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.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC

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This fall’s schedule places Notre Dame’s bye week directly before the matchup with USC. Spending two weeks preparing for this rendition of the Trojans will be a nice, and likely a needed, luxury. USC is deservedly mentioned in any conversation on College Football Playoff contenders.

2016 REVIEW
Part of the reasoning to holding the Trojans in high esteem entering this season ties to how they ended last year. That strong finish stands in stark contrast to how they opened 2016.

Replacing an NFL-bound quarterback in Cody Kessler and a second-round pick of a linebacker/safety who led their defense in every way in Su’a Cravens, USC struggled on both sides of the ball to begin last season. Frankly, describing the season-opener as a struggle is charitable. The 52-6 loss to Alabama was a complete and utter rout, exactly as the score implies a year later.

A win over Utah State a week later did not give USC enough momentum to handle the following two contests, losses at Stanford and Utah to drop the Trojans to 1-3 after having started the year in the top 20 of both the coaches and the AP polls.

Enter then-sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. His first career start came against the Utes, and while his presence did not yield a victory that week, he did proceed to lead USC to nine straight wins, culminating with a 52-49 topping of Penn State in a back-and-forth shootout in the Rose Bowl. That positive ending bumped the Trojans to No. 3 in the final coaches poll and No. 5 in the AP.

Also included in the winning streak was a 26-13 victory at Washington, a win USC nearly had a chance to repeat in the Pac 12 championship game, except Colorado finished a game ahead of the Trojans in the South Division. The Buffaloes’ one previous loss in the conference? It indeed came at the hands of Darnold’s group.

WHAT USC LOST
Darnold will need to turn to new targets this year, having lost his top two receivers from 2016. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers combined to catch 126 passes for 1,610 yards and 14 touchdowns with an average of 12.8 yards per reception.

Juju Smith-Schuster (Getty Images)

Darnold will also be protected by a few new offensive linemen, losing left tackle Chad Wheeler, right tackle Zach Banner and left guard Damien Mama, a former Notre Dame recruiting target.

Defensively, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was a first-round draft pick. Not only did he have five interceptions last year, but he also had two punt returns and two kick returns for scores. His secondary compatriot, safety Leon McQuay, heard his name called in the sixth round.

WHAT USC GAINED
The country’s No. 6 recruiting class, per rivals.com, featured 23 commits total and 17 four-star prospects. The most-likely of those to see a genuine role this season is running back Stephen Carr. While he will not start or become the primary ballcarrier, barring injury, Carr will likely contribute to the Trojans offense beginning early in the season.

Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu could open the season as a starter, filling in where Stevie Tu’ikolovatu left off.

HEAD COACH
If USC had not turned its season around last September, it is likely Clay Helton would have spent this offseason sweating. Instead, he has found a grip on the position he twice held on an interim basis.

This will be his second full season as the Trojans head coach, following three years as the offensive coordinator under Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian, and three years as Kiffin’s quarterbacks coach.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Darnold has gotten the most hype this offseason, and it is warranted after he completed 67.2 percent of his passes in his 10 starts, throwing 31 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Yet, Darnold may not be the biggest key to the USC offense. That would be junior running back Ronald Jones. Jones notched 1,082 rushing yards and 12 scores last year, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

Ronald Jones (Getty Images)

Hence, no matter how highly-touted Carr is, he will not usurp Jones.

Receivers senior Steven Mitchel and junior Deontay Burnett will attempt to keep opposing defenses from focusing only on Jones, along with sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe. Burnett caught 56 passes for 622 yards and seven touchdowns last season while Imatorbhebhe averaged 14.7 yards on his 17 catches, finding the end zone four times.

If they can match the production lost from Smith-Schuster and Rogers, the Trojans should be able to exceed last year’s 477 yards per game. For that matter, when Darnold took over as starter, USC’s output jumped to 523.3 yards per game, including 225 rushing yards each week.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Only a third of the teams in the country can claim a linebacker on the Butkus Award Watch List. The Trojans trot out three in junior Cameron Smith (83 tackles, six for loss), junior Porter Gustin (68 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss) and senior Uchenna Nwosu (53 tackles, three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss). The trio will ease some of the pressure felt by USC’s secondary as it works to replace Jackson and McQuay.

Overall, the Trojans defense spreads the wealth. Last season nine defenders made at least 50 tackles, five of which return. For context: The Irish had six such tacklers in 2016, four of which return.

SEASON OUTLOOK
USC will have a good 2017. The question is just how good. The coaches poll slotted the Trojans at No. 4. The AP poll, set to be released today (Monday) at noon Eastern, should offer a similar gauge.

