Vorel: Beware the heartbreaking Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game mirage

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

It’s time again to revisit the confounding case of Junior Jabbie.

You remember him, right? The spring sensation, turned fall footnote. The ultimate Blue-Gold hype beneficiary.

And, eventually, the Delaware Blue Hen.

This particular cautionary tale kicks off in spring 2007, in the bleak shadow of back-to-back BCS appearances for Charlie Weis and Notre Dame. A 5-foot-11, 205-pound senior, Jabbie didn’t play in his first two seasons as a defensive back in South Bend, then flipped to running back in 2006 and rode the bench yet again.

Without the services of departed standout Darius Walker, Notre Dame running backs James Aldridge and Travis Thomas battled for starting reps throughout the spring.

Naturally, fans searched for new favorites in the annual Blue-Gold Game.

What they found was Junior Jabbie, a playmaking mirage.

The little-known Irish senior rushed for 87 yards on 13 carries, earning MVP honors — and inflated expectations — as a result.

"That's what we've seen out of Junior the whole spring,” Weis said after the scrimmage. “He's definitely played himself into, you know, deserving to be in contention."

For Jabbie, here’s what contention looked like. In Notre Dame’s cataclysmic 3-9 campaign, its spring supernova rushed 10 times for 35 yards without a touchdown, finishing fifth on the team in rushing.

Before the 2008 season rolled around, he made a graduate transfer to Delaware.

From Blue-Gold darling to Delaware Blue Hen, all in about a year.

In this case, and many more, the spring game brought as much false hope as effective foreshadowing. Seasons change, rosters replenish and fresh Jabbies are made.

To be clear, this is no one’s fault — not yours, not the head coach's and certainly not Junior Jabbie's. It's the inevitable offspring of shuffled teams, convoluted scoring systems and quarterbacks that can't be touched.

If the spring game is a movie trailer, it never gives up its twists.

Take 2015, for example. With Notre Dame Stadium under construction, select fans crammed into the LaBar Practice Complex, their eyes fixed on the ongoing quarterback competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Meanwhile, a largely anonymous third-stringer completed 1 of 5 passes for three yards and surrendered a safety, looking every bit an afterthought.

His name was DeShone Kizer.

A graduate transfer and a season-ending injury later, Kizer started 10 games — including the Fiesta Bowl — and broke the program’s single-season record for quarterback rushing touchdowns.

So much for the spring.

And so much for projectable statistics. In the 2012 Blue-Gold game, the four Irish tackle leaders were Kendall Moore (eight tackles and a tackle for loss), Lo Wood (seven tackles), Anthony Rabasa (six tackles and a fumble recovery) and Chris Salvi (five tackles and an interception).

In the memorable, defense-driven undefeated regular season that followed, those four contributed 17 combined tackles and zero other recognizable statistics.

Flash-forward to the 2014 scrimmage, where two players in hotly contested position battles excelled: Zaire (18-27, 292 yards, two touchdowns) and running back Greg Bryant (95 rushing yards, 7.9 yards per carry).

A few months later, Golson and running back Tarean Folston were fed the bulk of the starting reps.

So much can change in the colossal gulf between spring and summer. Don’t believe me? Look no further than last year’s Blue-Gold game, when Kelly declared that “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.’”

On the first Sunday in September, Kizer and Zaire split snaps against Texas.

Opinions change. Evaluations change. In the fall, spring risers fall.

All of this is not to say you shouldn’t watch or form opinions. By all means, scrutinize the right tackle competition between sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg. Note who performs most effectively at first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s hybrid rover position — perhaps Drue Tranquill or Asmar Bilal? Keep both eyes on the defensive line, with its many available bodies but precious little proven production.

And don’t forget the pace of play. For new offensive coordinator and play-caller Chip Long, “tempo” is the operative word. But will more plays, and fewer breaths, yield the intended effect?

Go ahead, watch junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush run and throw, and try — and probably, fail — to temper your understandable optimism.

Tailgate. Mingle. Curse the Midwest weather. Behold the still-under-construction Notre Dame Stadium, a work in progress — just like the team.

Imagine the possibilities. Make new friends and pick new favorites.

But beware the occasional Jabbie. They’ll steal your heart, then disappear.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Former Notre Dame running back Junior Jabbie won Blue-Gold game MVP honors in 2007, then gained 35 rushing yards in the 2007 season and made a graduate transfer to Delaware (SBT File Photo).