Spring Solutions: Wide receivers and tight ends

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Notre Dame headed into last season without a All-American candidate to catch the football. After a pretty incredible run at the position — from Jeff Samardzija-to-Golden Tate-to-Kyle Rudolph-to-Michael Floyd-to-Tyler Eifert — the Irish had TJ Jones to anchor the position, a solid yet far from spectacular veteran receiver.

Jones flourished in his final season in South Bend, putting together an MVP season as a more than respectable No. 1 wide receiver. But the Irish receiving corps also did its part to step up and move forward, with a nice sophomore season for DaVaris Daniels and impressive contributions by a trio of freshmen.

At tight end, life without Tyler Eifert wasn’t all that painful. Troy Niklas did enough in his lone season as a starter to make a move for the NFL. Ben Koyack put a dreadful sophomore season in the rearview mirror and became a model of productivity. With Tommy Rees at the helm of the offense, the Irish receiving corps put up better numbers than the 2012 edition, something most would’ve found next to impossible heading into the year.

With Jones and Niklas gone from their leading roles, and Daniels away from campus after some academic troubles, the wide receivers and tight ends will be a focus of spring. A talented but youthful personnel group must be ready to grow if the Irish are going to achieve their offensive goals.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart and some objectives over the next few months.

WIDE RECEIVER / TIGHT END DEPTH CHART

Luke Massa, GS
DaVaris Daniels, Sr.*
Chris Brown, Jr.
CJ Prosise, Jr.*
James Onwualu, Soph.
Corey Robinson, Soph.
Will Fuller, Soph.
Torii Hunter Jr., Soph.*
Justin Brent, Fr.

Ben Koyack, Sr.
Mike Heuerman, Soph.*
Durham Smythe, Soph.*

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available. 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Luke Massa: If there was a surprise fifth year candidate on this list, it was certainly Massa. But it goes to show you Brian Kelly’s belief in filling your roster with players that can help both on and off the field. Massa will likely return to be the holder on field goals, a job still his with Signing Day leaving a few roster slots open.

It’s still not fair to call Massa just another scholarship. He’s admitted that a serious knee injury put a damper on his wide receiving skills, a setback in spring practice in 2012 just as he was starting to get into the rhythm of a new position. (Massa was the third QB recruit in his class with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix.) Massa has an intriguing body type and athleticism. He could be a solution if the Irish ever deploy an H-back. But just like Tyler Stockton last year, Massa will be a veteran presence that will likely make his biggest impact off the field.

Chris Brown: It appeared that Brown was in danger of being lapped by a youth movement on the roster, losing his spot at the designated deep threat in the Irish roster to Will Fuller. But Brown played a nice game against Rutgers, and he enters his spring at a crossroads in his career.

At his best, Brown is an explosive receiver with the ability to get behind a defense. He’s also a player that’s showed suspect hands and disappeared for stretches. Brown found himself the intended target of an endzone interception when he and Tommy Rees struggled to get on the same page. That was hardly a good thing.

This spring, there is no veteran receiver with more experience than Brown. He’s now that guy. It’ll be up to him to take on a leadership role at the position, growing into a veteran in a position room filled with youth.

CJ Prosise: After a big spring at slot receiver, Prosise managed just seven catches in 2013. The Irish offense tended to favor two-tight end sets with Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack over a Z receiver, likely limiting Prosise’s effectiveness. Kelly has already talked about the switch back to a more traditional spread look. That’s got to be music to Prosise’s ears.

At 6-foot-1, 220-pounds, Prosise is a big, strong and physical receiver. He’s got track speed, making him a candidate to return kickoffs as well. After spending his redshirt freshman season as a safety, Prosise’s sophomore year — his first true season on offense — was a good place to start.

He’ll likely battle with Torii Hunter Jr. for reps at Z, a position that Kelly and the Irish offense just haven’t been able to sort out. There’s a place on the offense for an athlete like Prosise. He’ll need to use the spring to make sure it’s his.

James Onwualu: While he didn’t show up on the stat sheet (Onwualu made just two catches for 34 yards), Onwualu capably filled the role of Daniel Smith, serving as the team’s best blocking receiver. This spring is an opportunity to add another element to his game, expanding his duties to an all-purpose receiver.

Onwualu is a bigger and more physical receiver than most of the depth chart. He also lacks the top end speed of some teammates. He excelled as a running back and receiver in high school and could be a versatile weapon, though he’ll need to continue to evolve his game. But this spring will be about expanding his role in the offense and continuing to be one of the team’s best special teamers as well.

Corey Robinson: After becoming almost a cult-like hero for his UND.com practice video highlights, just about any freshman season that didn’t include double-digit touchdowns and a YouTube highlight reel would’ve been a disappointment. But after flashing moments as a deep threat, jump ball specialist and making a few clutch catches, this spring is key in Robinson’s development.

Keep your eye on the unofficial spring roster. Robinson could check in a few inches taller, growing just as his father did post entry in the Naval Academy. But just as important as any growth spurt is an evolution to Robinson’s game. There’s every chance for Robinson to become a dominant pass catcher. He’ll need to build on a very good base, a set of hands and catch radius that’s the best on the team.

Will Fuller: That Fuller’s freshman season included a per-catch average almost 10 yards better than anyone else on the team is telling. Now he’ll have to use spring practice as a springboard to becoming an all-around receiver and a potential impact player. Still skinny, Fuller’s year in the weight room will come in handy as his reps increase.

Fuller is among the fastest players on the roster. Seeing TJ Jones run a (unofficial) 4.40 forty gives you an idea that Fuller can straight up fly. Daniels departure might really open a door for Fuller who will likely transition to an outside receiver position. Getting Fuller on the same page as Everett Golson could lead to some explosive plays downfield.

Torii Hunter Jr: It’s finally time to see what Hunter can do. After missing last year after a freak broken femur suffered at the US Army All-American Bowl, Hunter will try and immediately make an impact at a crowded position. With speed and athleticism and a smoothness that turned him into the MVP of The Opening, Hunter could be the Irish’s solution at slot receiver.

Kelly talked about Hunter’s impressive bowl season with the Irish. This spring he’ll need to establish himself in a depth chart that still is looking for a premium playmaker. After dominating “Trick Shot Monday,” this spring Hunter will give Hunter a chance to make a name for himself on the field as well.

Justin Brent: Consider Brent the X Factor of spring workouts. Some think he’s got the size, speed and talent to come in immediately and contribute. Some think he’ll redshirt, spreading the depth chart out by another year. But Brent enrolled early with hopes of battling for playing time immediately, and we’ll get a progress report starting next week.

There’s so much to like about Brent as a prospect. He’s probably the most physically dominant receiver on the roster already and he should be spending the next couple months wondering about a prom date.

If he can grasp a college offense quickly and get into the rotation this spring, Brent could be ready to make moves early next season.

Ben Koyack: Entering his senior season, Koyack still has the chance to be the next great Notre Dame tight end. The Oil City, PA native certainly had the recruiting pedigree that led you to believe he could be an elite player. Now, with Troy Niklas heading to the NFL and Alex Welch gone, Koyack is the lone survivor at the position, and posed to have a monster year.

Koyack needs to be a do-everything tight end. He’s got the bulk and size to play attached. He’s shown himself to be a productive receiver as well. We’ll ultimately see how Kelly views the Irish personnel at tight end this spring by seeing how many two-tight end sets the Irish utilize. Either way, expect Koyack to be the constant at a position with a lot of uncertainty.

Mike Heuerman: One of the biggest indicators to Heuerman’s spring will be the new roster listing for him. Undersized enrolling early last year, Heuerman needs to have the bulk and size that’ll allow him to attach to the line. We have seen so little of the young tight end, but his recruitment showed an impressive athlete with a mean streak. That’s a guy that can find the field.

With only three tight ends on campus this semester, Heuerman will get plenty of opportunities to build chemistry with the No. 1 offense. It’ll be up to him to parlay that into an opportunity next fall.

Durham Smythe: Another redshirt who drew praise from Kelly during bowl prep. Smythe was tasked by the coaching staff to add weigh and turn himself into a tight end who can play attached or in the slot. Again, we’ll see if he’s physically grown into that role yet.

Anyone with a true feel for how Smythe will do has an insiders perspective. But most of the word on the Texas native has been positive. With a more than great opportunity in front of him, Smythe needs to embrace the challenge of contributing right away and take control of his fate this spring.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL