Noie: Peek behind Notre Dame spring football curtain a quick, incomplete one

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

From the empty parking spaces scattered across the Joyce South lot to the minimal fans in the stands, a home Notre Dame football weekend looked and felt a lot Saturday like it did when we last left it in December.

When the Irish spilled from the tunnel at the north end of Notre Dame Stadium a little after 12:30 p.m., for the annual Blue-Gold bore, er, game, it was our first real look at everything since the Jan. 1 loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal to eventual national champion Alabama.

A lot about these Irish feels different. Different play-makers. Different voices. Different direction?

The core of that 2020 team, off a four-year run of 43-8, chases NFL dreams. Guys like quarterback Ian Book and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and four dominant dudes on an offensive line that arguably was the nation’s best. Former defensive coordinator Clark Lea lit out for Nashville, where he’ll try being a head coach at his alma mater, Vanderbilt.

Even guys with eligibility remaining and big roles beckoning weren’t around Saturday — safety Kyle Hamilton and O-Line holdover Jarrett Patterson and linebacker Drew White were held out/limited during the spring’s 15 workouts because of injury/recovery.

That was fine. Fall will be their time.

Other known guys were backed off Saturday. No use giving running back Kyren Williams the ball 30 times, or targeting tight end Michael Mayer a dozen or turning loose defensive lineman Kurt Hinish on a ton of snaps to terrorize the interior. Save that too for September.

Saturday — and really, all of spring — was about finding a few more guys who can elevate their status come the season opener Labor Day Sunday at Florida State. We saw players do what they do and coaches do what they do Saturday, but is it enough to finally stand alongside Alabama and Ohio State? Will it ever be enough?

“We’re a good team, and good teams aren’t good enough,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “Nobody around here is interested in good. We want to be great.”

Saturday wasn’t any further indication or indictment of anything Irish. It’s a spring game. Get in, get out, get on with 2021. Kelly said afterward that his program got out of Saturday exactly what it wanted and needed. No head coach has ever said differently. Like, boy we sure were lousy.

There’s nothing like a good mystery to grab one’s attention, and this Notre Dame football team certainly will over the summer months. There’s a lot to possibly like (running backs, defensive line, linebackers) about a program that has won at least 10 games each of the last four seasons with two visits to the sport’s Final Four, but there’s also a whole lot we don’t know.

Like, are there any game-breakers on the outside not named Avery Davis?

“We’re still trying to figure out our identity,” said sophomore running back Chris Tyree.

That usually starts at quarterback, a position the last few years that was a given, and maybe even taken for granted. Can Drew Pyne and/or Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan be anywhere close to Book? Neither looked ready to run with the role Saturday, but that’s spring ball — take the good and the bad and the indifferent. That’s also that the bar Book left is really high.

“It’s fair to scrutinize this position each and every week,” Kelly said of his quarterbacks. “We do that too.”

Kelly stopped short last week of going all in on one. He’ll reserve that decision for fall camp, where naming a guy will mean more. There’s so much time between Saturday’s final sneak peek and the Sept. 5 opener.

As of Sunday, that’s 126 days.

“I don’t feel like that’s going to move the needle in the locker room,” Kelly said last week of making a quarterback decision.

What will move the needle? Certainly not the Blue’s 17-3 victory over the Gold in front of close friends and relatives and the band (announced attendance 6,195). Or Tyree’s game-high 43 rushing yards. Or Jack Kiser’s game-high eight tackles. Or the teams going a combined five-for-21 on third down or finishing with nine sacks.

Watching from the press box, it was a challenge to always stay locked in on what was happening, especially during the second half’s running game clock. Down on the field, it was about who you saw. Upstairs, it was about who we didn’t.

Up on the east side’s ninth floor was where long-time Blue and Gold Illustrated beat writer Lou Somogyi should’ve been. Charting plays. Talking tendencies. Deciphering the depth chart. Just as he’d done every Notre Dame football season since 1984.

The 58-year-old Notre Dame graduate died of a heart attack exactly two weeks prior. With a touch of class, Notre Dame officials reserved Somogyi a seat in the socially-distanced press box — Section B, middle row, Seat 1. Lou’s seat. It was hard not to look over there and not think of him more than dissect a certain series. He should’ve been there. That he wasn’t made everything feel like this team and this spring and this coming season — different.

Like much of Saturday, we saw this spring what Notre Dame wanted us to see. It was Message Control 101. Want to light a fire under the offense? Show the defense dominating them in certain situations. Want to give the guys on first-year coordinator Marcus Freeman’s defense reason to believe? Show them running and tackling and making plays and free-wheeling in a system that everyone seems to embrace. Pump up the quarterbacks? How about a video montage of them making all the necessary throws.

That was April. Now it’s May. Let’s see how everyone feels, and ultimately reads and reacts, when it all matters months from now. Saturday was like trotting out presents for your kids to get a look at in August, only to pack them away back in the closet for the next four months, not to be seen again until Christmas morning.

We got a peek at everything on a sunny and windy spring Saturday in South Bend, but uncertainty will linger through Memorial Day and Fourth of July and the summer that both envelope. What will Notre Dame football be when fall returns? When more fans return? When a college football season looks more like a college football season?

Can this group go from good to great?

The mystery continues.

Blue’s Drew Pyne throws during the Blue-Gold game Saturday, May 1, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
Blue’s Braden Lenzy makes a catch during the Blue-Gold game Saturday, May 1, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.