Five things to watch in Notre Dame's Blue-Gold game

Five things to watch in Notre Dame's Blue-Gold game
April 19, 2013, 4:45 pm
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame fans will get their first look at the 2013 Irish on Saturday, with the team's Blue-Gold game kicking off at noon CST on NBC Sports Network. A few things to keep an eye on for Saturday's scrimmage:
1. Red zone efficiency

This was Notre Dame's greatest weakness in 2012, something that didn't hold them back from a 12-0 regular season but something that, if it doesn't improve, could keep them from equaling the same success in 2013. Notre Dame had the 13th-worst red zone touchdown percentage among FBS teams last fall, reaching the end zone on just 48.3 percent of their chances inside the 20. 
And that was with Tyler Eifert, who was an absolute matchup nightmare in the red zone. 
Probably the best indicator of Golson's improvement heading into Year 2 will be his ability to get Notre Dame into the end zone. The transition away from Eifert to a tight-end core of Troy Niklas, Alex Welch, Ben Koyack and a few freshman will take some time to develop, though, and anything that happens in the spring game should be taken with a massive grain of salt. 
But if you're looking for a certain aspect of Golson's game to track on Saturday, his performance--and that of Notre Dame's offense--in the red zone would be a good one. 

2. Offensive line depth

Notre Dame put an emphasis on adding offensive linemen in its 2013 recruiting class, signed a few weeks after coach Brian Kelly lamented his team's lack of depth in that unit leading up to the BCS Championship. A few guys were banged up, but more importantly, Notre Dame just didn't have the numbers to do what they hoped for along the offensive line in December and January. 

Ronnie Stanley and Matt Hegarty are healthy, and Steve Elmer is in the mix now, too. A crop of big offensive linemen is coming in for the fall, but even for now, Notre Dame has more unit depth along the line than it did a few months ago. Keep an eye on how that No. 2 unit fares on Saturday, as it'll be key heading into the 2013 season.

3. Jarrett Grace

Saturday will be most everyone's introduction to Grace, who will combine with Carlo Calabrese to help fill the void left at mike linebacker by Manti Te'o next fall. For Saturday's game, expect Grace to get plenty of playing time with Calabrese sliding over to will with Dan Fox still out following post-BCS Championship shoulder surgery.

"He's got good speed and good change of direction. Intangibly he's got a great sense for where the ball's gonna end up," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco explained earlier in spring practice. "He's got a good feel in coverage, he's got a good feel for fitting the runs, so we're excited about what we have there. There's really not a negative to say right now about Grace."

4. The slot

C.J. Prosise will get a long look on Saturday, as he has been this spring since Davonte Neal transferred last month. It's far too early for form an opinion on his future as a wide receiver, so don't be fooled by a game that's either impressive or disappointing. 

There are still a few things to watch with him, though--route-running and pass-catching, most notably. But he's also an explosive player who has big-play ability, so long as he's doing the technical stuff right.

This will be Prosise's first appearance in the spotlight. Don't be surprised if he drops a few passes because of nerves and/or inexperience, but also don't be surprised if he breaks a big play on Saturday.

5. Malik Zaire

For those who are forward-thinking, Zaire's an important guy to keep an eye on. He'll likely slide in as Golson's backup in 2014, after Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix graduate (Hendrix has another year of eligibility left, but don't expect him to use it). 

The southpaw quarterback should see some playing time late in Saturday's scrimmage, and will provide a glimpse into the future of Notre Dame's next man in when Golson's helmet inevitably pops off once or twice a game in 2014. Zaire won't challenge for playing time in 2013--unless Notre Dame has absolutely brutal injury luck, he'll preserve a year of eligibility on the sidelines--so don't read too much into how he plays Saturday. Still, it'll be everyone's first look at the guy who could back up Golson, and then eventually assume the role as Notre Dame's starting quarterback down the road.