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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, April 13, 2019 6:00 pm

Book efficient at spring game, Armstrong shines

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

It's difficult to make any grand pronouncements based on the Blue-Gold Game, or any team's spring game for that matter. Anyone who definitively states what to expect for the season based on the spring game is probably getting ahead of themselves.

Still, as Notre Dame coaches have taken pains to point out this week, there is much to learn from spring game performances. The game isn't some meaningless scrimmage to give everyone a chance to play on the field at Notre Dame Stadium. It's a chance for coaches to see players in live game situations and to judge those players against their peers. There won't be any playing time in September allocated specifically because of the a performance in the Blue-Gold Game, but it's an important data point for the coaches as they try to determine the depth chart going into the summer and set their expectations for the fall.

The only position that's really settled going into the fall is quarterback. Ian Book is the unquestioned starter and today's game simply cemented that fact. Book was solid, going 16 for 21 for 220 yards and a touchdown and seeming to be in "complete control of the offense" as coach Brian Kelly put it. Kelly specifically mentioned Book's 12-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to Michael Young on an in-route as a play that the quarterback would have struggled to make in 2018.

"One thing that (Book) with struggled last year with was getting lost in the pocket," Kelly said. "'Lost' meaning taking himself out of throws. The touchdown throw that he made was indicative of the progress he's made this spring. He slid, bought time in the pocket and was able to hit (Young) in the back of the end zone. Those are the kind of throws that separate good players from great players."

Book didn't have many opportunities to throw deep because of a persistently strong wind in South Bend, but he did complete a 43-yard back-shoulder throw to Chase Claypool down the left sideline and his arm seems to have gotten at least somewhat stronger in the offseason. It was an impressive performance for the senior.

It was a less impressive performance for backup Phil Jurkovec, who had problems escaping the rush all afternoon, getting "sacked" at least 10 times by my count. He went 15 for 26 for 135 yards without a touchdown and looked a little uncomfortable in the pocket. Jurkovec holds himself to a high standard and he was clearly dissatisfied with his play after the game, calling it "terrible" and insisting he has a lot to work on.

Kelly thinks Jurkovec is probably pressing.

"He's pushing himself a little bit too hard, he's a little bit too hard on himself," Kelly said. "He's got too much going on right now. He just needs to get the ball out of his hands and make it simple. The game's a little too hard for him right now and you can see. He never played that way in high school."

In general, the offense, led by Book, seems poised to be a formidable unit. Jafar Armstrong had a terrific all-around day out of the backfield and Young seems to be ready for a breakout season opposite Claypool. The offensive line wasn't perfect, but it opened some huge holes for Armstrong and the other backs.

The defense is much more of a puzzle right now with so many leaders and key players departed from the fearsome 2018 unit. Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara are a monster duo at defensive end and should give quarterbacks fits all season, but almost every other position is in flux. Linebacker is one spot that will need young players to step up after the departures of leaders Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney. The group of up-and-comers is deep, talented and confident, however.

"Obviously everyone asks, 'Oh how are you gonna replace Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney?' and that's a fair question," junior Jordan Genmark Heath said. "But I think we have a different type of linebackers in the locker room right now that could actually be better than the guys before us. Don't get me wrong, (Tranquill and Coney) are great players and it's hard to do that, but I'm confident in all our guys and myself."

The secondary was a group that struggled noticeably in the Blue-Gold Game, but it's probably not time to panic there yet. Potential starters Donte Vaughn and Shaun Crawford were out with injuries, as was potential All-American Alohi Gilman. I'm still waiting to see more from Houston Griffith, the Irish's top recruit in the 2018 class and an incredibly talented player. He made a couple of nice plays in the spring game, but his technique is still a work in progress and Young beat him for that touchdown.

Now starts the longest part of the offseason for the players. There aren't any official practices and they have to work out mostly on their own before camp begins in August. It will be a different team that takes the field in September than the one we saw today; how much different depends on the players' work in the next three months.