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How we got here: Wide receivers (and tight ends)

Oct 12, 2013, 12:00 PM EST

TJ Jones, Taylor Richards AP

For the first time in years, Notre Dame entered the season without a preseason All-American set to anchor the pass catchers. From Tyler Eifert to Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph to Golden Tate, the Irish leaned heavily on their best receivers during Kelly’s first three seasons, featuring a heavy dose of the Irish’s best pass catcher each campaign.

Halfway through the ’13 season, there’s better balance in the receiving game, but still one veteran stands out above the rest. TJ Jones is finally able to pick up the slack in the pass game, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded him and also able to do a wide variety of things well, working from a variety of positions. He may not be the top-flight talent that Notre Dame has been lucky to have, but he’s proved himself to be a productive player.

Working with him is DaVaris Daniels, who has all the makings of another big play receiver except the consistency this offense craves. Daniels has looked like a world beater some Saturdays while going missing on overs, a frustrating part of the process that’s helped explain some of the wild inconsistencies this offense has had.

Troy Niklas built on an impressive first year at tight end, transitioning well to a pass catching type after serving as a glorified blocker last season. And young talent has pushed for time almost immediately, with Corey Robinson, James Onwualu and Will Fuller looking the part of productive college players after being under-the-radar recruits.

Let’s take a look at how Tommy Rees’s receiving corps has done this year at the midpoint.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

TJ Jones — 33 catches, 481 yards (14.6 ypc) 4 TDs
Davaris Daniels — 25 catches 385 yards (15.4 ypc) 4 TDs
Troy Niklas — 14 catches 250 yards (17.9 ypc) 4 TDs
Chris Brown — 7 catches 125 yards (17.9 ypc)
Corey Robinson — 4 catches 66 yards (16.5 ypc)
CJ Prosise — 4 catches 34 yards (8.5 ypc)
William Fuller — 2 catches 48 yards (24 ypc)
Ben Koyack — 1 catch 19 yards
Daniel Smith — 1 catch 9 yards

THREE KEYS

Attention to detail. It’s not hard to listen to Brian Kelly the past few weeks and get the picture that he’s been frustrated with some of the mental mistakes made by this group. With the exception of TJ Jones, it’s been a learning experience for nearly all involved, disappointing when you consider guys like DaVaris Daniels sometimes look so dominant.

With senior Daniel Smith lost for the year, that’s more inexperience that’s going to be called upon to pick up the slack. But to achieve what this team wants in the second half, there’s going to be more pressure put on this inexperienced group, already tasked with understanding the complexities of a check heavy offense.

Developing youth. We’ve already seen flashes of Corey Robinson and Will Fuller. But expect the freshmen (including James Onwualu) to start pushing Chris Brown for playing time. The No. 3 wide receiver job is wide open and Brown has had a few drops to pull things tighter.

But if the offense is going to continue to depend on empty sets and five wide, a few of these guys are going to need to be rookies.

Beating man coverage. The book is out on the Irish receivers. They’ve struggled to beat man coverage on a number of occasions, partially responsible for Tommy Rees’s mediocre completion percentage.

Against USC, the Trojans will likely challenge the Irish receivers aggressively, following the blue print crafted by Michigan, Michigan State, and Oklahoma. It’ll be up to the Irish receivers to make defensive coordinators pay.

 

  1. getsome99 - Oct 12, 2013 at 3:47 PM

    I’m betting Onawalu takes Daniel Smith’s reps. Which could make that formation less predictable.

  2. mtflsmitty - Oct 12, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    Most Improved Player could be Troy Niklas. With guys like Eifert and Randolf we’ve become accustomed to TEs who play like WRa. But TN has developed from a massive and athletic sophomore with almost no technique, to a junior who has developed into not only a very solid route runner with hands, but also a very good blocker.

    I re-watch most games on DVR and often focus on his blocking. He’s been beaten maybe once or twice all season. And at the same time he’s been great is pass blocking, run blocking (where he’s taken out two guys by executing multiple blocks on a single play) and he’s been great blocking in space.

    After watching the DE from Stanford (or was he a LB?) make him look so bad last season. He’s been extremely coachable and has been executing beautifully. Hats of to BK and staff for developing him so well.

    • nudeman - Oct 12, 2013 at 4:10 PM

      Agree.
      Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually included him in the game plan occasionally?
      Not just a big guy;, also great hands and good speed.

