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Spring Solutions: Wide receivers and tight ends

Feb 25, 2014, 7:31 PM EDT

Steffon Batts, Corey Robinson AP

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.

  1. dickasman - Feb 25, 2014 at 8:01 PM

    There’s a lot of stepping up that needs to be done in these areas provided that first of all we gotta guy back there who can get them the ball without having to slow down n wait for the ball or go back to get it everytime.

    We hope so.

  2. viktory2013 - Feb 25, 2014 at 11:37 PM

    Most of these kids are fast and athletic, and with Golson’s arm they should be a bitch to cover. Not to mention they can’t devote full attention, always having to keep one eye on Golson in case he decides to take off. (Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?)

  3. fnc111 - Feb 25, 2014 at 11:52 PM

    KA,

    In your praise of tommy you forgot to mention he led ND to nine losses during his last two years as the main starter. He is not the be all, end all you say he is.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Feb 26, 2014 at 9:26 AM

      and I thought nude announced he was leaving the board for a while…

    • 1historian - Feb 26, 2014 at 2:30 PM

      We NEVER – ANY of us said that he was the be-all end-all.

      Speaking for myself – my respect for him is immense. He did the absolute best he could, he kept his mouth shot and never gave anything less than his best. He owned up to his mistakes, he did the best he could, and most importantly – he earned the respect of his teammates, the guys he went to war with on Saturday afternoon for 4 years.

      Come what may – on Saturday August 30, when the ball is kicked off to open the 2014 season, wherever he is he will rooting for Notre Dame.

      What part of that, pray tell, bothers you so much?

  4. fnc111 - Feb 25, 2014 at 11:59 PM

    I hope Massa surprises us but he is back for a fifth year because Kelly can’t fill out a recruiting class if his life depended on it. I think Kelly will load up next class(as long as he doesn’t tank in ’14) after finally figuring out that kids from Fresno, CA want nothing to so with ND.

    • danirish - Feb 26, 2014 at 1:03 PM

      You were doing so well and now you are back to this….

  5. fnc111 - Feb 26, 2014 at 12:02 AM

    Heckuva lot of potential talent at WR for many years to come. Let’s hope their is a RELIABLE quarterback to throw them the ball now.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 26, 2014 at 1:36 AM

      You know who else has the potential to be a great Notre Dame receiver?

      New born babies
      2 year olds
      3 year olds
      etc. etc.

      “Potential means you ain’t done it yet.” – Darryl Royal

      “The key is not the will to win. Everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important.” -Bobby Knight

    • mbannon92 - Feb 26, 2014 at 1:56 PM

      The little to no credibility you had was just lost by using the wrong form of “there/they’re/their.”

  6. newyorkfootballgiants24 - Feb 26, 2014 at 12:30 AM

    Don’t really understand the shot at Rees. He was just making a point about how the passing game was more efficient last year than the previous year. Not how many games were won or loss. He even says no one would have thought that to happen. Can’t hang them all on Rees. Anyway, I am excited to see this group come together. Hoping to see brown step up in a big way along with Robinson making big strides this year.

  7. nd1rishfan - Feb 26, 2014 at 4:38 AM

    I like this kid, Robinson. I think he can be a HUGE redzone threat. With Golson having the ability to go much deeper downfield than Rees, Fuller could be a surprise to many. Overall, I like where we are at with WR. At TE, Koyack showed some improvement last year, just not quite sure I’m sold yet though. However, it seems like year after year our TE’s step up. Just over the last 8-10 years we had Fasano, Carlson, Rudolph, Eifert, and Niklas. Can Koyack join this group of TE’s that headed to the NFL? I hope so.

  8. 4horsemenrideagain - Feb 26, 2014 at 9:37 AM

    with the exception of massa and adding daniels back into the rotation, this looks like it could be a legitimate 8-man rotation, with each member offering something slightly different but all solid and posing threats in their own regard. 8 is probably just too many to be workable, but all the same, it would seem like a shame to have to redshirt brent, just because there’s too much talent in front of him, because physically brent looks like he’s ready to play college ball today.

    it’s exciting to think about the benefit of being able to cycle in this many fresh receivers in the 4th quarter. whether it be blocking downfield or running routes and catching balls, playing half as many plays as the corner/safety covering you has to translate to some benefit late in the game. the only drawback would be guys not feeling like they are on the field for enough plays to get in their rhythm, though i’d guess this is less of a concern for receivers than for running backs.

  9. dsharp86 - Feb 26, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    I know the attached video of Golson highlights has been posted before but I don’t get tired of watching it. While it’s great to see a QB who can make the defense pay with his legs, equally impressive is the last play on the video where he stands just short of his own 40 yard line and hits TJ five yards deep in the end zone, seemingly with ease.

    Yes, the receivers are young overall, Daniels needs to get back and be more consistent, and Golson needs to get back in game mode and develop a rapport with them, but the future looks exciting. Let’s go Irish.

    • alsatiannd - Feb 26, 2014 at 1:25 PM

      I’m really looking forward to Golson again, but that video was cleverly edited on some of those plays. A few of those he got clobbered good and knocked out of the game or he coughed up the ball. I still expect him to better than he was before and us to do better than last year.

    • danirish - Feb 26, 2014 at 1:58 PM

      The only knock on him is sometimes he throws late – example – the long ball TD to Goodman versus Wake Forest – he had to come back to it. When I watched the game, even Mayock mentioned that if Golson had released the ball earlier Goodman catches it in stride and walks in.
      That is something that was worked on with Whitfield so I’m excited to see if it stuck.

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 26, 2014 at 3:03 PM

        It will be exciting to see what has improved since Whitfield, but the most curious aspect that I want to see is if he becomes more of a pocket passer with escapability or if he is still the scrambling gunsling with better technique.

        I can’t say that I favor one over the other, just think it will be interesting to see if/what the changes are.

  10. mbannon92 - Feb 26, 2014 at 2:01 PM

    I’m really excited to see how this receiver group shakes out. Two guys I’ll be looking at are Robinson and Hunter. I think Robinson could easily turn into a starting outside WR and help solve our red zone woes. With Hunter it’s more of a curiosity thing, since we haven’t seen anything from him yet. And with both guys being sons of all-star-caliber professional athletes who are also good guys, they should have the right mindset and work ethic to succeed.

  11. onward2victory - Feb 26, 2014 at 2:53 PM

    If the WR Corps were stock:

    Buy: Will Fuller – This guy was overshadowed by the star-studded ’13 recruiting class, but the eyeball test tells me he is going to be good. Really good. A+ speed, A ball skills, yet he’s still flying under-the-radar. I predict he starts opposite Daniels vs Rice. Buy buy buy!

    Sell: Chris Brown – He had a nice game against Rutgers (repeat: against Rutgers), and the opportunity is there for the taking. So his stock is high. But I can’t help but look back to one of those practice videos where he ran a route that required more cuts and stops than just a go or post, and he looked terrible. A+ speed, C- quickness/cutting/stopping, C ball skills. I’m still excited to see him get behind the defense several times next year, though.

    Hold: TH Jr – His stock has been growing over the past few months based on the reports out of practice, and with Golson back and Kelly’s Cincinnati spread expected to finally arrive, Hunter could be a huge playmaker in space. However, no one has ever seen him catch a ball in a college game, and a broken femur is not a slight injury. Big risk, big reward here.

  12. irishdog80 - Feb 26, 2014 at 11:56 PM

    ND will be playing on a bigger field next year with a QB that can stretch it with his arm and legs. It will be tough for teams to cover every option and wrinkle that we can throw at them. Plus I truly believe we will have a better overall offensive line than we had in 2012. Golson will have plenty of time to pick teams apart.

    Go Irish! Beat Rice!

  13. knuterocknesghost - Feb 27, 2014 at 5:48 AM

    Read-option quarterbacks are as fragile as the tender ligaments that hold their knees together.

    If he wasn’t before, then this season Golson certainly will be a huge target for defensive coordinators looking to close down his ability to escape and run free. But given his talent, that’s still a very difficult task for defenses. So the real concern I have for Golson is injury. He shows great fortitude and courage in looking to stretch the end of his runs, but this can lead to injury. Somehow, Golson has to realize that his value to his team is in his arm and his instincts for feeling pressure and buying time in the pocket. But none of these matter if he fails to survive the season without serious injury. And QBs, more so than any other offensive player, are targeted for hits to take them out of the game, which can be done even with clean hits. That’s the nature of football. And if ND manages to accomplish its dream this coming season, it will be a 14 game season, meaning that the odds of injury increase over such a long season as if 12 games for college kids wasn’t already long enough.

    BK should consider that his young QB deserves added consideration in this regard even if ND should find itself blessed with ready replacement in Malik Zaire (or vice versa for that matter if Zaire demonstrates greater readiness to understand BK’s offense). Neither should be considered expendable in terms of exposing themselves needlessly to injury. Both need to be coached as to when it’s best to avoid hits and hit the turf before any defender is able to zero in on them. RG3’s career so far in the NFL ought to stand out as a case in point. Golson in the past was too reckless this way in his first full season. I know that made him exciting, but that’s not being fair to Golson. One thing that could reduce his risk of injury this year will hopefully be a stronger running attack, and an offensive scheme for the passing game that calls for his releasing the football in less than 3 seconds on most passing plays.

  14. knuterocknesghost - Feb 27, 2014 at 5:53 AM

    The Key Man for both the Irish passing game and the Irish running game? Harry Hiestand.

    After that for the passing game, the key is for Irish receivers to do a better job this season in reading the defense from the same page as ND’s quarterback so that adjustments and the timing of the routes they run match the quarterback’s read of the defense, especially if the passing game focuses on getting the ball out of the QB’s hands more quickly.

  15. irish4life79 - Feb 27, 2014 at 5:48 PM

    I see alot of potential but im interested in seeing who will step up and who made significant improvement i like the kid brent he looks the part sounds like he already has the body to play early with this group the deep ball should be alive with golsons arm and daniels gettin back In the fall big play offense may be back this year

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