If USC gets past Stanford in week two, it will be well on its way toward clearing an over/under win total of 9.5. In the Pac-12 South, the greatest competition will be Utah, who the Trojans host the week before they head to Notre Dame.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina

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It illustrates the nature of the NFL Draft that No. 2 overall pick quarterback Mitch Trubisky and eventual second-rounder and former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer were hardly ever in the same conversation about the 2017 first overall pick. Trubisky rose up draft boards after, and possibly partly due to, Kizer had already fallen down them.

No matter where the two passers went in April’s draft, both their former teams are now adjusting to life without them. Notre Dame’s response to that is clear: Plug junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush into an offense that did not lose much else. North Carolina, meanwhile, has a lot more questions to answer in addition to the quarterback quandary.

2016 REVIEW
In the span of the first week of October, North Carolina went from a possibly program-defining victory to a harsh reminder it is not yet joined the ACC’s elite. From there, the season stumbled forward, culminating in a three-game FBS-level losing streak.

The Tar Heels upended Florida State on Oct. 1 in Tallahassee thanks to a 54-yard game-winning field goal from senior Nick Weiler. Suddenly at 4-1 — with the only loss being a respectable 33-24 defeat to then-No. 18 Georgia in a season kickoff special — North Carolina could think big picture.

Virginia Tech had other ideas. Only a week later, the same team that had just scored a road upset of the No. 12 team in the country fell at home to the No. 25 Hokies by a not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 34-3.

In the first paragraph of this section, it notes the Tar Heels “stumbled forward” after that loss. That phrasing was chosen to indicate North Carolina did not outright collapse. It, in fact, followed up the clunker with a 20-13 win at No. 16 Miami (FL), raising the Tar Heels’ record in one-possession games to 3-0. Somewhere in the next few weeks, though, that clutch ability disappeared.

North Carolina lost its final three games against FBS foes — the distinction is needed since the Tar Heels slipped in a 41-7 victory over Football Championship Subdivision power The Citadel before their regular season finale — all by one score. Included in that streak: Losses to each of North Carolina’s biggest rivals, 28-27 at Duke and 28-21 vs. North Carolina State.

A 25-23 defeat to No. 16 Stanford in the Sun Bowl dropped the Tar Heels’ record to 8-5, quite a disappointment if looking back on the excitement of the Oct. 1 triumph.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA LOST
Including Trubisky, six North Carolina contributors were drafted by the NFL this spring. Essentially, all of the Tar Heels’ offensive skill position players departed, including four of their top-five receivers and their top-four rushers (with Trubisky third).

Ryan Switzer (Getty Images)

Ryan Switzer stands out as the most notable receiver, pulling in 96 catches last season for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. He was also the long-established punt returner, someone who Notre Dame game-planned around controlling back in 2014, and game-planned around successfully, it should be remembered. Elijah Hood, a former Notre Dame commit, and TJ Logan combined to rush for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns last year before both hearing their names called at the draft.

On the other side of the ball, North Carolina lost far less, most notably third-round draft pick defensive tackle Nazir Jones, who had 2.5 sacks and 7 more tackles for loss.

The aforementioned Florida State hero, kicker Weiler, also departed.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA GAINED
The Tar Heels incoming graduate transfers warrant as much, if not more, recognition as the recruiting class. Head coach Larry Fedora seemingly raided the SEC’s cupboards for any suitable spare ingredients, coming away with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, Florida center Cameron Dillard and Auburn running back Stanton Truitt.

Brandon Harris (Getty Images)

Truitt will need to compete with freshman Michael Carter, who turned down offers from Florida, Tennessee and Louisville to join a 20-member North Carolina recruiting class, rated No. 30 in the country by rivals.com. Receiver J.T. Cauthen joined Carter in the class rather than head to Michigan, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech and considering the exodus of receivers this offseason, could become an immediate contributor.

HEAD COACH
In Fedora’s five seasons at Chapel Hill, he has amassed a 40-25 overall record, making last year’s 8-5 tally exactly average for his tenure. He has led North Carolina to four bowl games in those five years, but making it five out of six will be a difficult task this season.

It should be noted Fedora has shown to prefer a mobile quarterback, even getting 308 yards and five rushing touchdowns out of the prototypical-passer Trubisky. Harris may fit that mold perfectly.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Losing four of its top-five receivers, top-four rushers and quarterback would be hard for any offense to recover from. In order to do so, starting with the offensive line makes sense, and the Tar Heels return three starters plus a promising sophomore right tackle, in addition to the Florida transfer Dillard.

What will remain unclear at least until North Carolina’s opener against Cal, and will probably remain muddled well into the season, is who exactly that line will block for. Truitt and Carter are competing with sophomore Jordan Brown for top running back honors. Shoulder injuries hampered Truitt throughout his time at Auburn. Once finally healthy last season, he took 31 carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns while catching seven passes for another 100 yards and a score. Those numbers may be modest, but they easily trump Brown’s totals of 20 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Of the three, Carter has received the most hype. He may not be the lead back to begin the season, but six weeks in it is distinctly possible the freshman will have absorbed enough to take that role.

