Amid QB questions, Notre Dame defense steals spotlight

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — On a day when Notre Dame’s serial quarterback face-off got some national exposure, a punter walked away with the game ball and MVP honors.

“That says a lot,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly deadpanned following the Blue’s 17-7 victory Saturday in the 87th annual Blue-Gold Game, punctuated by fourth-string QB Montgomery VanGorder’s 63 yards in total offense that included a late eight-yard touchdown run.

Actually, when you wade through all the distorted numbers that render spring games impossible to take on face value, the final score, the number of Tyler Newsome punts, the limited number of offensive highlights Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium strongly hinted at, if not outright spelled out, a possible revelation in the making.

The Notre Dame defense may have the necessary elements of a pleasant fall surprise.

Split evenly on the Blue and Gold rosters for competitive purposes and stripped of its potent sub packages and nuances, a defense that subtracted considerable star power from its 2015 version didn’t have the opportunity to show how the parts moved together Saturday for the 28,061 in attendance and national cable TV audience.

But behind closed doors, spring ascenders such as freshman safety Devin Studstill, sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford, junior linebacker Nyles Morgan and junior defensive ends Jonathan Bonner and Jay Hayes buoyed both Kelly’s mood and his faith in doubling down on Montgomery’s father — third-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

“Last year, I thought if we stayed healthy, we were going to play for a national championship,” Kelly responded when asked if this version could be better than the Jaylon Smith/KeiVarae Russell/Sheldon-Day led unit that finished 45th nationally in total defense and got routinely bullied in the run game (72nd nationally).

“I think that this defense is going to play the kind of defense necessary for us to get into that playoff hunt again, and there are good enough players out there for us to do that once again.”

That statement could more confidently be said of the quarterback position, whomever might eventually emerge between senior Malik Zaire and junior DeShone Kizer. And Kelly wasn’t anywhere close to making that distinction as spring practice closed the door on its allotted 15 sessions.

“I don't know when I'll make it,” he said. “But there will be a time when I'm going to have to say, ‘That's our quarterback. Let's go with him. We're all in, and let's move forward.’ They are both that good. I already know that.

“I love them both. They both are committed. They are both great competitors. But somebody's going to be unhappy.”

Zaire, who scored the Gold’s lone touchdown on a nifty, 13-yard option keeper, went 6-for-15 passing for 120 yards. He had 12 net yards on five carries and converted one of his six third-down opportunities.

Kizer was 10-of-17 for 113 yards, and his Blue team was leading 10-7 at halftime when the starting contenders were pulled for high-ceiling third option Brandon Wimbush and Montgomery VanGorder.

The player with the most career starts among the group (11), Kizer added 21 rushing yards on four carries. He was 4-of-9 on third down.

Neither offense committed a turnover, and the few penalties that were committed weren’t of the sloppy variety, in Kelly’s eyes.

Beyond the numbers, Kizer continued to show more consistency, more patience and a better comfort in the offense. Zaire’s performance was more about extreme highs and lows.

“The offense developed under Kizer during the year, not Malik,” Kelly said of 2015, that began with Zaire as the starter. “So (Zaire) was at a bit of a disadvantage coming into the spring, and I thought he caught up.

“So I think now that he has a better understanding of everything that we're doing, I think now you've got the race.”

Most of the questions that still linger out of spring with the offense are of the win-win variety.

For instance can incoming freshmen Tommy Kraemer and Parker Boudreaux get involved in a depth-chart battle with the rapidly improving right side of the offensive line, tackle Alex Bars and guard Hunter Bivin?

How can Kelly get sophomore Dexter Williams (game-high 43 rushing yards, 1 TD; 2 receptions for 17 yards) into a rotation that already includes 2014 starter Tarean Folston and 2015 freshman record-setter Josh Adams?

And what to do with freshman Kevin Stepherson, who plays the same outside receiver position as the new Alpha Dog receiver, senior Torii Hunter Jr.?

Does Kelly move him to the slot and displace the fastest player on the team — junior Corey Holmes? Move him to the other outside receiver position, where sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown (game-high five receptions for 53 yards on Saturday) is coming of age?

“He catches the ball out of his break at full speed,” Kelly said of Stepherson, “and it is a unique trait that he has that I have not seen since I've been here at Notre Dame. And we'll continue to work with him.

“I don't want to move him all over the place. So we've got to really figure out what we want to do with him and stick with that and say, ‘This is where you're going to play next year.’ ”

There are more pressing questions on defense, topped by will the Irish be able to generate an adequate pass rush? But they’re not daunting questions, not at this point anyway.

The promising possibilities seem to outnumber the dead ends. Like whether sophomore Asmar Bilal can lock down Jaylon Smith’s old weakside linebacker spot in fall camp.

“Asmar is just a pure athlete,” said senior James Onwualu, ND’s most experienced linebacker. “He had some learning to do and still does. I think that throughout this spring he’s really realized that.

“Like it’s tough to know how much you have to learn when you’re on a scout team. So now that he’s been able to be in the playbook and actually go out and try it, he’s realized there’s some things he needs to work on.

“I’m excited for him. He has the ability. He’s a freak athlete. He’s extremely strong. When you want to talk about strong, the kid is strong. So just learning how to use that and see everything before the play is his biggest thing.”

