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How Notre Dame’s spring game showed Irish are on upward trajectory: Blue-Gold takeaways

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As much as Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game was about wrapping up Marcus Freeman’s third spring practice in charge, it also highlighted what might be coming as Notre Dame’s head coach grows into a job that required him to learn on it.

There were reminders of where Freeman came, with former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel in attendance. There were reminders of where Notre Dame football wants to go as the university broke ceremonial ground of Shields Hall, which will be the football program’s new operations center two years from now. And mostly, the spring game — where the Blue team beat the Gold 28-21 — was a taste of what might be coming in the near term as Notre Dame pushes for a spot in the 12-team College Football Playoff.

“Every year you look at what do you need talent-wise to really mold it together to make a run. And I believe this probably is one of the most talented rosters we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Freeman said. “Now it’s our job to build that talent and mold that talent and make sure we teach that talent to get to where we want to go.”

Notre Dame will return virtually its entire defense, plus defensive coordinator Al Golden, who signed a four-year extension last winter. Mike Denbrock is back in South Bend as offensive coordinator after helping Jayden Daniels win a Heisman Trophy at LSU. And Riley Leonard is part of another bumper class of transfers that fill holes and give Freeman confidence in what’s on hand.

How it all fits together this fall, starting at Texas A&M on Labor Day weekend, remains to be seen. But based on spring practice, including the spring game, Notre Dame appears equipped to make a charge, with Freeman pushing the program forward.

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Here’s what we learned (or had confirmed) on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium with a crowd of 37,138, the most to watch a Blue-Gold Game in 17 years.

Irish lean on QB run game, even without Leonard

It doesn’t make sense to read too much into the first public showing of Denbrock’s latest offense at Notre Dame, but how the Irish offensive coordinator uses the quarterbacks in the run game stood out. Instead of leaving the quarterback run game to be a last resort like last season, it seems like it could be a first option based on the spring game. And that’s without Riley Leonard at the controls as the Duke transfer continued to watch from a distance on Saturday while recovering from ankle surgery.

Kenny Minchey finished with six carries for 40 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown designed to feature the rising sophomore’s legs. CJ Carr showed mobility behind the line of scrimmage, both to get open to pass and what could be in the zone read game. Steve Angeli is the least mobile of Notre Dame’s three available quarterbacks and spent too much time chasing down misfired snaps by backup center Sam Pendleton.

Whenever Leonard returns, though, Notre Dame will have one of the best running quarterbacks in college football, the kind of athlete who can stress a defense in multiple ways. It’s part of the reason why Notre Dame invested in Leonard in the first place. And based on some of the offensive calls from Denbrock during the Blue-Gold Game, the playbook already seems tailored to a quarterback with that skill set.

“In coach Denbrock’s offense, the quarterback has a lot on him, with his legs and his arm,” Angeli said. “So being able to run that offense, you’ve got to be able to do both.”

As for the quarterbacks likely behind Leonard, they all finished spring practice having taken a step forward. Angeli finished 17-of-25 for 228 yards and two touchdowns, including a 62-yard score to Kris Mitchell. Minchey went 12-of-19 for 123 yards, one score and one interception. Carr went 15-of-23 for 165 yards and one score, a 29-yard touchdown to Micah Gilbert.

For what it’s worth, Angeli said he’s already looking forward to the quarterback competition at Notre Dame in preseason camp, notable only because the spring transfer portal remains open. There’s little doubt Notre Dame’s quarterback room will be watched closely by other programs.

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Optimism for revamped WR corps

To say Notre Dame’s wide receiver group improved this offseason doesn’t capture both the strides made under assistant coach Mike Brown and how necessary they were for the Irish to have a functional offense in big games this season.

Last year’s group collapsed in big moments, either worn down by workloads or simply unable to execute against better competition. It looks like Brown has developed Notre Dame receivers into a more capable unit entering his first season — and that was without transfers Beaux Collins (eligibility) and Jayden Harrison (foot) or rising senior Jayden Thomas (hamstring) and mid-year enrollee Cam Williams (hamstring). Jordan Faison also missed the spring game while playing for Notre Dame’s top-ranked lacrosse team. Those absences would have destroyed the passing game last season. On Saturday, it simply opened the door for others.

Gilbert led the Blue with five catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns. KK Smith, coming off a redshirt freshman season, put up three catches for 34 yards. For the Gold, Deion Colzie was productive with four catches for 58 yards and Mitchell put up two catches for 69 yards. Jaden Greathouse, who might be the best of the position, had a quiet three catches for 38 yards after being the star of last year’s spring game.

The point for Freeman was Notre Dame has options. The razor-thin depth chart of last season has been replaced by a group that could add a sharper edge to Denbrock’s offense. Mitchell could be a lead player in that, showing enough speed to go deep and a confidence to know the ball was coming his way before Angeli threw that 62-yard score.

“We knew he could help his team and we’ve seen it on film and he’s had a really good spring,” Freeman said. “We made some good plays and he’s going to help us. That’s why he’s here, to really boost his wide receivers, and it was good to see him score a touchdown.”

Viliamu-Asa shows off blue-chip potential

As a rule, middle linebackers aren’t supposed to be able to drop 20 yards into coverage. But that’s what Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa did during the first half of the Blue-Gold Game. It’s the kind of play that would be difficult for a fifth-year senior, never mind a mid-year enrollee. Viliamu-Asa even broke up Angeli’s pass intended for Greathouse when he got there, part of a strong afternoon by Notre Dame’s next generation of linebackers, starting with the fringe five-star prospect in the freshman class.

“He’s gonna be a really good football player for Notre Dame football,” Freeman said. “You thought that when he came in, you thought that in high school. He validated that. He’s gonna be a really good football player and do some great things for us right away.”

With Jack Kiser sitting out the Blue-Gold Game for precautionary reasons, Notre Dame got a look at what its linebacker room will look like a year from now when Kiser is gone for good. And while Viliamu-Asa perhaps flashed most, he wasn’t the only inexperienced linebacker to do so. Jaiden Ausberry, who is now working as a nickelback, also had a pass breakup deep on Greathouse. Drayk Bowen got plenty of pressures on delayed blitzes. Jaylen Sneed showed up around the ball more consistently than at any time in his Irish career.

It’s a lot to ask for these players to replace JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau, which is why Kiser was such a vital keep from last year’s roster. But a year from now, when Kiser departs, there’s reason to believe Notre Dame will be just fine at linebacker based on the Blue-Gold Game performances. In fact, they’ll probably be better than that.

“It’s a great room,” Freeman said.

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(Photo of Micah Gilbert and CJ Carr: Joseph Weiser / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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