Notre Dame held its annual Blue-Gold Game on Saturday, which concludes the 2021 spring. The Fighting Irish had some ups and downs, but there were plenty of encouraging observations to make from the game.
Here are the key takeaways of the offense from the game.
1. Offense Looking Quite Different
Back in February we talked about the need for Brian Kelly to give the reigns of the offense completely over to young offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, and for Rees to bring the offense into the modern era of college football. There is still plenty of work to be done, but we certainly saw positive steps in the Blue-Gold Game.
Notre Dame utilized a number of RPOs (I'd still like to see a few more), Rees moved the pocket often, they had a great blend of horizontal stretch plays, vertical stretch plays and they used the running back in the pass game effectively. Notre Dame took plenty of deep shots, but there were also plenty of built in short to intermediate routes that also lead to greater efficiency.
I would imagine there was plenty we didn't see, especially when it comes to the screen game,
2. Notre Dame Has A Talented Quarterback Room
Of course there were mistakes made by all three quarterbacks, but there were a lot of good things in the spring game that the coaches can build on. All three quarterbacks bring different skills, but all three showed playmaking ability either with their minds, arms or legs.
Veteran Jack Coan was surprisingly comfortable with his new teammates and the new offense. He process reads quickly, showed very good timing and he was aggressive attacking the defense. He made a huge mistake by locking in on Kyren Williams on the interception and he had a couple of missing on deep routes that he'll need to make, but considering this was just his 15th session at Notre Dame I was extremely impressed with how he performed. Coan will only get better in this offense.
Freshman Tyler Buchner showed why Notre Dame fans are so excited about him. Many of the mechanical issues he showed last summer appear gone. He short-armed a deep ball to Braden Lenzy, which caused the Irish wideout to wait too much on the ball, but that can be easily corrected. There were glimpses of brilliant play, and I was encouraged by his anticipation as a passer. There were snaps where Buchner was releasing the ball as his wideout was getting to the top of his route, which was great to see.
Sophomore Drew Pyne had some struggles in the game, but many of them had to do with his up front supporting cast. Pyne looked crisp early, showing a quick release, the ability to process his reads effectively and he showed good zip on the ball. The more he got pressured the more he anticipated it, which meant he rushed his reads, rushed his mechanics and he was far less effective.
3. Offensive Line Remains A Huge Question Mark
Notre Dame's offensive line struggled the entire game, on both the Gold and Blue squads. There were consistent problems with both teams that included poor footwork, far too much turning (which opens up rush lanes), ineffective hand usage, trouble getting to speed on the edge and there was way too much catching.
From a firing off the line and demeanor standpoint the line looked a lot more like the 2018 and 2019 lines that caught way too much than it did the physical 2020 unit. I can live with the technical mistakes, I can live with the fact the unit struggled mightily when it came to properly picking up the basic defensive line games and the poor blitz recognition, those things are somewhat expected from such an inexperienced group that is playing without its best blocker.
What is far, far less acceptable is the lack of physicality we saw from the unit. The staff needs to figure some things out in a hurry, and its clear the players miss the influence of former OL assistant Chris Watt.
Freshman Blake Fisher was really impressive, even when he made mistakes, and I'll be shocked if he isn't starting in the fall. I also liked what I saw from Zeke Correll in the game, and John Dirksen played solid football. Rocco Spindler is still a work of progress, but he is clearly very talented. There were several strong individual moments across the board, but as a unit this was a rough day. Sophomore Tosh Baker's struggles to get outside were especially troubling.
4. There Are Plenty Of Playmakers
Running back Chris Tyree and Kyren Williams were as good as expected, and Tyree was especially effective in the game. Veteran wideout Avery Davis (5 catches, 84 yards) was really good, and he and Coan seem to have already established a connection. Lawrence Keys III (5 catches, 115 yards) was outstanding in the victory, and Braden Lenzy (5 catches, 88 yards) was healthy and effective.
The freshmen tight ends played well and George Takacs made a big play up the seam.
We didn't even see star tight end Michael Mayer, and talented young wideouts Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts were rarely targeted.
There is a lot of talent on this offense, and if the offensive line gets shored up this group should score a lot of points.
5. Irish Must Finish Off Drives Better
Of course, part of that will be getting better at finishing off drives. Notre Dame went just 2-5 in the red zone when it comes to scoring touchdowns. There were other drives where the offense used big plays to get across midfield but mistakes stalled drives.
That kind of inefficiency can be expected in a spring game, especially when going against such a talented defense, but it certainly is something that must be focused on by the staff this offseason.
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