The funny thing about this spring on defense is suddenly youth isn’t a four-letter word as it’s been in VanGorder’s first team season at ND. In fact, it’s embraced. And there are more promising, young players on the way — freshman safety Jalen Elliott and cornerback Donte Vaughn among them.

“You always say the sky’s the limit,” said junior safety Drue Tranquill, ND’s most versatile defender. “With young guys, it’s really about their discipline and what they want to put into the game.

“You see all the talent with these guys. That’s not an issue. It’s a matter of whether they can absorb the material. What that looks like for me is meeting with them outside our typical meeting times, really investing in them, forming relationships with them and helping them in any way that I can.

“There’s a lot of potential. We’ll see where this goes.”

BLUE 17, GOLD 7

April 16, 2016

At Notre Dame Stadium

Gold      0              7              0              0 — 7     

Blue       7              3              0              7 — 17

FIRST QUARTER

Blue 7, Gold 0

Score: Dexter Williams 16 run (John Chereson kick) at 7:06.

Drive: 75 yards, 8 plays, 4 first downs, 4:09 elapsed following Gold punt.

Key plays: Williams 16 pass from DeShone Kizer on first play of drive; Kevin Stepherson 25 pass from Kizer.

SECOND QUARTER

Gold 7, Blue 7

Score: Malik Zaire 13 run (Justin Yoon kick) at 6:06.

Drive: 92 yards, 5 plays, 3 first downs, 1:51 elapsed following Blue punt.

Key plays: Torii Hunter Jr. 50 pass from Malik Zaire on first play of drive; Justin Brent 28 pass from Zaire.

Blue 10, Gold 7

Score: Chereson 22 field goal at :27.

Drive: 65 yards, 15 plays, 4 first downs, 5:39 elapsed following Gold touchdown.

Key plays: Equanimeous St. Brown 14 pass from Kizer; Stepherson 13 pass from Kizer on fourth-and-9.

FOURTH QUARTER

Blue 17, Gold 7

Score: Montgomery VanGorder 2 run (Yoon kick) at 1:45.

Drive: 69 yards, 13 plays, 4 first downs, 8:45 elapsed following Gold missed field goal.

Key plays: Austin Webster 11 pass from VanGorder on third-and-6; St. Brown 17 pass from VanGorder.

GAME DATA

Kickoff Weather: 73 degrees and sunny.

Attendance: 28,061

BLUE TEAM STATS

• RUSHING: Dexter Williams 13 rushes, 43 yards, 1 touchdown, long 16; DeShone Kizer 4-21, long 11; Justin Brent 5-15, long 8; Montgomery VanGorder 3-13, 1 touchdown, long 8; Tarean Folston 2-5; Corey Holmes 1-4; Devin Butler 1-3; Brandon Wimbush 2-(minus-5).

• PASSING: DeShone Kizer 10 completions, 17 attempts, 113 yards, long 25; Montgomery VanGorder 5-7, 50 yards, long 17; Brandon Wimbush 3-4, 30 yards.

• RECEIVING: Equanimeous St. Brown 5 catches, 53 yards, long 17; Kevin Stepherson 4-70, long 25; Alizé Jones 3-27, long 15; Corey Holmes 3-15, long 8; Dexter Williams 2-17; Austin Webster 1-11.

• PUNTING: Tyler Newsome 3 punts, 161 yards (53.7 average), long 58

• FIELD GOALS: John Chereson 1-for-2 (made 22 yards).

• INTERCEPTIONS: None.

• FUMBLE RETURNS: None.

• TACKLES: Shaun Crawford 3, Devyn Spruell 3, Drue Tranquill 3, Jerry Tillery 2, Devin Studstill 2, Devin Butler 2, Nick Coleman 2, Amsar Bilal 2, Nick Watkins 1, Jarron Jones 1, Pete Mokwuah 1.

• SACKS: None.

GOLD TEAM STATS

• RUSHING: Brandon Wimbush 2 rushes, 19 yards, long 11; Malik Zaire 5-12, 1 touchdown, long 13; Josh Adams 4-5, long 6; Justin Brent 2-4, long 7; Asmar Bilal 1-2.

• PASSING: Malik Zaire 6 completions, 15 attempts, 120 yards, long 50; Brandon Wimbush 4-7, 31 yards, long 9; Nolan Henry 0-2.

• RECEIVING: Torii Hunter Jr. 3 catches, 79 yards, long 50; Austin Webster 2-17, long 9; Chris Finke 2-9, long 8; Justin Brent 1-28; Miles Boykin 1-12; Keenan Centlivre 1-6.

• PUNTING: Tyler Newsome 4 punts, 208 yards (52.0 average), long 64.

• FIELD GOALS: Justin Yoon 0-for-1 (missed 48 yards).

• INTERCEPTIONS: None.

• FUMBLE RETURNS: None.

• TACKLES: Avery Sebastian 6, Cole Luke 6, Max Redfield 6, Ashton White 5, Andrew Trumbetti 5, Spencer Perry 4, James Onwualu 4, Brandon Hutson 3, Josh Barajas 3, Daniel Cage 3, Jonathan Bonner 3, Kier Murphy 2, Elijah Taylor 2, Jimmy Thompson 2, Devyn Spruell 1, Micah Dew-Treadway 1, John Montelus 1, Jerry Tillery 1.

• SACKS: None.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Chris Finke (27) tries to put a spin move on Drue Tranquill during the Blue-Gold game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend Saturday, April 16, 2016. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA