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Spring Solutions: Wide Receivers

Mar 14, 2013, 1:08 AM EDT

tj-jones

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.

  1. irish4006 - Mar 14, 2013 at 2:08 AM

    The ingredients are all there, how the WR corps performs in 2013 will likely tell more about the quality of the coaches than the players.

  2. yaketyyacc - Mar 14, 2013 at 6:50 AM

    we got to 12-0 on the back of a great defense, not a great offense. this year, if the offense does not improve, there will not be the defense to overcome.
    the “Irish Mob” freshmen will have to be the catalyst for a faster and far improved offense, and Onwaulu fits the bill. look for this young man to do good things.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Mar 14, 2013 at 3:20 PM

      There’s really no reason why the defense can’t perform at the same level as last year. Maybe we’ll allow more than 2 rushing TD’s and give up a few more points, but I think we’re only losing two starters (key guys Te’o and Kappy), but 9 returning starters and if you look at our two-deep, there are probably 16 guys with significant playing experience.

      There is also something to be said for knowing HOW to win. I think that these kids have taken steps to learn HOW to win every year.

      WRT the wide receiving corp, the spread offense is more about identifying and taking advantage of mismatches. None of the kids on Keith’s list is going to be a first round draft pick next year, but success in the spread offense is rarely about personnel. Granted, you have to have quality at every position, but you don’t need 5-star guys to win in the spread.

  3. Ted - Mar 14, 2013 at 9:08 AM

    No Torii Hunter?

    • dbldmr - Mar 14, 2013 at 12:05 PM

      Broke his leg, I believe, at some all star game. I imagine that will set him behind to some degree.

    • dudeacow - Mar 14, 2013 at 12:26 PM

      He and Will Fuller were not mentioned as they are not part of the football team yet. It is not set in stone that they will play for ND (i.e. Tee Shepard). Robinson and Onwualu enrolled early, so they are part of the football team.

  4. 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 14, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    I’m not holding my breath on this one, but I’d love to see a position grouping with Daniel Smith on one side, Luke Massa on the other and Troy Niklas at TE. It would have the safeties thinking “there is a jump ball going to someone, but who?”

    With so much talent at WR, the saying “embarassment of riches” seems to fit. Hopefully, with EG settling in at QB and the backfield being somewhat unsettled early on, the scheme will allow for putting the ball in the air enough times to satisfy all these kids. I would love, love to see a game where EG completes 25+ passes while throwing to 8-10 different receivers (including TE and RB) and yes, I typed “love” twice. It was fine to win 12 games last year leaning heavily on the defense, but I’d wouldn’t mind scoring quicker and more often by using this talented WR corps and taking some pressure off of the defense and letting Diaco put some of his creativity to work.

    • dudeacow - Mar 14, 2013 at 12:28 PM

      For that sake, add the 6′ 5″ Robinson and Onwualu who’s workout program includes exploding out of 4 feet of water 80 times in a row (http://espn.go.com/college-sports/recruiting/football/story/_/id/7792430/secret-james-onwualu-strength). That would be the ULTIMATE CFB redzone package.

      • nudeman - Mar 14, 2013 at 5:42 PM

        Sorry if I don’t get excited there

        The Bears drafted some DL from San Jose State U (Gilbert?) a couple years ago.
        High draft pick. 2nd round I think
        A video of him jumping out of a pool went virel, along with the assessment of him as a “freakishly great athlete”

        Was cut about 21 days after training camp started

      • nudeman - Mar 14, 2013 at 5:48 PM

        “viral” .. sorry

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 14, 2013 at 8:04 PM

        The interesting thing I have read about onwaulu is that he has never weight trained. Just imagine what weights and the training table might do for him

    • upthera44 - Mar 14, 2013 at 8:42 PM

      While I’m as optimistic as the next guy about next year, I gotta say I don’t see how this wide-out corps is an “embarassment of riches” and to think that way is setting up some unreastic expectations. If our standard is a BCS bowl team, even a national championship team, then where are the Amari Cooper and Marquis Lee-caliber athletes in the group? No one seems close to that level. Davaris Daniels of course is the closest thing athletically and I hope he blows up this year, but who knows… So, let’s be real, and hope that good coaching and smart call playing will make them look elite.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 15, 2013 at 10:55 AM

        what’s wrong with a little hyperbole among friends? but all kidding aside, just as eifert made EG look much better than he was last year, this year i expect EG to make these receivers look even better than they are, and i think they have already shown themselves to be more than just competent at route running, blocking and catching the ball. sure, none of them have shown that they are Lee or Cooper, but given the chance to shine i wouldn’t rule out daniels, jones, neal or even brown from having monster years. much of this will depend on the strength of the o-line, and whether ND can set up the pass with the run and give EG time to do what he does. it will be tough job for def. coordinators to scheme against brown’s speed, daniels’ explosiveness, jones’ toughness and niklas as a play-action/misdirection threat.

