Changes come to life for Notre Dame football in Blue-Gold Game

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — How ever obsessive and persistent the Brian Kelly gaping gets over the next few months, the Notre Dame football reboot is now much more about the Irish players than their repentant and reinvented head coach.

All spring practice they all showed their ability to parrot back the catchphrases “attention to detail” and “process” and “grit.”

Saturday, the 88th annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium was their first opportunity to show there were tangible actions to pair with the rhetoric.

And in a 27-14 Gold victory over the Blue, there was plenty to like for the crowd of 20,147 and NBCSN television audience in what still qualifies as a fuzzy big picture.

That includes zero injuries, with freshman offensive guard Aaron Banks returning to play multiple snaps after hobbling off the field at one juncture.

The nature of spring games — limiting rules, stripped-down schemes and purposely uninspired game plans — only adds to the distortion of a program in midstream of turning the page. Even under more normal circumstances, both breakthrough performances and unsightly statistic shock tend to be more unprophetic than the other way around.

A case in point Saturday was No. 1 quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s rushing stat line: 13 rushes for minus-30 yards with a long rush of 8 yards. With quarterbacks off-limits to contact, all it took to interrupt a long run or turn a brilliant play extension into a sack was touching a QB with one finger or, occasionally, just breathing hard in their vicinity.

The defense recorded 11 sacks Saturday, seven against Wimbush. That’s 11 more than last year’s spring game and only three fewer than the Irish amassed in 12 games combined last season.

“We're not there yet,” Kelly said of the defense overall, “but there were some really good signs in terms of, in particular, physical play.

“That was a more confident group. They played with an expectation to make plays. They were not a group where they were expecting bad things to happen to them.”

Wimbush had a couple of bad things happen to him in the passing game, because of the Irish No. 1 defense. He was picked off twice, once after a near-perfect pass ricocheted off the intended receiver’s hands and into the arms of safety Jalen Elliott. Cornerback Nick Watkins, a constant spring ascender grabbed the other one, in the end zone.

Still Wimbush threw for 303 yards on 22-of-32 accuracy, playing essentially in a strategic straitjacket.

“I think every snap that he takes, gets him closer to prepared for where we want him,” said Kelly, who referred to the first-year starter as a freshman and understandably bristled when it was suggested that the junior-to-be struggled.

“So I loved everything that happened to him today.”

Even when Daelin Hayes was happening to him.

Hayes was among Saturday’s stat darlings that warrant a longer look and open mind. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound sophomore and former five-star prospect had seven tackles, tied for most in the game with Elliott, with four of those for losses, including three sacks (both game highs).

He spent most of his spring having to go against left tackle and future first-round draft choice Mike McGlinchey, getting a bit of a reprieve Saturday having to line up often against right tackle prodigy Tommy Kraemer.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said of the McGlinchey experience. “I’ve always been a competitor. You guys know Mike McGlinchey is huge (6-8, 315), obviously first-round talent.

“He makes me better, and I’m appreciative. I love competing with the guy, because you go and do that with a guy in practice every day. When the game scenario comes, it’s second nature. If you can do this in practice, then you can definitely do this whenever.”

He’s also a big beneficiary of the regime change in the weight room. Hayes said he came into Notre Dame at 255, his current weight. But his body fat, under the direction of new director of football performance Matt Balis, is down to 10 percent from 18 percent.

“I remember my first time watching film (of myself),” he said. “I was like ‘Whoa.’ I looked quicker, more twitchy than I looked last year. Definitely you always put in work, but to actually be able to go back and look at it and how it’s affected your game is huge. Coach Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Wimbush’s backup, Ian Book, walk-on kicker Sam Kohler, wide receiver Miles Boykin, Rover Drue Tranquill, running back Tony Jones Jr., and tight end Alizé Mack were among other individual standouts Saturday whose performances seem convincing enough and consistent with earlier spring practices to avoid eventually morphing into mirages.

Book, playing against the No. 2 defense for the most part, was 17-of-22 passing for 277 yards, 1 TD and zero interceptions.

“(It’s what we've seen all spring,” Kelly said. “Consistency, throws strikes, rarely misses an open receiver, can see the field very well. Runs the offense very well. I mean, I think, you know, we all came into the spring talking about Brandon Wimbush and rightly so. The starting quarterback at Notre Dame is a big topic. It's a big story.

“But the story beneath the story for me was: Who the heck is going to be the No. 2 quarterback? Because if you guys have followed us long enough, we've used our No. 2 here, quite a bit. So having that No. 2, and seeing him perform the way he has this spring, for me, has been, you know, one of the big stories.''

Kohler made all four of his PAT attempts and converted two long field goal tries, from 42 and 46 yards, as incumbent Justin Yoon sat out the entire spring resting an injured leg.

Boykin was the game’s leader in receiving yards, with 102 on five receptions. Tranquill looked much more at home at the new hybrid Rover position than at safety. He contributed four tackles, with two of them for losses.

Jones, a redshirt freshman, reinforced the notion ND’s running attack is a strong three-deep, with 45 yards on eight carries and a 12-yard reception.

And then here’s Mack, who changed his surname from Jones on Twitter months ago, and finally got Notre Dame to acknowledge it in the past week. His game hasn’t changed from a pass-catching standpoint.

But the 6-foot-5, 245-pound junior is a noticeably more willing and adept blocker than he was in 2015, the last time he played in an actual game due to academic ineligibility in 2015.

“We're not ready for a game yet,” Kelly said broadly. “But we certainly did some things that when you look and assess where you are, we feel like we're making the progress necessary.”

As for Kelly, the predominant sentiment he induced from the crowd, when introduced in pregame, was a golf clap.

Instead of stalking the sidelines, Kelly spent the entire game on the field, standing about 10 yards behind the quarterbacks.

“Being on the field for me gave me the opportunity to address anything that happened at the moment right there, right now,” he explained. “And some issues that can be avoided relative to when you've got a red jersey quarterback out there.

“You want to be the intermediary in making sure that the ball is spotted in the right location and we don't have anybody in harm's way. Part of it is traffic cop, but more importantly, it was just for me to be in the middle of the action.”

After attending the NFL Draft in Philadelphia late next week, Kelly turns his attention to business as usual, probably for the first time since the 4-8 season ended with a thud in Los Angeles in late November.

There are no imminent strokes of reinvention to tend to, no shuffling of responsibilities, no new hires, no new catch phrases.

Just recruiting for nine of his assistant coaches and making putting the fine points on reinforcing what’s coaxed the tangible but unfinished progress.

“I just think obviously last year, with the year that we had, there was definitely a yearning for change,” offered Hayes. “I think guys were hungry for something to kind of cling onto and buy into.

“(The new coaches and new methods) were welcomed with open arms. Then it’s been buying into the system and becoming more comfortable within the system. Obviously, just working that process each and every day.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's Tony Jones Jr. (34) tries to break a tackle from Daelin Hayes with Nick Watkins far left, during the Blue Gold Game, Saturday, April 22, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