Dec 13, 2011, 7:30 PM EDT
With Michael Floyd set to play his final game in an Irish uniform, Brian Kelly is in a position not many people saw coming: He’s out of play-making wide receivers.
In what has been the golden age of aerial offense in South Bend, the Irish’s head coach has a problem — he’s got an offense that relies on dynamic pass catchers, and a roster that’s devoid of them. The Irish currently have the commitment of three wide receivers, with Deontay Greenberry the most capable to fill Mr. Floyd’s shoes. But Kelly and his coaching staff’s continued chase after blue-chippers like Nelson Agholor and Davonte Neal all but tell you that they know this offense needs an upgrade at a position most never saw coming.
Sizing up the Irish’s pass catching options will be much easier once Tyler Eifert‘s fate is known. If Eifert returns to South Bend for his senior season, he’ll add a much needed weapon to the fold, complemented by Alex Welch and Ben Koyack at a rather deep tight end position. But in Kelly’s spread attack, the Irish need dynamic playmakers, and the jury is still out on whether the current roster has any.
The Champs Sports Bowl might be the last game for senior John Goodman, who is eligible for a fifth year, but hasn’t shown himself to be an integral part of the offense. Theo Riddick, who was expected to be one of Kelly’s best players this season, struggled again this year with both production and injuries, and is playing the bowl game as a running back. Whether that means he’ll suit up next season in the backfield is still up for discussion. What isn’t up for discussion is that Riddick has seemed to plateau, not stepping into the role of game-breaker like Kelly and just about every Irish fan expected.
Systemically, production from a few key players has masked a disappointing crop of recruits at the wide receiver position. Simply put, there have been too many four and five star recruits that have failed to make an impact for the Irish. Let’s take a quick look back at the recruiting classes inked by Weis and Kelly, and see how the Irish got to where they are.
Put quite simply, there are a lot of swings and misses here. The 2005 recruiting class was headlined by David Grimes, who never had 400 yards in a season. The 2006 class was highlighted by Robby Paris, who scored two touchdowns in his entire career. The 2007 class was the banner year of Irish recruiting, with Golden Tate doing tremendous things in two of his three seasons and Duval Kamara showing glimpses of strong play, but never quite putting it together.
Again, Floyd became the best receiver in Irish history, but John Goodman and Deion Walker combined for one career touchdown. We’ll never know what Shaq Evans could’ve done at Notre Dame, with the receiver asking out of South Bend when Brian Kelly took charge of the program. Robby Toma, an alleged throw-in with Manti Te’o, has turned into the Irish’s best slot receiver. The 2010 class will be entering its junior season next year, with TJ Jones doing more to excite the coaching staff in his first spring practice than anything he’s done on the field since. With Bennett Jackson in the secondary and Daniel Smith bogged down by injuries, the Irish are in dire need of a receivers that can make plays in space, be a deep threat, and balance out a running game that should be strong next season.
(Updated with Matthias Farley and Davaris Daniels. Neither has played yet, with Farley profiling more as a slot type receiver and Daniels seemingly athletic enough to play outside.)
For as much grief as Tommy Rees received throughout the year for locking on Floyd as a primary target, his secondary options (other than Eifert) have struggled to balance an offense that depended on two solid running options and Floyd and Eifert. Two running backs, a solid wide receiver and tight end sound an awful lot like a pro-style offense. That the Irish were able to put up more 500 yard games than they had since the 2005 offensive explosion says a lot for the work Kelly did with what he has.
There will be no Floyd next season, and there might not be an Eifert either. And without options in a spread offense, the Irish will always be limited in Kelly’s offense, whether or not the quarterback can run.
For Kelly and his staff, the sales pitch should be simple. Playmakers wanted. Opportunities available immediately. That message should be to recruiting targets like Algohor and Neal, as well as players like Riddick, Jones and Smith — all three of whom should feel like their best football is in front of them.
Kelly’s tackled recruiting as a way to rebuild a roster with obvious deficiencies. First, reloading the front seven of the defense. Next, finding new players for a secondary that’ll need to replace three starters next year. Now, the key will be finding players that not only can replace Michael Floyd, but give the Irish offense the ability to play as a true spread offense.
Does Kelly need to find All-Americans like Floyd and Tate, two of the best to ever come through the school? It’d be great if he did. But more important than hitting home runs, the Irish need to find players that can fit the system. After five years of missing more than hitting the mark, it’ll be imperative for this recruiting class to reload a position suddenly in dire need of reinforcements.