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Spring Solutions: Wide Receivers

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It’s been a good run for Notre Dame at wide receiver. For a school that many think struggles to bring in elite playmakers, there sure have been quite a few to make their way through South Bend lately. Starting with Chicago Cubs opening day starter Jeff Samardzija, continuing on to Biletnikoff Winner Golden Tate and first round draft pick Michael Floyd, there’s been no shortage of elite pass catching targets in the Irish offense, with Tyler Eifert joining that group on his way to being selected in the first or second round of the NFL Draft.

But for the first time in recent memory, there’s no elite threat at the position for Notre Dame. And while the depth chart finally has the type of balance Brian Kelly and company would like to see at the position, the offense will need to identify and develop the next great receiver, with a few candidates that look like they have a chance to become one.

Let’s take a look at the Irish depth chart at receiver entering the spring, and set some goals for a position group that needs to take another big step forward.

WIDE RECEIVER DEPTH CHART

TJ Jones, Sr.
Daniel Smith, Sr.
Luke Massa, Sr.
DaVaris Daniels, Jr.
Justin Ferguson, Soph.
Chris Brown, Soph.
Davonte Neal, Soph.
James Onwualu, Fr.
Corey Robinson, Fr.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

TJ Jones: Last season was a great step forward for Jones, who showed the type of playmaking ability and guts needed to be a frontline college wide receiver. After a sophomore season stuck in neutral, Jones played big his junior season and looks like a prime candidate to have a breakthrough senior year.

If we look at the trajectory of a Brian Kelly player, you see upperclassmen making the biggest impacts. There’s every reason to believe that Jones will have the trust of this coaching staff, and he could be to the wide receiver corps what Theo Riddick did to the running game in 2012.

For Jones, that means bringing the type of leadership Riddick showed last season. He’ll have that opportunity this spring when he’s working with a young position group, with a whopping five receivers that are going through their first spring practice.

Daniel Smith: There’s no day like today for Smith, who will either emerge this season or finish his eligibility elsewhere. (Smith technically saw time in all three of his seasons on campus, though battled injuries throughout.)

Smith’s stats may have been nonexistent, but he was the team’s best blocking wideout last year. While that was important in Notre Dame’s fairly conservative running attacked, that’s doubtful to mean much as the offense continues to evolve into an explosive passing attack.

With size that’s rare on the depth chart and a coaching staff that’s said all the right things about the local product, it’s time to prove Smith’s ready to lead.

Luke Massa: Massa was just starting to show himself last spring when an ACL injury ended his 2012 season before it started. But the converted quarterback has shown signs of promise at wide receiver, where he’s another big body with surprising athleticism.

We’ll find out if Massa is left behind by a young promising depth chart or if he’s able to find a niche in this offense. At 6-foot-4, 225-pounds, he’s got intriguing size.

DaVaris Daniels: It’s time to see if Daniels can be the next great Irish receiver. He’s certainly the leading candidate. After a promising debut season that was shortened with two significant injuries, Daniels looked solid against Alabama, though the offense was playing from behind.

Athletically, it’s all there for Daniels. After a year watching and a year learning, it’s time for Daniels to spend a year dominating. With no other true No. 1 wide receiver candidate on campus, the job is there for Daniels’ taking. We’ll find out this spring how serious he is about taking it.

Justin Ferguson: It didn’t take long for Ferguson to see the field. And when he did, he shared a number with Danny McCarthy. That drew the attention of the referees, and forced Ferguson to switch to No. 82, a jersey owned by injured tight end Alex Welch.

Ferguson had about the same impact as Welch did on the season, playing little after some early mop-up duty against Navy. But there’s hope that Ferguson makes an early impact this spring, with the strong and athletic youngster given an opportunity to fight for a job on the outside of the formation.

Chris Brown: There’s little doubt about Brown’s speed, which we saw on display as he streaked past the Oklahoma secondary and changed the game with a deep completion. But this spring, Brown will be tasked with making his game multidimensional.

The want-to is there for the rising sophomore. The record-settling prep triple jumper is skipping Big East track season to focus on football, understanding that a job is there for him if he takes advantage. Brown’s also got work to do in the weight room, where the skinny rising sophomore needs to add some bulk.

Davonte Neal: When Neal was given the starting punt return job, many expected that the diminutive freshman was just too slippery to keep off the field. But Neal’s impact was negligible in 2012, with the punt return game never getting started and Neal stuck behind Robby Toma at the slot receiver position.

Part of Neal’s modest season was a product of scheme. The Irish spent most of their time in a base offense with two-tight ends, blocking Neal’s path onto the field. And Kelly and special teams coordinator Scott Booker seemed complacent with making fair catches in the punt return game, though Neal showed both his aggressiveness — and youthful inexperience — when he tried to make something happen in the National Championship game.

With Toma gone and the slot position up for grabs, the spring is Neal’s time to seize control of a starting job.

James Onwualu: For an early enrolled freshman, merely learning what it takes to play at the college level is reason enough to jump start a college career. But expect Onwualu, the first football player from Cretin-Derham Hall to graduate early and participate in spring football, to have more lofty ideals.

There’s a size and physicality to Onwualu’s game that’ll likely translate nicely to Brian Kelly’s offense. There’s also no shortage of confident. If he can get his game caught up to the speed of the game, expect Onwualu to try and find a niche in the offense early, and establish himself as one of the young players on this team that will do anything to see the field.

Corey Robinson: With a still growing frame, Robinson might be able to bring a literal meaning to the term “growing pains.” But on the football field the San Antonio native also has plenty of work, with the small school late bloomer likely learning more about football in his first few months on campus than he had in his lifetime.

The biggest question we’ll have answered this spring is whether or not Robinson has the speed and quickness to break in at wideout. If he does, he immediately gives the Irish a unique weapon and someone that can be utilized immediately in the red zone.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.