10:00 am, April 23, 2012
A heartfelt gesture by Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson landed the sophomore-to-be in jersey No. 1 for the April 21 Blue-Gold Game.
Freshman QB Gunner Kiel wanted to honor his late uncle, Blair — a former Irish signal-caller who ascended to the top of the ND depth chart as a freshman 22 seasons ago. Blair, who died at age 50 on Easter Sunday, wore No. 5 in his day, and so too, normally, does Golson. So Gunner Kiel and Golson flip-flopped numbers for a day.
As it turned out, Golson looked the part in No. 1 after seemingly spending most of the spring as the guy most likely to finish the four-man QB-o-rama as eventual transfer Zach Frazer. In other words, fourth.
Notre Dame third-year head coach Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to go near that far in his assessment, in part because he wants to vague his way into August whenever he’s asked about his Gang of Four and partly because he looks at the 42-31 Gold victory through a different prism than the 31,582 curiosity-seekers at ND Stadium likely did.
“You can put him in the same category as George Atkinson,” Kelly said of Golson, comparing him to the game’s other statistical star. “Both of those guys are exciting, electric players, but they are a heart attack for me.
“We’ve got to get them there, because I think we all see that they’ve got great skill. But they are guys that are a work in progress. You’re seeing a work in progress.”
What the fifth-largest Blue-Gold Game crowd ever and largest since the school-record 51,852 took in the last four-man QB-fest in 2007 also witnessed were six turnovers by the Irish offense, one of which Golson had a hand in. But he also did enough statistically to earn MVP honors. That is, if there had actually been an MVP named, which there wasn’t.
There almost wasn’t a second half, either. NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus, gave Kelly and his team a 117-minute window with which to complete their wrap-up to spring football. The urgency was an MLS soccer telecast between the Chicago Fire and Toronto FC.
With the first half of the Blue-Gold game ending around 3 p.m., and NBCSN’s ultimatum going into effect at 3:27, halftime was abbreviated to 12 minutes and the second half consisted of two eight-minute quarters in which the clock never stopped for any reason.
By then, Golson and juniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix had been converted into spectators as Kiel finished facing a mishmash of mostly walk-ons and third-stringers.
“Obviously, we can’t run everything with Gunner at this point,” Kelly said of his decision to keep the freshman out of the apples-to-apples-to-apples comparison in the first half. “He just doesn’t have the knowledge base. So from that standpoint, we gave him all the reps in the second half, and got him an opportunity to really feel like he was part of the game.”
Kiel was part of the ugliness too, with an interception. But he completed five of 10 passes for 57 yards and lowered his shoulder and bulled his way for 15 rushing yards on three carries.
Incumbent Rees started slow and ended up 7-for-14 for 84 yards, zero touchdowns and one pick. He ran for one yard in his only carry on a QB draw. Hendrix threw for 59 yards and a TD with one interception. He ran for 13 on two carries.
Golson was the only Irish QB who didn’t get picked off. He was 11-of-15 for 120 yards and two TDs, and ran for 25 yards on six carries. But Kelly was frustrated that it took too long for Golson to get the play from the sidelines and into the action.
“The stats really don’t mean anything to me,” Kelly said. “He’s got to recognize the signaling. If I’m not out there getting guys set and making sure he knows (the) play, we’re going to have flags thrown all over the place. So those things don’t mean as much to me as they do managing the offense.
“We’re making progress there, but we’re nowhere where we need to be.”
The final score reflected that. The Irish didn’t have enough healthy players to break into two full squads, so Kelly concocted an offense vs. defense format.
The offense scored conventionally. The defense, the winning team, amassed its 42 points through a somewhat convoluted system of rewarding stops, turnovers and forced field goals.
And the winning Gold team was able to do it with standouts Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Manti Te’o on the field barely more than pregame coin-flipper and former Irish star Justin Tuck.
Schematically, though, ND was anything but vanilla. Kelly didn’t care if his 2012 opponents got film on the Irish pressures. He wanted his quarterbacks to experience blitzes, stunts, multiple looks, and eight men dropped into coverage, so he mandated defensive coordinator Bob Diaco keep his foot on the gas.
The only thing that could have simulated the stress Kelly wanted to put on his QBs better was to have rented out impending transfer Aaron Lynch for the day. Lynch, however, was 1,132 miles away in Tampa at the University of South Florida’s spring game. He could have his exodus complete before the weekend is done, despite his mother’s 11th-hour Twitter plea to Tuck.
Linebackers Ishaq Williams and Anthony Rabasa did their parts. Williams recovered a quick snap that bounced off running back Theo Riddick’s leg when Golson called for the ball while Riddick was in motion. Williams also picked off a pass. Rabasa had six tackles and recovered a fumble.
Kelly also singled out backup middle linebacker Jarrett Grace, the now heir-apparent to Te’o and who finished with three tackles.
The coach even had time to celebrate the verbal commitment of John Montelus, a 6-foot-5, 295 offensive lineman from Everett, Mass., and the 11th member of the recruiting class of 2013. He was in attendance along with nine of the previous 10 to commit.
Other than that, Kelly wasn’t in a celebratory mood. He used the words “attention to detail.” At least there’s some solace that all three of the QBs made available to the media parroted that phrase at least once.
The starter, Kelly admitted, will be named in August, but the job may very well be won in June and July.
“They’ve got to help themselves,” he said. “The guy that really commits to the details this summer is probably one of the guys that’s going to start. So if you can go to any of those voluntary workouts, then let me know. I’d be happy to field that when I’m on the golf course.
“Just text me if you have that opportunity. The point is all of them have a lot of work to do. We’ll see who does a great job this summer.”