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.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.