Jan 28, 2014, 12:14 PM EDT
For the first time in forever, the Irish entered the season without an All-American candidate to catch the football. Gone were Tyler Eifert, Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija, one of the best runs of receivers in school history.
But even lacking a leading man, this season proved to be a formidable ensemble. Even as the Irish broke in a bushel of young receivers and unproven tight ends, the passing game stayed on track, with TJ Jones stepping forward with a big year while Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack providing a more than adequate 1-2 punch at tight end.
Let’s take one last look at the receivers and tight ends.
Beyond Jones, it’s amazing that Irish fans weren’t more concerned about the receiving depth chart. Senior Daniel Smith was a receiver heralded for his blocking skills. Luke Massa was a converted quarterback still hobbled after a major knee injury. While DaVaris Daniels was poised for a breakout season, the depth chart behind him was all unproven players, including a slew of freshmen.
At tight end, it wasn’t much better. Niklas was expected to take a big step forward, but Koyack was coming off a brutal sophomore season and Alex Welch was still recovering from an ACL injury. Freshmen Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe weren’t expected to play.
TOP THREE PERFORMANCES
Bronze: TJ Jones vs. Temple
It was clear that Jones planned on turning 2013 into a season to remember. He got off to a quick start, breaking short passes for big gains and quickly established himself as the team’s No. 1 receiving option.
While it was DaVaris Daniels who caught two touchdowns over the top of the Temple defense, Jones made six catches for 138 yards, including a 51-yarder that he turned from nothing into a big gain.
Silver: TJ Jones vs. Arizona State
I toyed with giving this the gold, just because it was such a critical victory for the Irish. Jones did a little bit of everything for the Irish in this win. He caught eight balls for 135 yards, while also chipping in a touchdown.
He got over the top of the Sun Devils defense while also contributing two clutch first down catches late in the game. He also made a big play in the punt return game, taking one back 27 yards.
Clutch performance in a win that was one of the team’s most impressive.
Gold: DaVaris Daniels vs. Purdue
This is the kind of game Daniels is capable of playing. Utilizing his top-shelf speed, Daniels got over the top of the Purdue defense for a huge 82-yard touchdown catch, fighting his way to the end zone. Daniels also caught a beauty in the corner of the end zone, making a strong play for the football when that didn’t always happen this season (see Navy).
But on this September night in West Lafayette, Daniels played the type of football Irish fans would love to see from him next season, catching eight passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns.
Will Fuller. This could’ve just as easily gone to Corey Robinson, but Fuller’s emergence as the over-the-top threat, in addition to some skills that show he can be more than just that, give him the narrow nod.
Fuller only made six catches this year, but looking at that stat line, the 26.7 yard average certainly sticks out. It’ll be interesting to see where Fuller lines up now that TJ Jones is gone and DaVaris Daniels is out for the spring semester.
DaVaris Daniels. His numbers took a step forward, but he left a lot of good football on the field. For a junior, there were just too many times were Daniels was in the wrong spot or making the wrong read, and too often 50-50 balls went up without Daniels coming down with them. Elite receivers make those plays. Daniels didn’t all the time this season.
Add to that the semester suspension for the spring because of academic issues. So while it’s hard to be disappointed with seven touchdowns and 745 yards, it wasn’t the true breakout season that it could have been.
With Jones and Niklas gone, it’ll be interesting to see how Brian Kelly reformulates his offense. If the Irish had two top-shelf tight ends, like they could have with Niklas and Koyack, the strength of this team was likely playing double tight end sets, something the Irish did quite well in 2012.
Now, that strength shifts to the perimeter, where a young depth chart could begin to showcase itself. This spring will give us our first look at Torii Hunter Jr. and Justin Brent, two young players that could make an early impact.
Without Daniels, who takes advantage of the additional reps? Is it Corey Robinson, who could have a field day with Golson’s touch and ability to throw jump balls? Do Chris Brown and CJ Prosise come into their own as upperclassmen?
Expect to see more out of the slot receiver this season, with some interesting candidates for the position already at wide receiver, but also with Amir Carlisle.
So while the talent on the edge continues to improve, the question marks certainly remain.