Spring Solutions: Wide receivers


(After a bit of a layoff, we’re back with some more Spring Solutions. If you want to get caught up, check out our write-ups on the linebackers and running backs.)

There are plenty of variables to consider when predicting what the Irish wide receiving corp will bring to Brian Kelly’s table next year. Gone is Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Golden Tate, who had the most electrifying year of any player in college football last season. Also gone is the glue guy, possession receiver Robby Paris. Most importantly, the guy who was in charge of getting the ball to the wide receivers, quarterback Jimmy Clausen, is now fighting for a starting quarterback job for the Carolina Panthers.

Adding to the complexity of the equation are the wholesale changes taking place with the Irish offense. Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense was replaced by Brian Kelly’s collegiate spread attack. Both offenses have been prolific the past few seasons, but have achieved their success through very different philosophies.

Still, if its possible, the Irish find themselves with the chance to replicate or exceed last season’s performance. While there are certainly more question marks in the wide receiving depth chart, the key replacements could in many instances trump the record-setting performers that just walked out the door. While they may not match the statistical brilliance of Clausen and Tate, their successors, Michael Floyd and Dayne Crist, will have more than will likely see their names called earlier in the NFL Draft whenever they chose to leave the Irish.

(Though Floyd and Crist should take note of the recent Irish track record for sliding down draft boards when making their decisions.)

It may be foolish to think that Floyd and a group of largely unproductive wideouts can match the production of Floyd, Tate, Paris and Clausen. Yet this spring gave us the scratch work for Kelly’s formula to achieve.

           2010: Duval Kamara, Barry Gallup
           2011: Michael Floyd,
           2012: John Goodman, Deion Walker, Shaq Evans, Robby Toma, Theo Riddick
           2013: Daniel Smith, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson, Tai-ler Jones

Once upon a time, Duval Kamara was a highly-touted freshman recruit that had the potential to become an elite college wide receiver. As Kamara prepares for his final season at Notre Dame, it’s up to him to finally put together a season that captures a sliver of the potential that recruitniks thought he possessed. It appears that Kelly and his staff are giving Duval every opportunity to see the field, with his name firmly entrenched at the top of every depth chart that’s come out this spring, and he’ll see plenty of one-on-one coverage playing across from Floyd. Another senior who I thought would see a bump in productivity under Kelly was Barry Gallup, Jr. Gallup finally found a niche last season on kick off returns, mostly as a chauffeur for returner Theo Riddick, but looked good with the ball in his hand. If you were looking for Gallup to make noise in Spring Practice, you would’ve been disappointed, because you rarely heard his name among those mentioned by the staff. That said, with the speed and formations Kelly will run out there, there’s a chance for Gallup to find his niche in his final season.

If there’s a front-runner for next year’s Biletnikoff award, you’d have to put Michael Floyd with the lead dogs. It’d be the first time in the award’s history that teammates won in back-to-back years, but Floyd certainly has the skills to pull it off, though a key will be staying healthy, no easy task for Floyd thus far in his career. Also interesting will be Kelly’s usage of Floyd. There was rarely a fade route thrown this fall, a staple of the Weis era with big #3 isolated in the red zone. Floyd will likely be running different patterns in a different system, but he’ll face the same decision Tate made after last season: Stay for a senior season or chase the dream of the NFL.

 The sophomore class is crowded but undistinguished. For the Irish offense to set sail, this group will need to be ready to make the leap. John Goodman is a candidate to succeed, if only because he and Crist gave Irish fans a sneak preview of what the two could do on a long touchdown pass against Washington State. Goodman also displayed his advanced athleticism, taking snaps at quarterback in certain formations against USC. The Fort Wayne native redshirted his freshman season and even toyed with a move to quarterback with an uncertain depth chart, but will be given every chance to thrive at receiver. Deion Walker is another guy that was highly touted, but has yet to make a mark for the Irish, making only a single catch against Nevada after redshirting his freshman season. Walker had an elite list of scholarship offers, but has been stuck behind Floyd and Tate as edge receivers. Theo Riddick joins the receiving corps after averaging 5.5 yards a carry at tailback, but a crowded depth chart, solid hands, and great skill in open space made him one of Kelly’s first position changes. Riddick was knicked up most of the spring after shoulder surgery, but still looked good in the Blue-Gold Game. If you asked 100 Irish fans what freshman receiver would contribute more last season, everybody but Robby Toma’s parents would’ve picked Shaq Evans. But it was Toma who had the coaching staff’s trust down the stretch while Evans failed to see the field as the season collapsed. Still, Evans has the upside to eventually replace Floyd if he puts his mind to it, while Toma profiles as a waterbug-type slot player.

With all the receivers fighting for time this spring, it was the 17-year-old Tai-ler Jones that found his way onto the first string by the middle of spring practice. Jones impressed everybody with his speed, hands, and savvy in 15 short practices, giving Kelly a weapon many thought was a season or two away from contributing. He’ll be in the starting lineup from day one, no small feat at this position.  Austin Collinsworth is a versatile athlete who could play on either side of the ball, but committed quickly to the Irish after he was being heavily recruited by Kelly’s Bearcats staff. If you’re looking for a wildcard, look no further than Bennett Jackson. He’ll need to gain some weight under Paul Longo, but Jackson has track speed and could become a vertical threat. Hometown product Daniel Smith has the physical tools to be a D-I wide receiver, and we’ll find out if he has the speed to contribute this fall. Smith’s offers won’t wow you, but his game tape shows a playmaker that dominated the competition.  

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.