard on that, where we’ve reduced calls and made the communication system easier to get out to our players.

“I think we’ve learned a lot in our defensive substitution. We’ve cleaned up terminology, and in some instances, we’ve made it easier for our guys and they’ve adapted quite well, because I’ve challenged them. We’ve really run fast at them this spring.

“I would add one other thing is that we’re getting much better communication from the back end of our defense, with both (Max) Redfield and Elijah) Shumate as well. I think our defense has done a really nice job.”

And they’ve done it largely without team MVP Joe Schmidt’s involvement. The on-field brain of the operation in 2014 has participated in just two practices this spring — Monday’s and Wednesday’s —and in neither case was cleared for contact.

The middle linebacker and fifth-year senior-to-be suffered a season-ending leg injury on Nov. 1 and is expected to be 100 percent by the time the Irish start their June workouts on the fifth of that month.

Without Schmidt’s savvy and his ability to move the pieces into the right places pre-snap late last season, the defense became disjointed, falling 37 spots in the total defense rating without him and 68 spots to 82nd in scoring D.

Perhaps the most under-the-radar defensive development this spring has been the ascendance of junior-to-be linebacker Jaylon Smith.

Notre Dame’s best NFL prospect, most versatile defender and most freakish athlete anywhere on the roster ended up leading the Irish in tackles last season, playing inside linebacker on a regular basis for the first time in his life. But he didn’t dominate as consistently as one would expect from an athlete of that caliber to do.

The step up this spring isn’t just a maturation or better absorbing the angles and responsibilities of playing inside, it’s that VanGorder is more open to moving Smith around the defensive formation and the latter’s ability to master those roles.

“You’ll have to game plan against him,” Kelly said. “Last year, at times, you could take him out of the game.

“If you wanted to spread out and get him out of the box and throw the ball to the other side or quick game or run the ball away, you could take him out of the game in certain circumstances. Now, because we’ve cross-trained him, you can’t. And I think that’s going to make a huge difference.”

Blue-Gold format

Easily the most significant and intriguing of the rules and wrinkles for Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game is Kelly’s decision to make the quarterbacks, Golson and Zaire, live and subject to being tackled in the first half.

Typically, QBs wear red jerseys in spring games and are off limits to contact.

“Both of them are guys that require that element in their game,” Kelly said of the move. “We’ll have a quick whistle with them, and our guys know we’re not going to take shots at them. But both of those guys need to be who they are, and that’s who they are.

“They’re guys that need to move in the pocket, and they make plays with their feet and they both can run the football. And we want to run them both as well.”

Here are the rest of the particulars for Blue-Gold scoring and set-up:

It’s not a true game per se. The offense (Blue) will face the defense (Gold, but wearing white) with a concocted scoring system.

• The offense can score in the following ways: Six points for a TD, one point for an extra point, two points for a run/pass conversion, three points for a field goal, and two points for a big-chunk play (25+ yards on a pass or 20+ yards on a run).

• The defensive scoring options are as follows: Six points for a touchdown, four points for a turnover forced before the 50-yard line, two points for a turnover forced after the 50-yard line, two for a defensive stop before the 50-yard line, one point for a defensive stop after the 50-yard line, two points for a safety, and one point for a sack.

• The first half will have two 12-minute quarters with normal clock stoppages. The second half will feature two 15-minute quarters with a running clock. Each team will be allowed three timeouts per half. Each possession will begin on the 35-yard line. There will be no kickoffs, and all punts will be fair-caught.

Hair today, gone tomorrow?

Kelly admitted the patch of facial hair he has been cultivating recently was in part a byproduct of wife Paqui being out of town and on vacation with the couple’s three children.

All along Kelly’s plan was to go back to clean-shaven when his obligations on the speaking circuit heated up after spring practice. The motion was vehemently seconded by Paqui.

“She’s like, ‘I hate it. You’ve got to shave it off,’ ” Kelly said with a laugh. “I said, ‘I’ve got ’til Monday.' ”

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Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, here bringing down LSU’s Leonard Fournette at the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, has taken his game to another level this spring. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)