Setting the expectations for Notre Dame's spring game

Setting the expectations for Notre Dame's spring game
April 11, 2014, 2:15 pm
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Saturday's Blue-Gold game at Notre Dame Stadium serves as the public's first opportunity to see Everett Golson play in a year, though it'd be premature to draw any sweeping conclusions about the 2014 Irish from a single glorified scrimmage.

This isn't a cohesive, experienced offense that'll take the field on Saturday. Only two players who were true first-team guys in 2013 will be part of the Irish offense for the Blue-Gold game -- running back Cam McDaniel and offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley. Tarean Folston, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Amir Carlisle, Ben Koyack, Steve Elmer and Matt Hegarty played last year, too, but not consistently.

Zack Martin, Chris Watt, T.J. Jones, Troy Niklas, George Atkinson and Tommy Rees aren't back. Offensive linemen Nick Martin and Christian Lombard are hurt. Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is exiled to Chicago for the semester.

[MORE: Brian Kelly sees the advantage of spring game for Irish]

And Golson, due to his own exile from campus last fall and the extensive youth around him, doesn't know many of the teammates he's practiced with this spring. It's added up to an inconsistent, often sloppy month of spring practice, though that was to be expected.

"It's a process, and you've got to treat it as just that," Golson said. "You're gonna have ups and downs but you've gotta keep the confidence and everything's gonna take care of itself."

That's the expectation, that by Aug. 30's curtain-lifter against Rice the offense will be a far more cohesive group. Spring practice served as a time to install the offense under the watchful eyes of coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, while the summer will be an opportunity for Golson to develop a better rapport with the largely unfamiliar faces around him.

Notre Dame coaches challenged Golson and Malik Zaire plenty this spring, piling as much on their metaphorical plates as possible. Squaring off against an aggressive, excited, motivated defense -- one that's in the learning phase of things, too, under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder -- made things more difficult, too.

[ALSO: VanGorder to get a look at Notre Dame's 'D' from the sidelines]

"We graded out quarterbacks the other day and nobody had a 2.0 cumulative," Kelly said this week. "And the quarterbacks agreed with that grade. They agreed. We had a number of categories we graded and a lot of it is because they were taking 500-level classes. It wasn’t easy stuff for them."

But that's what Kelly wanted. He wanted Golson to have to identify what he needs to work on over the summer, so when fall camp rolls around in August he can really begin to grow back into the offense.

That doesn't mean Golson (or Zaire) won't be able to have a strong showing on Saturday. There have been good practices and bad practices, and as Denbrock explained Golson's ability to run the offense goes up and down on a day-by-day basis.

"We have times where we're clicking and everything's going really well, and think guys are understanding and doing what they're coached to do and it looks pretty good," Denbrock said. "And then there's some bumps in the road with some young players in some new spots.

"… With all those moving pieces and parts to the puzzle at times it gets a little choppy. We just gotta continue to work."

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For Golson, though, the spring game carries more weight than it does for others. After his return to campus this winter, three hurdles emerged for Golson to clear, at least from a mental standpoint: His first practice (back in early March), the spring game (Saturday) and then the season opener against Rice (in August).

This'll be Golson's first time playing in front of fans in Notre Dame Stadium since last year's spring game. He'll be on national TV, too -- the scrimmage kicks off at 11:30 a.m. (CST) on NBC Sports Network and streaming via Live Extra.

And it's certainly better for Golson to work out the jitters on Saturday as opposed to when the games begin to matter.

"I'm anxious," Golson said. "Words can't really describe the feeling of just coming out that tunnel again."