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Padanilam: Blue-Gold Game sheds light on continued player development

| Monday, April 18, 2016

In a game that had the potential to add some clarity to the quarterback competition at Notre Dame, the Blue-Gold Game did everything but.

Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer had their moments, but they also had their fair share of missed opportunities in the contest. They both showed off their arms and legs, displaying the ability to make plays, but neither one was able to do it consistently.

Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer drops back to pass during the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer drops back to pass during the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Kizer completed 10 of his 17 passes in the game for 113 yards.

So as far as another tool of evaluation between the two quarterbacks, the Blue-Gold game didn’t offer much for Irish head coach Brian Kelly to work with when it comes to deciding upon a starter in the fall.

But if you put aside the quarterbacks, you would see several other takeaways from this Notre Dame team’s first look at game action.

Throughout the entire game, the ground game showed the promise that has come to be expected of it. Although senior running back Tarean Folston was limited to non-contact participation, sophomores Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and junior Justin Brent displayed power and speed on a variety of runs, although they didn’t always show up in the box score due to the impact of the non-contact participants. Zaire, Kizer and sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush all showed their ability to contribute in the running game as well, collectively gaining 52 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

And while the running game took advantage of what few holes it had, the front seven and secondary did a fairly good job of containing outside runs and limiting the gains made against them. Graduate student safety Avery Sebastian and seniors cornerback Cole Luke and safety Max Redfield led the Irish in tackles with six each, showing the secondary’s ability to contribute in the running game.

As good as they were at making plays at the line of scrimmage, however, the secondary showed itself to be vulnerable in the passing game. It’s this area of the defense that has always plagued the Irish — we know it, and they know it as well. Luke said as much after the game, telling the media that he and the unit are looking to change that perception heading into this season.

But it didn’t start as well as they’d hoped Saturday, as there were several times that the unit got beat long. Senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. had a 50-yard grab behind the defense, while Brent got behind the defense on his lone reception that went for 28 yards. There could have been more too, as freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson dropped another long pass down the field, while Zaire, Kizer and Wimbush all missed on one or two opportunities to connect with a relatively open receiver behind the secondary.

And with the relatively stout run defense and missed opportunities in the passing game on both sides came seven opportunities for sophomore punter Tyler Newsome. And he delivered, averaging nearly 53 yards per punt and knocking three of them inside the opposing squad’s 20 yard line. He’s said all spring that he’s been working to improve his hang time on his punts, and he did just that, making sure his punts hung up long enough for his coverage team to get downfield so that a return wouldn’t have been possible, even if the rules had permitted it.

Senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. tries to create separation during Notre Dame's Blue-Gold Game on Saturday.Chris Collins | The Observer
Senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. tries to create separation during Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

So, in the end, what can we say about this Notre Dame squad after its first game action? Well, we know the quarterback competition won’t be settled until at least fall camp, with Kelly confirming as much following the game. We know the offense can and should be both dynamic and explosive, regardless of who’s holding the reins of the offense.

But we also know that the secondary still has some work to do. Sure they’re pretty young back there for the most part, but that showed at times Saturday. And that can’t be the case if Notre Dame wants to compete for a national championship.

Right now, this Irish team looks very similar to last year’s team — a team that found itself chasing a playoff berth but falling just short. The strengths are pretty much the same, but so are its weaknesses.

But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, either. The Irish know where they have to improve, and they’ve got plenty of time to do it. They are young at a lot of these positions, so the growing pains that come with this youth are to be expected. But so is the immense potential for success as they continue to gain experience. Plus, the special teams unit already looks stronger than it did last season, and it should only continue to improve as the young group from last season continues to gain experience.

So in the end, the Blue-Gold Game might not have been all that revealing where everyone was looking for answers. But it also turned some eyes towards the areas that a lot of people are overlooking. After all, Notre Dame can compete for a national championship with either Zaire or Kizer at the quarterback spot come opening night at Texas. But that’s only possible to begin with if those “overlooked” areas continue to improve. For now, though, the Blue-Gold Game showed us that Notre Dame’s development is moving in the right direction.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

Contact Benjamin