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.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

@NDFootball

— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister