April 17, 2016
The 29,061 fans at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday received their first glimpse in a while of a couple of noteworthy works in progress.
The Blue-Gold Game spectators gained their initial look at the progress of the Campus Crossroads Project from inside the bowl of Notre Dame’s football facility since the Irish home season ended last November.
They also viewed Irish coach Brian Kelly’s reloading efforts on the field–in the first real public showcase since the Fiesta Bowl, if not that same home finale in November.
The timelines are separate.
Most of the Campus Crossroads work won’t be finished until the start of the 2017 season–save level nine on the east side where a new press box and a limited area for University guests will be temporarily constructed for the 2016 season.
Kelly’s 2016 team has a smaller window for its maturation and finishing touches.
In both cases, the majority of the heavy lifting already has been done. The concrete and steel are mostly in place on the east, west and south sides of Notre Dame Stadium–so much of what’s left qualifies as interior work. The Irish football team played prominently a year ago into the College Football Playoff conversations until the final regular-season weekend, and despite major personnel losses, the general consensus is that Notre Dame again in 2016 can have what it takes to be in that mix.
Kelly and his staff know it won’t be the simplest of tasks to take the field without Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Sheldon Day and the rest of the veterans who paved the way for a 10-3 mark last season.
The “next man in” mantra that served the Irish so well (see DeShone Kizer taking the reins so admirably at quarterback when Malik Zaire broke his ankle) in 2015 will need a bit of an expanded philosophy entering the fall as Notre Dame works to construct a lineup capable of taking Kelly and his roster where they want to go.
Actually, the Blue-Gold weekend represents something of an all-class Irish football reunion that spans the generations.
More than 100 former players came back to campus to join the current Notre Dame team for dinner Friday in a tent just outside the Notre Dame Stadium home locker room–and they roamed the sidelines on Saturday.
Look closely and there were running back Mark Green and safety Pat Terrell from the 1988 championship team. Over there were linebacker Kory Minor and fullback Marc Edwards. The athletics department at the end of the first period honored Ryan Harris and David Bruton Jr., both members of the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl-winning squad a few months back.
Former Irish assistant coaches Randy Hart (he spoke at the Irish clinic Saturday morning after retiring from Stanford after the 2015 season) and Mike Sanford (the father of current Irish offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, he’s the head coach at Indiana State) exchanged notes on the sidelines.
Former Irish head coach Lou Holtz kicked off the morning–and maybe tied the generations of Irish players together with a nice bow. He provided the final piece to the coaching clinic in a 45-minute session that also was open to the general public.
Holtz proved his usual entertaining self, intermingling a little football with his own personal philosophy that anyone who played for him grew to know so well. The Hall of Famer urged the coaches to have a vision and a plan, lead by example and hold others accountable.
“If you didn’t show up today, would anybody miss you and why?” Holtz offered. He laid out his seven football commandments and told the coaches, “Don’t lower the standards. Get rid of excuses why you can’t win.”
Holtz went out of his way to note that of late he’s had two of his former players join the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and all-star fullback Jerome Bettis last August), two former players join Kelly’s coaching staff (former running back Autry Denson and cornerback Todd Lyght) and two more selected to Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees (Rod West and 1987 co-captain Byron Spruell). Spruell continues the circle of life–as his son Devyn now plays linebacker for the Irish.
Holtz then headed over to Notre Dame Stadium and spoke to the current Irish players before they headed out for Blue-Gold warmups.
As Kelly noted in his introduction, “He’s been here. He’s done it.”
Offered Holtz, “I can’t tell you how much I enjoy watching you play and how you represent the University.”
Holtz told the story of being a graduate assistant coach at the University of Iowa and how excited the Hawkeyes were to be playing the final game of the 1960 season at Notre Dame:
“But you’ve got the chance to play FOR Notre Dame and that’s a heck of a lot more motivating than playing against Notre Dame. You made the best decision of your life to come to Notre Dame.”
The Irish coaches split their roster relatively evenly–with Kizer playing for the ultimately victorious Blue squad and Zaire for the Gold. There were plenty of noteworthy Irish not in uniform (Te’von Coney, C.J. Sanders, Corey Robinson, Greer Martini, Nic Weishar and Grant Blankenship among them). And there were another 25 players who rotated and played for both sides. So, if nothing else, Kelly and his staff may have learned a little about their players’ adaptability, considering many were lining up next to and against people they didn’t see every single day in practice.
Kelly had a single message to his players before the action began:
“Once you put that Notre Dame jersey on there’s an expectation of the level you play at when you’re in this locker room and step on that field. It’s effort and enthusiasm and playing the game the right way — that’s how we play here. That will not change. Guys are gonna be locked in–that’s how we play all the time.”
Fans may well have enjoyed the perfect 75-degree weather as much as anything Saturday.
Many, of course, wanted to parse every angle of the quarterback play. Kizer (10 of 17 for 113 yards) was the more accurate, while Zaire (six of 15 for 120) benefited from a 50-yard completion to Torii Hunter Jr. that was easily the longest play of the afternoon. Sophomore-to-be Dexter Williams ran 13 times (eight more than anyone else) for 43 yards and a 16-yard scoring run. Early enrollee Kevin Stepherson impressed with four receptions for 70 yards.
Punter Tyler Newsome combined his role for both teams, kicked seven times for a 52.7-yard average and won the game ball from Kelly in the postgame ceremonies.
Kelly confirmed that maybe the most fun the Irish had all day was creating some designed running plays (including the last one that went for a touchdown in the final two minutes) for quarterback Montgomery VanGorder against his dad, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Dozens of prospects came to watch, with some of the newly-signed Irish joining the postgame position groupings in the locker room and introducing themselves to their very soon-to-be teammates.
Kelly acknowledged in the interview room that he expects the quarterback derby to be a tough call this fall. Zaire caught up this spring.
“That touchdown run (13 yards in the second period) probably helped get him over the hill mentally–his injury is in the rear-view mirror,” Kelly added. “So now you’ve got the race.”
The Irish head coach noted that sophomore-to-be quarterback Brandon Wimbush has done plenty of good things–but Kelly simply isn’t ready to take reps away from Kizer and Zaire.
Kelly and his staff will have a list of prioritized improvements on which Kizer and Zaire can place their attention.
“But I can’t keep `em both happy. Somebody’s gonna be unhappy. I’m gonna have to make a judgment call–I don’t know when that will be. At some point we’ve got to say, `He’s our quarterback. Here we go.'”
Can the defense be better in 2016? “If we’d stayed healthy (last year) maybe we play for the national championship,” said Kelly. “I think this defense can play the kind of defense necessary for us to be in the playoff hunt again.”
Veteran offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey added some perspective:
“The spring is the chance for a lot of guys to get a lot of experience. Everybody came to work and we got a lot done every day in practice. It was physical every single day and guys came to work with a great attitude. Everybody had a chance to polish their craft and that’s what the spring is all about–to get yourself in the right position for the fall.”
All the quarterback talk?
“The only reason we worry about it is the way they call the cadence,” said McGlinchey. “That’s about it.”
The routine now changes. It’ll be nearly five months before the 2016 Irish squad and the next rendition of the updated Notre Dame Stadium are again officially on display. For the former, that comes on a Sunday night in Austin, Texas. For the latter, it comes a week later when the Irish open Sept. 10 at home against Nevada, led by former Irish assistant Brian Polian.
In the case of both projects, much of the transition work to come goes on behind the scenes.
“We need to get the heck out of the way.”
Check back in September for the next construction updates.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.