  5. yogihilt - Mar 14, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    GA 3 stix should me moved to WR to stretch field.. I’ve exhausted print weeks ago with his inability to be a RB who can do more than run fast with only 1 cut talent

  6. dudeacow - Mar 14, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    TJ Jones: Slippery wideout who I think will have a great year. Wonderful hands, route running, and did anyone notice how many first downs he got? It seemed like every catch was a first down.

    Daniel Smith: Not a great option for throwing to, but he may be able to guide the younger WRs on the process of blocking. Hard to keep him off the field because of his blocking skills.

    Luke Massa: I have no idea what to expect from this guy, but his height and athleticism is good. Let’s see if he can stay healthy and make an impact.

    DaVaris Daniels: So he misses the MSU, BYU, WF, USC and most of the BC game and he finishes with 490 yards in an anemic ground-based passing offense? Yeah, 1000 yds is pretty much guaranteed.

    Justin Ferguson: Has the talent and speed, but I don’t see much of an impact this year.

    Chris Brown: He will have 15+ catches with an average over 20 yds a catch.

    Davonte Neal: SOMEONE PLEASE GET THE BALL INTO HIS HANDS. When you have a guy with 4.37 speed, he needs the ball.

    • nudeman - Mar 14, 2013 at 10:12 PM

      Only thing I might take issue with here is your comment on DaVaris. I like him a lot and recall he was one of the few bright spots vs. Bama.
      A definite talent; maybe even near elite

      But you can’t look at all the time he missed and conclude that’s an anomaly. Some guys are injury prone and he might be one of them. Maybe it was due to his build, conditioning, or just bad luck. Time will tell.

      If he stays healthy, yes, 1000 yards is definitely within reach.

      • dudeacow - Mar 15, 2013 at 12:48 PM

        I say bad luck- anyone who lands on their ankle like he did against Purdue will be out for some time, and his broken collarbone can happen to anyone; it was Floyd’s lone injury. It just so happens that it was in the same year.

  7. bearcatirishfan - Mar 14, 2013 at 4:36 PM

    Zekke motta is gone too, and jamorus slaughter if you want to count him.

    • heisenbyrg - Mar 15, 2013 at 10:36 AM

      So are Gunner Kyle and Aaron Brockalynch

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Mar 15, 2013 at 10:42 AM

        You can’t blame Aaron brockalynch for leaving the program though. She had more important work to do, taking down Pacific Gas & Electric company when she found out they were dumping hexavalent chromium in the water.

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Mar 15, 2013 at 2:17 PM

        i just seemlessly wove an Erin Brockovich reference into a Notre Dame blog. How can you give that a thumbs down?

        You gotta respect the ingenuity, don’t ya?

  8. 1historian - Mar 15, 2013 at 11:02 AM

    We’ll never know how good any of these guys can be if they don’t have the QB to get the ball to them. Come August Golson will have been @ ND for 2 1/2 years. We’ve seen flashes but we want to see consistency and LEADERSHIP.

    If saying that makes me ‘the worst kind of pessimist’ so be it.

    It’s time

    • irish4006 - Mar 15, 2013 at 1:52 PM

      It is hard to tell, esp. when it’s in the head.

      Some people are less college ready coming out of high school than others. Some are just late bloomers. For Golson, yes, his development is taking time; but he is talented and capable. When (if) the switch flips, it will be amaaaaazing.

      What? I put too many As in there? I think he will deserve each one of them if he just plays to his potential.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 15, 2013 at 2:06 PM

        i think that’s the right number of a(s).

    • ibleedirish - Mar 15, 2013 at 5:12 PM

      Exactly what did you want Golson to show you his redshirt year?

    • ibleedirish - Mar 15, 2013 at 5:14 PM

      By the way, yes, you are being pessimistic. Just own it. Stop crying about it.

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