Presumably, Harris will start at quarterback. It is not a sure thing, and junior Nathan Elliott has reportedly been given an equal share of repetitions in preseason practice, but the dual-threat Harris makes the most sense. Either way, the quarterback will be looking to an inexperienced receiver corps led by senior Austin Proehl, the son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl. The younger Proehl totaled 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns last year, finishing third on the team in both of the first two categories.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
On the complete opposite end of the returning players spectrum when compared to the offense, North Carolina’s defense returns its top three tacklers and all of its linebackers, led by senior Cole Holcomb (115 tackles) and junior Andrew Smith (113). Century tacklers are somewhat rare in college football, making it even more notable the Tar Heels return a third in senior safety Donnie Miles and his 102 takedowns.

Cole Holcomb (Getty Images)

Losing Jones in the middle is no small thing, but then again, this defense allowed 227.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. Plugging in junior Aaron Crawford (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) could bolster that aspect of containment, even if he is not necessarily as much of a presence in the backfield as Jones was.

Senior cornerback MJ Stewart could have probably declared for the draft, instead opting to return to build on a season in which he broke up 11 passes, leading a secondary that rated No. 12 in the country against the pass.

The Tar Heels defense did lose one more additional piece: Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik retired. Linebackers coach John Papuchis takes over, meaning continuity should lead to little drop-off.

SEASON OUTLOOK
North Carolina scored 32.3 points per game in 2016, a low in Fedora’s time there. It is hard to believe an entirely new offense will top that number this season, putting even more pressure on the defense. That defense, however, performed at a level consistent with Fedora’s tenure, allowing 24.9 points per game. Aside from 2014’s 39.0 points allowed per game, which led to Chizik’s arrival, Fedora’s defenses have given up between 24.5 and 25.7 points.

All this is to say, matching last year’s 8-5 seems a tall order. It is more likely the Tar Heels fall short of their over/under win total of 7, finishing fifth or sixth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Yesterday: Miami (OH)
Tomorrow: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Friday at 4: 40 Predictions

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The Notre Dame class of 2021 moved onto campus today. Roommates were met. Lofts were modulated. Mothers cried. These things are as inevitable as summer equaling visits to brewery rooftops, Christmas bringing familial tension, and someone being upset about where the Irish land (or don’t land) in Monday’s Associated Press top-25 release.

Years ago, I managed to move in two days earlier than most freshmen. International students are afforded that luxury. No, I am not from abroad. As has been discussed, this scribe is a Wisconsin native. Rather, my roommate was from Canada, though I will always take great joy in reminding him my green-and-gold hometown is actually farther north by latitude than his Maple Leaf roots.

Two weeks after moving in, I wrote my first football article for The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper. It was actually purposed for a long-since defunct blog. It included references to “Rudy,” Sly Stallone and initial, but momentary, college friendships. Pretty standard fare, in all of reality, though the ignorance of the AP Stylebook and improper usage of only makes its author cringe in rereading.

That roommate did not notice those errors. Rather, his review was simple and has stuck with me nearly a decade later.

“You shouldn’t have started with ‘I think.’ It made your point weaker.”

He was, and is, right. With all due respect to that fact, arbitrary, varied and debatable predictions may necessitate a weaker stance. Thus, I think … (more…)

Notre Dame unveils Rockne Heritage uniforms

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Notre Dame will wear Rockne Heritage uniforms in the home schedule’s season finale against Navy on Nov. 18. Though they are alternate uniforms, the outfits are far more in-line with the typical Irish weekly attire than most years’ additional uniform designs are.

Clearly paralleling the $400 million in updates to Notre Dame Stadium, “The House That Rock Built,” the uniforms combine the fashion of Knute Rockne’s era with the progress afforded nearly a century later.

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“I think it is a unique opportunity with this uniform to celebrate the past while creating the future,” Under Armour Design Director Nick Billiris said in a University release. “That’s why we incorporated some of those elements that harken back to the 1920s and the 1930s when Knute Rockne was there, but we did it with cutting edge fabrics and technology. The whole idea is that this uniform is a time-capsule of Notre Dame football from when Rockne first grew the football program into the national power that it has become today.”

Perhaps most notably, the uniforms will feature a ND monogram unfamiliar to modern fans. It comes from a 1912 sweater, per Billiris.

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The helmets will lack some of their weekly shine, with subtle graphics intended to elicit the leather helmets of the 1930s.

Each uniform will read “ROCKNE” across the back nameplate, and will feature an excerpt of his famous “We’re going to get them on the run, and we’re going to keep them on the run” pep talk on the shoulders.