SOUTH BEND — The last time the Notre Dame football team was in action, the Fighting Irish were losing to Clemson in the College Football Playoff Semifinal. A 30-3 defeat brought an abrupt end to an otherwise perfect season that saw Notre Dame in the championship picture for the first time since 2012.
That was 2018, though, and the Irish are ready to prove the loss to the Tigers was not the ceiling for this program. They get their first chance to prove that with Saturday's 90th annual Blue-Gold Game.
Start time for Saturday's game is 12:30 p.m. The rules for the spring game are a little different than a normal game, as each offensive possession will start at the 25-yard line. The first half will have two 15-minute quarters with normal clock stoppages. The second half will then have two 15-minute quarters with a running clock. There will be no kickoffs, all punts will be fair caught and there will be no fakes or defensive rushes on punts, PATs or field goals. There is no overtime, meaning the game can end in a tie.
With a lot of new players getting playing time during, here are three positions to keep an eye on.
It's been a spring of evolution at the Irish quarterback position, as the Notre Dame coaching staff has challenged starter Ian Book to throw the ball downfield more. So far, they've been impressed from what they've seen. This has allowed the offense to start developing more components to the playbook.
"We're adding some misdirection within the offense. We want to move some backers with some misdirection and open some windows that we really haven't gotten down to a science yet," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. "There's definitely some things there for (Book) to improve on."
Book's backup, redshirt freshman Phil Jurkovec, has also seen progress this spring. Offensive coordinator Chip Long made sure to quickly reassure there isn't a quarterback competition leaving camp, however.
"One is on advanced calculus, and the other is still trying to get past algebra right now," Long said, referring to Book and Jurkovec, respectively. "Phil's still going to be a good player. It's just going to take time."
Arguably the Irish's top offensive weapon from a season ago, Miles Boykin, declared for the NFL Draft in January. This leaves a big void at the top of the wide receiver depth chart for Notre Dame.
Chase Claypool is expected to slide into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart after posting a career-high 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns a season ago. Slot receiver Chris Finke is also back, giving Notre Dame two key starters back on offense.
The question marks come from the remainder of the receiving core, particularly with Kevin Austin and Michael Young. Both had spare playing time in 2018, with both being used primarily as deep-ball threats. Young hopes having a healthy spring will help him be ready more for the upcoming season.
"I would just say I'm more durable. Also, just being more consistent. Never getting too high, never getting too low," Young said. "I think that's really what has propelled me this spring, so hopefully I can just continue it going through the summer and fall camp."
The defensive position with the most question marks following the 2018 season is linebacker. The Irish lost two of their top players in Te'von Coney and Drue Tranquill, both of whom expect to hear their names called at the NFL Draft at the end of April. This has left Notre Dame with a lot of talent and experience to replace.
Asmar Bilal is the only returning starter at the position from a season ago. Who will play around Bilal, however, is still a question mark. Shayne Simon, Bo Bauer, Jack Lamb, Jordan Genmark Heath, Paul Moala and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are among the players who could be starting for Notre Dame this season.
"(It's a) strategic moving of parts and pieces to find out the best combination," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said. "I think if we're doing the right thing, coaching wise and conceptually, the ability to move people around becomes an advantage ... we're still a work in progress and have a long way to go, but slowly but surely the picture is clearing up. I think Saturday will be an important part of that."
Austin Hough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN