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Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game: Five things to watch

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For more on Notre Dame football, follow Justin Kenny and Tom Davis via Twitter at Jkenny_ns and Tom101010.

Fighting Irish conclude the spring on Saturday with annual scrimmage

Friday, April 11, 2014 - 1:31 pm

Notre Dame will culminate its spring practice schedule Saturday with the 85th annual Blue-Gold Game in South Bend.

While many look at the scrimmage as a great preview of the fall season, it can be anything but. Some of the MVPs out of the Blue-Gold Game over the years are not exactly household names, including running back Clement Stokes in 1997, quarterback Chris Olsen in 2003 and running back Junior Jabbie in 2007.

Despite the lack of concrete truths we can take out of this weekend, there are many things we can still learn about the Fighting Irish team that has some question marks on both sides of the ball.

Here are five things to watch Saturday:

1. Everett Golson's rapport with the wide receivers.

Ben Koyack is the only wideout or tight end on the roster who has caught passes from Golson regularly over the course of a regular season. Other than that, there are many new faces for Golson to get acclimated with and vice versa.

There is no shortage of talent at the wideout spot, but it is not only inexperienced in terms of working with Golson in a game atmosphere, it is also relatively young.

Since returning to Notre Dame earlier this year, Golson has made it a priority to work with his wide receivers to develop the rapport he had with Tyler Eifert and T.J. Jones in 2012.

Instead of keeping an eye on passing and receiving statistics for Saturday, which can be misleading, watch how Golson and the wideouts interact and read each other on the field. Are receivers coming back to the ball? Is Golson hitting his receivers effectively on timing routes? Does Golson have to talk a lot pre-snap?

2. Jaylon Smith's expanding role

The sophomore from Bishop Luers opened eyes around the country a year ago, excelling at the "Dog" linebacker position for the Fighting Irish and finishing with 6.5 tackles for loss and 67 tackles.

Now, new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder hopes to use Smith in a variety of ways this year, moving him outside to inside at linebacker and keeping him on the field in all packages, something that was not the case in 2013.

Smith is so versatile that he could be defending a pass-catching running back on one play, then blitzing from the edge or up the middle on the next.

While the Notre Dame defense will likely not dial up too much pressure in the scrimmage, we should see some added dimensions to Smith's game.

3. Running back hierarchy

This can be a tough thing to judge in spring games, where players deeper on the depth chart typically see more carries, particularly in the latter half of the scrimmage.

However, with Notre Dame deep in running back talent, Saturday will be a good look at how each looks, including Greg Bryant, who was redshirted last year because of injury but has been praised by coaches in the spring.

Bryant, Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel are three ball carriers who could all make a case to be the starter come Aug. 30 against Rice.

4. Defensive line rotation

With Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt gone to the NFL and Tony Springmann still rehabbing from a seriously injured knee, there are a lot of question marks along the defensive front.

The talent is there, but whether it is talent that has been molded into a cohesive and effective unit remains to be seen.

One of the biggest names on either side of the ball to watch Saturday is defensive end Ishaq Williams. The former five-star recruit has not lived up to his billing so far in his career, but Notre Dame needs him to become a consistently disruptive force on the edge in the fall.

On the inside, the ability of Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day to be effective tackles and stay healthy will be key to the Irish's success in 2014.

How Romeo Okwara, Anthony Rabasa, Justin Utupo and Isaac Rochell grow into expanded roles will be pivotal as well.

5. Recruiting

Blue-Gold Game weekend is usually good for a couple of verbal commitments, but that may not happen this year.

Notre Dame will have fewer than 10 Class of 2014 recruits on campus, which is unfortunate considering the beautiful forecast for South Bend this weekend. But with the Fighting Irish having to be more selective with this class that is not expecting to get into the 20s in terms of members – combined with six verbal commitments already – this year's list of guests is not as hefty as in years past.

That said, big-name defensive front seven targets Jason Cornell and Justin Hilliard will be on campus.

Cornell attends Notre Dame pipeline school Cretin-Durham Hall in Minneapolis, the program that produced Michael Floyd and James Onwualu, among others. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound defensive end is one of the top 10 at his position in the country and is a four-star prospect according to Rivals.com, a national Internet recruiting service.

Hilliard is also a four-star prospect and the top-ranked inside linebacker recruit in the country. He suits up for St. Xavier in Cincinnati and is one of the more sought-after defensive players in this cycle.

It would be a banner day for the Irish if they landed just one of the two Saturday.