      • viktory2013 - Oct 12, 2013 at 4:44 PM

        Absolutely. The boy is an enormous talent potentially. Next year he will be the nation’s top tight end, especially with a dynamic quarterback at the helm. With Corey Robinson, Davaris Daniels, Will Fuller and Chris Brown, they will have no problems going downfield. With Golson or Zaire the offense will be hot.

        Weak Texas had no problem with Oklahoma, but of course they had Case McCoy playing efficiently and not Turnover Tommy throwing 3 picks. Amazing what a difference a qb can make.

      • mtflsmitty - Oct 12, 2013 at 10:04 PM

        Hate to let the facts get in the way here but…

        …TN has a TD in each of our last two games, tied with four for the season, and yardage that compares logically to the WRs on the team. And considering that they are benefiting from his blocking skills they way they are, I’d say they are actually including him quite nicely.

      • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 11:28 AM

        smitty
        Yes, I realize all those things. Mainly what I am referring to is throwing it to him more often.
        There have been games where he’s been the target maybe 2 or 3 times, max.

        The game against Michigan State was the worst. There must have been 10 3rd and 2 (or less) situations and Rees kept throwing those long sideline routes, missing his WRs by yards or leading them out of bounds. I don’t know if those were Martin’s calls or if “the guy who gets us into the right plays” checked into it each time. But either way, those are situations that scream TE.

        My opinion is he looks every bit as good as Eifert and is being underutilized.

      • wisner74 - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:24 PM

        Nude – Re TN in the MSU game, I thought the same thing. But the Spartans have one of the best linebacker groups in the country, and it’s likely that had something to do with it I would think.

      • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:34 PM

        Not saying they needed to throw to him all 10 times.
        But I’d like to have seen a few targets to TN. Don’t forget he’s pretty good too and I don’t think the MSU LBs were crazy about trying to contain him, regardless of how good they might be.

        So what did we do? Pretty much ignored him completely.

        Those long, lazy sideline lobs were infuriating. None had a chance, none were well thrown, and of course none were completed. I think they got one PI call.

        It was ND’s worst this year from a play calling or audibling standpoint.

  3. getsome99 - Oct 12, 2013 at 6:13 PM

    Looks like UT had the same idea against OU that I’ve been saying all along. Run, Def, STeams, and don’t force your QB to do much. Longhorns ran the ball 60 times today and only threw 21. TD’s on an INT and a punt return. 😳

  4. danl16 - Oct 12, 2013 at 10:46 PM

    Keith,
    I know it’s off subject, but worth mentioning. Michigan just lost to Penn State! 4OT. Great game played by Christian Hackenburg QB for Penn State. He is 18 yrs old and starting. He is not mobile and pocket passer. Watching Zaire, clearly Malik has an arm and mobility. But I guess, most likely CH will bolt after his junior yr. In fairness to BK his offense is much more complicated than Penn State! I realize I’m beating a dead horse and TR is a great kid but somewhere along the way, MZ needs to see the field. I don’t buy into this redshirt freshman. If your good then play him. Why didn’t BK redshirt Jaylon Smith?..because he can flat out play and so can MZ.

    • mtflsmitty - Oct 12, 2013 at 11:51 PM

      I was blown away the the PSU QB is a freshman. I only saw the OTs but he looked pretty good. It looks like he understands the offense, shows good leadership, has poise under pressure, and does a good job avoiding turnovers.

      I haven’t see a single ND practice this year. If any of you have, you’ve seen more of MZ than I have. My only viewing of him in an ND uniform was in the B/G game this past spring. By the time he got in he was playing against all back-ups in a very low pressure situation. HE WAS TERRIBLE!!!

      I bet MZ will be great once he’s ready to play. But as BK has seen more of the kid than I have, I’m just going to give BK the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s not ready yet.

    • wisner74 - Oct 13, 2013 at 11:24 AM

      Yeah, you are beating a dead horse.

  5. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 1:53 AM

    Even if Zaire would have started against UM, there’s no guarantee that we would have scored more points than we already did. The points we put should have been enough.. we lost that game because we couldn’t contain Gardner.

    The real question we should be asking is why is Andrew Hendrix getting snaps that Zaire could be getting? I haven’t seen Zaire take one snap but I’m sure he wouldn’t do any worse than the minus 2 to 1 yards gains on those Hendrix run plays.

    • viktory2013 - Oct 13, 2013 at 2:41 AM

      Yeah true, but he also might not have unloaded that tragic pick six just before the half that completely changed the complexion of the game, and the pick in the end zone that finished us off at the end. Those were 14 fatal points from which there was no recovery.
      The same against Oklahoma. The defense didn’t play well in either, but they can’t always dig us of out self inflicted holes. These were very beatable teams and very winnable games, as today’s scores prove.

      • wisner74 - Oct 13, 2013 at 11:27 AM

        On the other hand, he might have looked like Golson looked against Michigan last year. That was a home game, and Golson was a red-shirt freshman who coming in was a much more accomplished passer than MZ. Can we drop the MZ talk?

  6. loadofwash - Oct 13, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    Team passing efficiency rank is 78, go Irish !

  7. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    Somehow, our defense allowed Devin Gardner to throw for 294 yards and (4) TD’s, while also running for 83 more and another TD.

    Meanwhile, ND only ran the ball only 19 times and threw 51 against UM, although averaging 5+ yards per carry. That’s a recipe for disaster.

    The 2nd INT was a fluke as it ricocheted off another player’s cleats. Not sure if it would have even mattered considering Gardner was converting 3rd downs at will.

    Side note: Jeremy Gallon against ND: 8 catches, 184 yards and 3 TD’s. Ouch.

    • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 4:31 PM

      It ricocheted off a player’s cleats because it was a terrible pass. Low and away. And probably thrown too hard.

      BUT … worse, it was 1st down.

      Any QB, especially one who TJ Jones says is the “smartest QB in the country” and the son of a coach should know that in that situation you put it into the 3rd row if the receiver isn’t open.

      Three more downs to go. Seems to be a consistent theme with this QB.

      • getsome99 - Oct 14, 2013 at 10:26 PM

        Actually, the pass deflected off the receiver’s hands (both hands) first before the ricochet.

  8. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 10:12 AM

    Yeah, not sure what the beef would be with Troy Niklas not getting enough targets. The numbers seem to tell a different story.

    The scramble (to the left even) play against ASU that led to the long TD throw to Niklas was criticized on this very site because the QB “missed” a wide open Davaris Daniels.

    It was pretty clear on replay (and on the 180′ jumbotron) that a one on one mismatch was recognized by the QB prior to the beautiful throw where only Niklas could make a play on the ball.

    The only issue I really see in Niklas’ game as a TE is he can’t seem to make catches on the run unless the ball is thrown right at his numbers. He’s a big target, but doesn’t have the same coordination and athleticism to make tough grabs like our TE’s in recent years. Yet.

    • ibleedirish - Oct 14, 2013 at 10:11 AM

      You apparently missed his amazing one handed grab on the run against michigan state? Can’t catch on the run? Are you just making this shit up as you go?

      And by the way, on the play you reference in the ASU game, Rees actually missed a wide open TROY NIKLAS down the middle of the field for an easy touchdown, no scrambling or lobbing of the football required. Fortunately of course the play ended well.

      • ohioirish - Oct 14, 2013 at 2:42 PM

        ibleed,
        While I agree with you on this, I liked the fact that TR missed the wide open TN down the middle. We have all seen what happens when he tries to throw the ball down the middle.

        Also IMO the DB was in a better position to make a play on the ball down the middle. Had the ball been thrown to Nicklas down the middle, he may have been able to come up and make a play, maybe just make the tackle, or even worse an INT. As TN continued his route and followed Tommy to the Left of the end zone, the DB lost site of him and was backpeddling. Tommy placed the ball in a pretty good location for Troy to go up and get it making the DB have almost no chance to break it up.

        I may be splitting hairs on that one, but I think Tommy made the most out of what he had.

        Go Irish!

  9. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 10:37 AM

    I do not recall a pick 6 by UM at the end if the first half, let alone one that was “tragic”.

    This is a classic example of how we tend to change history or misremember the facts when debating sports.

    Who else panicked like it was Alabama all over again after Gallon’s 1st TD for 60 yards? 4 defenders missed tackles at the same time and maybe even tackled each other while Calabrese tried to chase him down the field.

    • wisner74 - Oct 13, 2013 at 11:56 AM

      It was not a pick/6, but Michigan did convert the one just before half into a TD a few plays later.

      The shift in momentum with turnovers just before half when the Irish are moving the ball and looking like they’re going to get back into the game are devastating. USC two years ago, and Michigan and OU this year are examples of games that could easily have gone the other way but for those really bad TOs.

  10. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    Zaire needs to beat out Hendrix as the backup before we start fantasizing about him being the starter.

  11. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:01 PM

    Last year’s defense would have turned that “pick 6″ into a “pick long FG attempt”.

  12. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:07 PM

    Not sure if there’s an official stat sheet we can get our hands on for this, but I distinctly recall some key drops by Niklas in the UM game. Not to mention a couple routes against OU where he just looked lost and even fell down on a wide open pass play while doing his best Keivarie Russell impersonation. He’s getting better and will become a beast at TE one day, but he’s nowhere near Tyler Eifert right now who was a rare 1st Rd pick for TE’s.

    • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:38 PM

      Maybe the Eifert comparison is premature. But TN is trending upwards, big time, IMO
      But I can see him being even better than Eifert next year unless he does soemthing stupid and goes into the draft.
      .
      For a guy who was recruited as a LB or DE or maybe a TE, I am amazed how soft his hands are.
      Truly looks like a natural catching the ball.

    • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 4:35 PM

      I do not recall a “bunch of drops” by Niklas in any game.

      And re: my point that they don’t throw to him enough, whoever said “the numbers tell a different story ” … Huh?

      14 catches in 6 games. Not exactly prolific.

  13. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    MSU was very aggressive on pass defense. Tons of PI calls and some were questionable, but the coverage was nevertheless very tight as our WR’s and TE’s had problems shaking their defenders in press coverage.

    Every pass seemed to be thrown in to very good coverage. Even with the questionable PI calls, there were just as many close ones that weren’t called. Give MSU’s defense some credit. We expected it going in to the game and knew it would be a grudge match.

    Side note: Several catchable balls hit Davaris Daniels in the hands. He has to make those plays.

  14. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    If Niklas continues to improve at the pace he is, he should have a huge senior year, (assuming he comes back, which he probably will).

    NFL teams are looking for the next Gronkowski and Niklas fits the bill perfectly. But it will be his production the rest of this season that will set expectations for next season and ultimately determine his draft stock. Not necessarily his production next season (in case there’s a drop off due to a new QB running a pistol offense like with Eifert last year).

    Agree he has not hit his ceiling yet, which is scary.

  15. danl16 - Oct 13, 2013 at 2:09 PM

    I realize I’m speculating, but how many think BK supports the decision of EG getting suspended? Or the fact that eagles didn’t offer him the job! Has anybody noticed how close his offense looks like Patriots? Is the purpose to make a transition to NFL with the play calling at ND? Is the idea to take mediocrity(TR) and win 10 games? Or is it to send a message to ND (Fr. Jenkins and Jack Swarbick) for taking away the opportunity (EG) to win. I’m not convinced that BK wants to stay, when you consider he interviewed less than 24 hours later!! This was set up weeks in advance of NC. This is not an indictment of his coaching and winning record for 20 plus years. It’s the simple fact that he wants to finish out his career in the NFL. I don’t this should be sugar coated by KA. I’m taken back by the lack preparedness and most importantly special teams. Just look at college games this weekend and points scored. This was supposedly going to be BK taking over ST this year and its horrible!

    • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 4:41 PM

      No one banged on BK more than me for the Eagles interview. It was appallingly bad timing and judgment and I’ve never thought of Kely as an ND man since. I think to him, ND is no more than the place where he coaches now.

      And the lack of preparation has been extremely annoying and made me wonder if he’s 100% still engaged. But to suggest he’s calling plays this year with the NFL in mind or send a message to Fr. Jenkins is a stretch.

  16. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 4:48 PM

    @ Nudeman,

    Not a bunch of drops. Some key drops. One that I recall was on 3rd and short.

    The 2nd INT may have been a bad throw in hindsight, but it was still a fluke play. In fairness, so was the TD pass to Jones, which was intended for GAIII.

    • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 5:06 PM

      If any QB throws a relatively short pass 3 – 4 feet off target then flukey things will happen and you just can’t bitch about that being a bad break.

      Don’t want a bad break like that? Drill it into his midsection. If he does that we’re not having this exchange

  17. danl16 - Oct 13, 2013 at 5:33 PM

    Nudeman,
    It may be a stretch but, I can’t believe the lack of prep in just simple fundamentals and compare to the elite teams like Alabama. Nick Saban has his team prepared. Lou Holtz had his team prepared. I am baffled by the lack of prep! I think the players saw a coach lining up his next job interview while preparing for the NC. I don’t know how a player can respect or hold him high “committed to ND.” On one hand the recruit Eddie V was denied a waiver under the guise of protecting the process “letter of intent” but we have a coach who totally disregards his commitment to the players and UND. I guess protecting that process is small compared to the “letter of intent”.

    • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 8:07 PM

      Hard to argue with that. Well said.

      Did you ever hear Lou say “we couldn’t have contact practices because of lack of depth”?
      Or “we can’t have an aggressive approach to punt returns because of lack of depth”?

      Admittedly Saban has an easier time attracting talent, but I think he’d dirt before saying either of those things

      I think that the flirtation with the NFL took a piece out of Kelly and think he’s been less than 100% in the game since.

    • ibleedirish - Oct 14, 2013 at 10:31 AM

      I can’t believe how many people’s feelings are still hurt by a job interview. Coaches come and go in this day and age, especially good ones. Grow up. The important question to be asked of all coaches is “did he leave the program in a better place than he found it?” If the answer is yes, there is no reason for complaint.

      danl16:
      Backing out a letter of intent (contract) is supposed to have consequences.
      Backing out of a coaching contract does have buyout consequences, as BK found our when he left Cinnci.
      Breaking any contract in life has consequences, and expecting an 18 yr old to understand that IS appropriate.
      It’s really as simple as that.

      • ibleedirish - Oct 14, 2013 at 10:33 AM

        *BK found out

  18. jmfinsd - Oct 13, 2013 at 11:34 PM

    Just don’t understand the clamoring for Zaire to play. He’s a true freshman, not a redshirt freshman like Golson was. He had no practice, no contact, and couldn’t play for 4 weeks due to mono. Ever have mono? (not asking dickasman cuz we all know the answer to that one) Zaps your energy and he probably lost weight. There is absolutely no question Zaire should not have played up to now.

    Now moving forward, ND is still has a shot at a BCS bowl. Maybe an outside shot, but still a shot. USC looks more energized, if only for the 1st half. The Cardinal is suspect. Yes, if Zaire doesn’t get playing time this year, our projected top 2 QBs next year will not have played a down in 2 years. Not an easy decision, but I’m backing BK on this one.

  19. getsome99 - Oct 14, 2013 at 10:25 AM

    How about inconsistent? Is that more accurate for you since we’re splitting hairs? I realize Niklas has caught passes. Some even for TD’s. But don’t sit here and suggest we don’t look for Troy Niklas on 3rd and short, when in fact we do.

    He’s 3rd on the team in receptions and tied for first in TD’s, which is fairly substantial for a player still only a year and a half in to the position learning on the job.

    Every game has been televised. We don’t need to speculate when the game film is there for you to review. If you want to gripe about not throwing enough to a TE, gripe about how we don’t involve Koyack more.

  20. danl16 - Oct 14, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    ibleedirish,
    In principle I agree. However I cant recall ever where a college coach in the biggest game of his career would have his handlers set up a meeting prior to NC. Interviews less than 24 hrs after blowout. Would Lou Holtz set up an interview after the NC? I doubt it. To say casually good coaches come and go, is an understatement. Historiclly, can you name a coach who sets up an interview prior to a NC? Even Lane Kiffin wouldn’t do it!!Much less than 24hrs later. It does have an impact on the players BK recruited and future recruits going forward. The lack of preparedness and mediocrity is evident.

  21. getsome99 - Oct 14, 2013 at 4:07 PM

    On the Niklas TD, Rees was flushed out of the pocket to his left almost immediately after the snap. Niklas may have been open for a split second early, but Rees was in no position to make a throw there. The play didn’t just work out well in the end, Rees made a great play for the TD. I would pick another plan if you want to criticize Rees missing an open WR.

  22. rationalnd - Oct 14, 2013 at 10:09 PM

    Really? Even through a bye week we’re still on the TR crap? *Sigh* Can’t you all wait until after the next game to beat a dead horse?

    Moving on….

    Honestly without a DVR it’s been hard for me to watch routes amid all the other goings on. I have noticed that quite a few times Rees and the WR’s have not been on the same page. For instance, in the ASU game there was a play where TR threw the ball to the sideline while DD kept streaking up-field. Who knows who did the right thing here, the just weren’t in sync.

    There was another play in the OK game where 2 receivers ended up within a few yards of each other resulting in a pick.

    Overall I hope the coaching staff/TR/WR’s have spent extra time this week working on their timing/hot routes/audibles.

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