"We played USC last year -- that field was terrible. Oh-my-God," the outspoken junior cracked. "I'm excited."
Added quarterback Everett Golson, who was sacked at least once in Saturday's spring game because he lost his footing: "It's nice. It's nice. Because I came from FieldTurf, even in high school. So it's going to be a joy, man."
But the decision was hardly that simple, given the history and tradition that follows the Irish football program at nearly every turn. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick, a 1976 graduate of the school, knew this better than most, which is why he spent much of the last two months explaining to others in leadership positions at the school why he decided that the move from natural grass to FieldTurf was the best way to go for the future.
Swarbrick arrived at the decision in late February. He said that the underwhelming surface that the Blue-Gold game was played on reflected the best condition maintenance could possibly get the field in for game time. Notre Dame replaced its surface four times last year, he said -- after commencement, in July and twice in the season.
"It's probably more a personal preference than sort of an athletic department preference," Swarbrick said of natural grass. "I like it. I'm an alum here. It's part of the dynamic of the place, and so I was inclined to say, Can we do it? And some of the other iconic stadiums have held onto it: Green Bay, the Rose Bowl. And so both of those things played a role. But we just couldn't get ourselves there."
Swarbrick said there have yet to be discussions about any possible logos or marks on the field, but that he would not anticipate any major changes. The FieldTurf's color, for the curious eccentrics out there, will be green.
The news, along with the winter announcement of the Campus Crossroads Project to expand the stadium's use, could result in more non-football events, with Swarbrick specifically mentioning a hockey game.
"Everybody is in agreement; if we can get the best surface there and grass, we'd love to have that," coach Brian Kelly said after the spring game. "We just haven't been able to get to that. This is my fifth year here at Notre Dame and we haven't been able to get to that. This is the best option available to us, and I'm happy that Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, our administration, has acted and we are going to have that playing field in place for the fall so we don't have to have those concerns going into 2014."
2. Junior Maximo Espitia came to Cal after playing fullback at an Oregon high school. He got issued a running back’s number (No. 19), and then former Bears coach Jeff Tedford moved him to tight end. Tedford got fired, and his replacement, Sonny Dykes, shifted Espitia to inside receiver. Late in the nightmare of last season, when Cal went winless against FBS opponents, Espitia moved to safety to plug a hole in the depth chart. This spring, he is playing linebacker. At least he knows everyone on the team now.
3. I understand why Notre Dame is installing FieldTurf at Notre Dame Stadium. After resodding the field three times last year, the athletic department might be sick of fertilizer. But what I love about Notre Dame is the lengths the university has gone to maintain the stadium's look and feel as it did when Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz coached there. Virtually no signage, no field paint, and, yes, a grass field. Oh well.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly moved swiftly up to the post-game podium, joking with the assembled media members that everyone better hurry up so they could get back to watching the Masters. Kelly played the famed course at Augusta National last month as part of a foursome with Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and Notre Dame alumnus Jimmy Dunne, who put the group together.
Saturday's Blue-Gold spring game -- otherwise known as "Natural Grass: The Finale" -- could not have been farther away from the Peach State. But it probably served a somewhat therapeutic purpose for the Fighting Irish head coach for the first time since he arrived here in 2010.
Golson looked uneven at times but is slowly easing his way back into the offense. Malik Zaire, meanwhile, backed up all of his bold spring talk and made all of the big plays in the "Blue" team's (offense) 63-58 win over the "Gold" team (defense).
The redshirt freshman completed 18 of 27 passes for 292 yards and two scores. Golson completed 13 of 23 passes for 160 yards. Both players seem more than capable of running the offense Kelly would like, which explains why he made it clear afterward that he prefers just one man atop the depth chart.
"We should be as coaches and myself, personally, I should be able to figure this thing out, and we should be able to get our players in a position where we can have a starting quarterback," Kelly said.
"So I've been doing it long enough that I would hope that I can figure it out come time to play Rice."
Kelly had said earlier in the week that he threw everything at the quarterbacks this spring -- in part to see what they could handle, in part to accelerate the growth of a young defense under a new coordinator.
The learning curve, though, will be quicker for the offense this season, with the low-scoring games of recent years likely becoming as ancient as the natural grass his stadium is leaving behind. And that's a byproduct of more dynamic play under center.
"We have to be more proficient offensively," Kelly said. "We have to put points on the board that we have not been able to consistently do against the best teams in the country. So that's certainly been the focus, and it will have to be this fall again playing the kind of schedule we do. We can't go down to Florida State and hope to win 10 to 7. We're going to have to put some points on board."
Much of that will depend on Golson's acclimation with a new supporting cast. He is 15 pounds heavier, more mature after returning from suspension and, presumably, a smarter signal caller after spending the fall with George Whitfield Jr.
Having someone with the talent and attitude of Zaire behind him should only make him better -- which, indirectly, is exactly what the lefty wants to hear.
"My mindset doesn't change at all: Whether I'm declared the starter or whether I'm the backup or whatever the situation is," Zaire said. "Because in my mind, I'm always looking just to get better every day and whatever it takes for this team to win a lot of games, I'm willing to do that. So I'm always working as if nobody's giving me a chance. I think that's what's really my backing in it.
"I feel like not enough people are giving me that chance and that opportunity, that's my personal belief. So as long as I keep believing that and working my butt off and try to be the best I can be for this team, then that's all I can ask for."
That might be all the Irish can ask for after 15 spring practices, as they are better off at the game's most important position moving forward.
"It's competition," Golson said. "There's no animosity toward him, but there's definitely competition, and I'm open to it and ready for it."
The sophomore left-hander threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns in the spring scrimmage on Saturday.
Golson, the former starter back from a yearlong academic suspension, threw for 154 yards on 13 of 24 passing and ran for a score.
The school also announced Saturday that the field at Notre Dame Stadium would be converted to artificial turf before the fall.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Artificial turf is finally coming to Notre Dame Stadium, putting an end to yearly speculation about what the school would do about its outdated playing surface.
Installation of the FieldTurf will begin shortly following the school's May 16-18 commencement weekend, with an expected completion date of Aug. 15, 2014.
The announcement was made during the first quarter of the school's Blue-Gold spring game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, where the surface clearly showed some wear and tear from the 2013 season.
"We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a release. "However, the reality is that in two of the last three seasons since we moved Commencement to the Stadium, we have been unable to produce an acceptable playing surface. That, combined with the likely impacts of future construction at the Stadium, led me to conclude that we would continue to struggle to maintain a grass field that meets the expectations of our student-athletes and fans as it relates to appearance, performance and safety.
"Synthetic turf will assist our game preparation because our team will be able to play and practice on the same surface. We will also be able to utilize the Notre Dame Stadium field for practices on home football Fridays and other occasions, whereas that is currently unrealistic. Additionally, this change allows us to eliminate the risk to players posed by the asphalt perimeter that has to be maintained around our current field."
The Fighting Irish already practice on FieldTurf at both their indoor and outdoor complexes, the Loftus Sports Center and the LaBar Practice Complex, respectively.
Derrick from Warsaw, Ill., writes: Matt, first off, thanks for doing such a great job covering the Irish! I always look forward to reading everything you write! My question is, with all the great options the Irish have at running back heading into the season, how do you see everything going at the running back position? Will one guy get the lion's share of the carries? Do they go with the hot hand? Or will each guy get a fairly equal share of touches? Thanks! And keep up the great work!
Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Derrick. I think everyone will get a fair share early. Cam McDaniel is obviously the veteran of the group and will probably "start" the season with the first unit, but I don't see it being a traditional 1-2-3 pecking order. I said it last year (and was wrong) and will say it again now: I do think the bulk of the workload will go to Greg Bryant if he's playing near the top of his game. After all of his talk this spring about being "hungry and humbled," I think the light will click on for him in 2014.
Matt Fortuna: Brian, I was actually wondering the same thing recently, as he rebounded from his leg injury last year to win offensive scout team player of the year: Here's what offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said when I asked him Monday: "He is absolutely physically very gifted, and right in the mix with all those young guys as far as what we feel like he can do potentially down the road. Like a lot of young guys, the more he sees things, the more he does things, the better he's going to be. He's not where we need him to be yet, but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there moving forward. We're just trying to speed up the process as fast as we can."
Matt Fortuna: Jeremy, like most things, I think it will only grow with time. Sure, a lot of the turnovers are what stick out in most fans' minds right now, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Notre Dame had flat-out awful quarterback luck in three of Rees' four seasons there. And yet, the Irish were lucky beyond relief to have a guy like Rees who not only knew, but embraced his role, stepping in unfazed every step of the way. And in the one year they had good quarterback luck, in 2012? That 12-0 regular season doesn't happen without Rees being the great teammate he was, relieving the guy who took his job and leading the Irish to some crucial wins. Speaking of which, that locker room absolutely loved him, which speaks louder to anything the rest of us could say.
Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Thomas. Brian Kelly actually addressed this topic Wednesday, saying that the left guard spot could very well be affected by the right tackle spot, which would be between Elmer and McGlinchey. That could provide an opening at left guard for Matt Hegarty, who has plenty of experience across the line and has filled in at center for Nick Martin this spring. As for the depth question, we'e seen Notre Dame sign nine offensive linemen across the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes. So while the numbers are down this spring -- especially on days such as Wednesday, when Elmer had a stomach ailment and the Irish were down to eight healthy offensive linemen -- the addition of four more come fall camp should be a big boost to this group's daily progress.
- Brian Kelly talks with CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler about Everett Golson, his Augusta experience featuring Tom Brady and more.
- Notre Dame is expecting its running backs to be featured more in the passing game, Andrew Owens writes on BlueandGold.com.
- Notre Dame's quarterbacks still have a lot of work to do, LaMond Pope writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
- It's up to the Irish safeties to improve their play after a downturn in 2013, Tim O'Malley writes on IrishEyes.com.
- Romeo Okwara and Corey Robinson made a new friend on Thursday.
Getting outside for five recent practices has presented some clarity, but the fair-catch-only rule for Saturday's Blue-Gold game won't offer many surprises to the public.
"I’m sure we’ll drop three of them and the Internet will blow up on the punt returns," Kelly quipped.
Kelly isn't sure who the main guy will be, saying Greg Bryant, Torii Hunter Jr., Amir Carlisle and even sports information director Michael Bertsch will get a chance Saturday. (He was kidding about the last name ... we think.)
By recent standards, TJ Jones performed the duty remarkably last season, leading the charge on an Irish return unit that averaged 7.1 yards per punt return, good for 80th nationally. Of course, given the averages in Kelly's first three years at Notre Dame -- 2.2 (120th nationally in 2012), 3.7 (112th in 2011) and 5.4 (100th in 2010) -- there was plenty of room for growth.
Some lessons from Jones' time, however, could carry over, as Bryant received plenty of reps among the crowd during his first preseason camp last August.
"We have some previous experience watching him and spending time with him," Kelly said. "We’re relying on some of that, quite frankly, as to why we have some confidence. I can’t say for certain we’ve got that thing figured out."
Bryant admitted to having some difficulty last season adjusting to the hang time of punter Kyle Brindza. His mindset, meanwhile, is already up to speed.
"You've just got to be fearless," the redshirt freshman said. "Football is football. It's what we've been doing since we were little, so it's like one man won't bring me down."