Notre Dame football serves up new and old in open scrimmage

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — They called it the New & Gold Game, but it wouldn’t be Notre Dame football without a little bit of an old-school feel.

On Sunday, the Irish hosted an open scrimmage in a practice run of sorts for Notre Dame Stadium’s renovated parts. Fans received their first glimpse of the new video board above the south end zone and a toned-down look at who will take the field for Notre Dame this season.

Images of legendary coaches Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz were part of an introductory video that preceded the current Irish team taking the field. But the glitz of the Notre Dame Stadium renovations couldn’t distract from the product on the field.

Especially when new offensive coordinator Chip Long sent the Irish onto the field to start the scrimmage with two running backs standing alongside quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Later, freshman tight end Brock Wright took the field in a fullback position, Wimbush lined up under center and running back Josh Adams pushed into the end zone for a short touchdown and the first score of the day. It was as if the new looks came straight from the past.

The four quarters, each of 15 minutes with a running clock, mostly favored the defense. The scoring comprised of only three touchdowns — one coming in the final minutes — and one field goal. Combined, it served as a snapshot of how the team has progressed through the offseason and into preseason camp.

“We’re certainly not a finished product in any means,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “We had a really fine camp in terms of developing who we are. We’re going to be a team that runs the football, can play fast and can push the ball vertically.”

The running game didn’t break open too much on Sunday. The longest run may have been a 20-yard scramble by backup quarterback Ian Book. The passing game was limited by sacks — some earned and some gifted by early whistles to protect the no-contact quarterbacks. Long touchdown passes from Wimbush to wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and Book to wide receiver Chase Claypool were nullified.

But the other two touchdowns on the day came through the air. Book found running back Dexter Williams for a 17-yard score on a touch pass, and freshman Avery Davis, the fourth quarterback to see the field, connected with wide receiver Javon McKinley for a late 32-yard touchdown.

“Defensively, and you saw this (Sunday) even though we gave up a couple plays here and there, we’re going to play so much better up front,” Kelly said. “That really makes you feel pretty good in that front seven. Better against the run, better fundamentally across the board in all areas and our kicking game is going to be better.”

The pressure on the defensive line repeatedly came from sophomore defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara. Junior nose tackle Jerry Tillery flashed through the line for stops against the run.

Kicker Justin Yoon missed on field goal attempts of 54 and 49 yards, but he successfully hit his third attempt of 23 yards.

“When you put all those things together, we’re going to continue to get better each and every week,” Kelly said. “We’ll see if that’s good enough.”

Captain Adams

Notre Dame’s six-man captain crew grew to seven Sunday.

Before the scrimmage, Kelly introduced junior running back Josh Adams to the team as it's newest captain.

“Josh has been outstanding in our summer workouts and has distinguished himself to have all the traits that I’m looking for that really represents a captain,” Kelly said. “That’s a high bar, especially for a young man that’s just a junior here. I’m really pleased to elevate him to the level of captaincy.”

Kelly originally named seven captains for the 2017 team back in December: quarterback DeShone Kizer, offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, rover Drue Tranquill and wide receiver Austin Webster. Kizer left the Irish for the NFL a few days later.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Adams becomes the only junior captain for the Irish. The new title for Adams gives Notre Dame’s captains a better connection to younger players on the team.

“That’s the great part about it,” Adams said. “We’re all different. We all have different things to bring to the table. It’s like a little family within a big family. We all have our good things and our bad things that we need to work on. We just have to feed off each other and continue to grow in our leadership.”

WR depth

Few players have emerged as go-to wide receivers in the current version of Notre Dame’s offense. Kelly previously noted Equanimeous St. Brown and graduate transfer Cameron Smith have risen to the top as the two most consistent wide receivers on the team.

After that, Kelly sees roles for a lot of different players. Claypool stood out the most of the rest on Sunday.

“You saw Claypool make a couple plays today,” Kelly said. “We’ve been looking for him to kind of step up and be a little bit more consistent. We’ve been pushing Chase. Chase is a great kid. He wants that. He wants us to stay on him. He’s learning and developing the traits. Today was a big day for him.”

Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders, Miles Boykin, Michael Young and Freddy Canteen have all found themselves on the field with the No. 1 offense at various times throughout camp.

“We’ve got really good depth,” Kelly said. “We’re going to play a lot of them. They’re going to all contribute in some fashion. We have a marquee player in EQ (St. Brown), and then we have a lot of really solid football players that will all contribute.”

Staff titles

Kelly announced after Sunday’s scrimmage a few new roles for Notre Dame’s coaching staff.

Defensive line coach Mike Elston has been promoted to assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will be taking on the responsibilities of recruiting coordinator, which had previously belonged to Elston.

The Irish also officially announced the addition of Bill Rees, the father of quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees, as director of scouting. The elder Rees, who will work in the recruiting office, worked in NFL scouting for 16 years. He worked recently for Northwestern and Wake Forest and spent 15 years as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for UCLA. 

“(Elston) will be assisting me on a day-to-day basis with support staff, working with all facets of the program,” Kelly said. “In my absence, he will be able to speak on my behalf.

“I’m excited to elevate Mike in that position, Brian as the recruiting coordinator and Bill Rees as the director of scouting. Mike will continue to work with Brian as we make that transition here as well as over the next few weeks.”

Playing freshmen

With the season 13 days away, Kelly identified several freshmen that he already plans to use this season. The possibility of reserving a year of eligibility for certain freshmen will likely change throughout the season based on need and personal growth, but a handful of first-year players have already proved themselves worthy of taking the field on Saturdays.

Kelly listed defensive tackles Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, tight ends Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, wide receiver Michael Young and safety Jordan Genmark Heath as freshmen likely to play this season.

Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa worked with the second-string defense Sunday. Kmet, Wright and Young rotated in with the starting offense.

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Blue's Josh Adams runs the ball as Quenton Nelson blocks for him during the New & Gold scrimmage game Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA