Spring solutions: Wide receivers

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A position that looked like a huge question mark entering the 2014 season ended the year with an embarrassment of riches. After watching Will Fuller emerge with a record-setting sophomore season, the loss of DaVaris Daniels and departure of TJ Jones didn’t do anything to slow the Irish passing game down.

Entering spring practice, Notre Dame’s wide receivers are no longer the emerging kids. They’re a position group that needs to take its place among the most talented in college football.

In Fuller, the Irish have an All-American candidate. In Corey Robinson, a matchup problem set to break loose after a trying season. CJ Prosise proved dangerous in the slot. Chris Brown stepped forward as well.

With Mike Denbrock doing a great job developing young talent, the next step is a competitive spring where the depth chart returns intact.

For all the focus on the running game heading out of the Music City Bowl victory, consider this your reminder that the Irish receiving corps is stacked.

 

WIDE RECEIVER DEPTH CHART

1. Will Fuller, Jr.
2. Corey Robinson, Jr.
3. Chris Brown, Sr.
4. C.J. Prosise, Sr.*
5. Amir Carlisle, Grad Student
6. Torii Hunter, Jr., Jr.*
7. Corey Holmes, Soph.*
8. Justin Brent, Soph.

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Will Fuller: For as impressive as Fuller’s season was, imagine if he just did a better job of making the ordinary play. Fuller had the most impressive sophomore season in school history, tying Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate’s single-season touchdown record while also setting marks for catches, yards and scores for a sophomore.

But Fuller still played with a level of inconsistency befitting of a young player coming off an nearly anonymous freshman campaign, not one of college football’s top playmakers.

Expect spring to mark the start of Fuller’s commitment to every-down excellence. You got the feeling Brian Kelly was demanding that from his rising star in 2014 (go listen to some of his postgame comments after the sophomore disappeared at times), and you know he’ll do the same next year.

The stakes are raised: No longer will Fuller catch opponents by surprise. So his game will need to elevate, and spring and offseason workouts is when that process begins in earnest.

Corey Robinson: Considering Robinson played the entire season with a fracture in his thumb, his sophomore campaign was plenty good. And while it’s hard to say an Academic All-American season with 40 catch and five touchdowns is off the radar, the attention paid to Fuller could open things up for Robinson.

Robinson made his share of clutch catches—even considering the game-winner that was taken away—converting a few heroic fourth downs while rising to the occasion. And as he’s continues learning how to become a complete receiver, expect Robinson’s junior year to be a breakout.

Chris Brown: After being highly touted after an impressive spring, Brown was invisible early last season. But after working with the coaching staff and utilizing some fancy GPS gizmos to diagnose part of the problem, Brown nearly matched Robinson’s production in every category but touchdowns.

Entering his final season in South Bend, Brown is still the type of freaky athlete who will run past defensive backs and make a play that’ll have you saying, “Wow.” But he’ll need to play 2015 with a sense of urgency that hasn’t existed in the past, as it’s a competitive depth chart and his professional future likely depends on a big season.

C.J. Prosise: That Notre Dame’s 220-pound converted safety was also the team’s leader in yards-per-catch tells you something about the unique athlete Notre Dame has in Prosise.

Also the team’s special teams player of the year as a gunner, Prosise could be unveiled in a number of different ways when Mike Sanford realizes the weapon he has in Prosise.

If there were more footballs to go around, Prosise would be my pick to click in 2015. For all the message board chatter thinking Prosise could help the safety depth chart, go back and look what he’s doing for the offense.

Nobody but Fuller made more big-chunk plays than Prosise. The best is yet to come.

Amir Carlisle: Considering he made the transition from running back, Carlisle’s season was a success, looking natural as a receiver and making some big plays throughout the year.

At his best (against Michigan and Arizona State), Carlisle was a handful in space, utilizing his speed and quickness to make big plays from the slot. But entering his final season of eligibility, Carlisle looks best suited for a complementary role, and could be a candidate for showing some positional flexibility with depth numbers low at running back heading into 2015.

Carlisle’s more than a useful player, and that versatility could pay off. And after battling hard-luck injuries for the better part of two years, it was good to see Carlisle make it through a season and contribute.

Torii Hunter Jr.: The fact that Hunter is spending time with the baseball team this spring shouldn’t surprise anybody. But it would be a surprise if it got in the way of his contributions to the football team.

Kelly needs to award players who excel in the class room and do what’s asked of them. Hunter has done that off the field. Expect that transition to begin to excelling on the field in 2015.

There’s nobody who needs to do more this spring to establish himself in the depth chart than Hunter, a versatile receiver who showed glimpses of being all the way back after a really difficult injury.

What the Irish have in Hunter remains to be seen. He’s capable of playing in the slot and outside. He’s showed nice speed and quickness. But a career-game of two catches and 24 yards means he’s got work to do, especially with the athletes both in front and behind him.

Corey Holmes: After serving as the opponent’s No. 1 receiver on the scout team, Holmes now enters a depth chart stacked with competition. After seeing the field twice early, Holmes saved eligibility, though found out what it takes to play.

Now we’ll see how that early lesson worked. Built like Fuller, Holmes has what we think is a perfect skill-set to take on a role in the Irish offense, but he’ll fight uphill to get his opportunity.

With a quarterbacking duel expected in the starting lineup, Holmes’ chemistry with DeShone Kizer might be the best thing he has going for him. If he can make plays against Brian VanGorder’s defense in practice, he’ll get the eyes of everybody needed, finding his way into the mix from there.

Justin Brent: It’s a critical time in Brent’s development. After making headlines for all of the wrong reasons, Brent has the opportunity to reboot his career this spring, or he’ll continue to find himself veering into territory that usually ends with a transfer.

A position shift also feels like something that deserves at the very least a tire kick. After playing in nine games last season on special teams, Brent’s physicality and ability to mix it up could have him getting a look on defense. With a safety depth chart still waiting for Avery Sebastian, Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams, there’s a need for bodies and Brent might be the latest player under Kelly’s watch to switch sides of the ball.

(Brent should feel lucky if that’s to happen. It’s worked out well for everybody who has done it so far.)

 

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 84 (theoretically) Michael Young, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-10, 170 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman with four years of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Young projects as a prototypical slot, or Z, receiver. The Irish currently have two, maybe three, dynamic commodities at the position in—presented in order of top to bottom of a theoretical depth chart—sophomore Chase Claypool, junior C.J. Sanders and sophomore Kevin Stepherson. Stepherson could also be a candidate to spend the majority of his time at the field, or X, position. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, slot receivers are expected to have a working understanding on the field’s duties, anyway.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Young provided consistency for Notre Dame at the receiver position in the class of 2017, as the only other commitment for much of the cycle de-committed in December, leading to the late addition of Jafar Armstrong.

QUOTE(S)
Irish coach Brian Kelly pinpointed the slot as Young’s likely landing spot in his National Signing Day comments.

“As a slot receiver, somebody that can really do a number of things for us inside and out, Michael Young out of Destrehan High School (Saint Rose, La.), great football at his high school in particular,” Kelly said. “We think he has the skills necessary to come in and push and compete at that position.

“We’re really pleased with the receivers, and those two in particular, how they’ll be able to come in and push the group that we have right now.”

WHAT WE SAID WHEN YOUNG’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Perhaps comparing Young to Torii Hunter is too easy, and not only because both enjoy the suffix of Jr. Young is known for good hands and quick moves, using his smaller stature against defenders rather than letting them take advantage of him. With quick hands, he has shown no trouble getting off the line.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Notre Dame enjoys depth at the receiver position. It will be difficult for Young to crack that this season. Defaulting to a season preserving eligibility seems too simple an answer, even if is unlikely Young contributes to the offense in a meaningful manner.

Special teams coordinator Brian Polian publicly wished for more options for his coverage units this spring. Young could help fill that void, and while he is spending the eligibility, chip in on offensively in spot duty.

The slot might be the thinnest of the Irish receiving positions, especially if the cloud around Stepherson turns out to be more than idle speculation. At that point, having Young in the rotation could prove useful.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kelly has long enjoyed having a shifty option at the slot. Claypool may prove to be the exception this season, as Notre Dame embraces a size advantage at receiver, but Kelly’s track record speaks for itself. Young could follow in the footsteps of the likes of Hunter, Amir Carlisle, C.J. Prosise and Theo Riddick.

It is no coincidence three of those relied on the distinct footwork learned as running backs to excel at the slot position. Young’s hands are a known and respected bright spot for him. His breakthrough at some point may depend on the time he spends with receivers coach Del Alexander on his footwork and the other finer tools of the position.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Young, hence slotting him at No. 84, though his likely landing at slot may reduce the need to fit in that range of 20

Michael Young, Jr., very well may not wear No. 84, but it is possible, and, frankly, it could be close.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½, 207 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: While Notre Dame did unexpectedly add kicker Jonathan Doerer to its incoming freshmen class, his specialty is kickoffs. Newsome remains essentially unchallenged at the punter position.
Recruiting: Punters are not often heralded as recruits, but rivals.com did bestow a three-star ranking on Newsome, the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
With former Irish kicker/punter Kyle Brindza handling all the leg-swinging duties in 2014, Newsome preserved a year of eligibility before taking over as punter his sophomore season. With more than 100 boots to his name at this point, Newsome has been an example of consistency.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.

Newsome also handled the kickoff duties in 2015, but that was removed from his to-do list last season and should not return to Newsome’s plate this season, especially now with Doerer entering the picture.

2015: 84 kickoffs at an average of 61.6 yards per kick with 21 touchbacks and five sent out of bounds.

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“If 2015 was about exceeding expectations, 2016 will be about performing with the bar raised. Newsome’s rookie season was a good one. But there’s room for improvements.

“Expect new special teams analyst Marty Biagi to take Newsome under his wing. The former college punter will likely spend some time refining Newsome’s craft, looking to add hang time to his punts and kicks, and making sure there are more booming moon shots than side-footed shanks.

“Notre Dame doesn’t want to have a celebrated punter – and they won’t as long as the offense performs. But the combo of Newsome and Yoon has the chance to be one of the better special teams batteries in America.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Keith’s final point rings true. Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.

DOWN THE ROAD
Unless Doerer begins punting in practices, in addition to his possible kickoff duties, Newsome should take comfort in the fact that the Irish coaching staff did not pursue a punter in the class of 2017. If nothing else, that indicates they expect him back in 2018, and they appear to be comfortable with that. Newsome is low maintenance, and that should not be undervalued.

Could he catch Notre Dame off guard and leave early? When is the last time a kicker or punter not named Aguayo declared for the NFL before his eligibility expired? (No, really, go ahead and do the research. Much appreciated.) If a non-football opportunity presents itself such that Newsome considers leaving for it, one would think that opportunity would still be around a semester later on. He isn’t a linebacker worried about his long-term health, so there should be less motivation to cut short his college football experience.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end

Friday at 4: A holiday with reason to be remembered

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This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and it has its mainstays. Some weekends will hinge around the parade up Main Street. At some point, everyone comes across a hot dog or hamburger during the long weekend. A beer or pop inevitably accompanies that grilled good.

Gathering college friends may even add a whiffle ball and bat to the grocery list.

Between innings, during one of those many social breaks, take a moment to remind yourself why Monday is a federal holiday, why it is a long weekend.

It isn’t just because the weather has finally turned as desired and now white pants are socially acceptable.

It is — as we all know but do not always take the time to recognize — because it is Memorial Day, a chance to remember all those people who died while serving the United States’ armed forces.

That obviously includes some former Irish football players, but they are merely a representation of the larger item.

Rather than continue on for who-knows-how-long with this point, let’s take this opportunity to deliver some Notre Dame-related tidbits. As it pertains to Memorial Day as a whole, either you already grasp the importance of taking a pause and understanding the significance of so many lost in service, or you don’t. This space is not going to be the piece that changes the latter’s view.

Looking through some of the internet’s depths, it appears at least 19 former Irish football players are among those who should be remembered Monday, including 17 from World War II, most notably 1942 captain George Murphy. In 2004, ESPN published a worthwhile story on a football game Murphy helped organize among Marines in the southwest Pacific.

Those 19 are among the approximate 500 alumni who died in World War II, the Korea War and the Vietnam War. The Clarke Memorial Fountain — more commonly known as “Stonehenge,” directly west of the campus library, more commonly known as “Touchdown Jesus” — commemorates alums lost in each of those three wars, as well as those alums lost in times of peace.

Of course, it should be noted many other World War II veterans — and simply by logic, many other World War II casualties — passed through Notre Dame. The naval training established on campus is the impetus to the Navy football series continuing to this day. In addition to the usual students, about 12,000 officers trained at Notre Dame in those days.

Campus features two other prominent acknowledgements of this country’s conflicts. The statue of Rev. Corby in front of Corby Hall depicts him delivering a blessing and absolution to troops during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a copy of a statue standing where Corby stood back in 1863.

Perhaps most famously, an entrance to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart bears the etching of “God, Country, Notre Dame.” Partly since he titled his autobiography with those four words, many tie them to Rev. Ted Hesburgh. “God, Country, Notre Dame,” in fact, predates Hesburgh’s arrival to campus. The Basilica’s eastern entrance was constructed in 1924 as a World War I memorial. During World War II, 20 years later, the accompanying statues of St. Joan of Arc and St. Michael the Archangel were added above the well-known phrase.

Lastly, it has become something of a Notre Dame tradition to bemoan the selection for commencement speaker each spring. Forgotten amid the misguided vitriol and inaccurate historical claims is a recognition of one of the first University commencement speakers. Nowadays, he, too, would certainly draw some magnitude of controversy.

During the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman — yes, he of Sherman’s March — moved his family to South Bend. His children attended Notre Dame, and Sherman delivered the 1865 commencement address. That ceremony took place June 21, in short order after Sherman accepted the surrender of Confederate armies in the Deep South in April of 1865.

Sherman urged the graduates to “perform bravely the battle of life.”

Perhaps that is the message to remember this weekend. Perform bravely the battle of life. At least 19 Irish football players did, as well as more than 500 Notre Dame alums, and so many more, of which each of us assuredly knows of one personally.


It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who as given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Solier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Charles Michael Province, U.S. Army

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 86 Alize Mack, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 245 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: The artist formerly known as Alizé Jones, now Alizé Mack, co-headlines a talented tight end corps along with fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. Due to Smythe’s edge in experience—and therefore further coaching trust in his reliability and blocking acumen—he may start the season ahead of Mack, but Mack will have plenty of opportunities to change that in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s two tight end-dependent system.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Mack originally committed to UCLA before opting for Notre Dame.

CAREER TO DATE
Mack saw action in all 13 games of his freshman season, making enough impressions to set future expectations high. His most notable statistic from that season may be his average of 14.6 yards per catch.

Mack spent last season on the sidelines, though he was allowed to participate in practice, due to academic issues.

2015: 13 catches for 190 yards

QUOTE(S)
Mack’s return and subsequent progress was an oft-discussed topic this spring. His freshman season showed glimpses of his athleticism and playmaking ability. Irish coach Brian Kelly made it a point to acknowledge Mack’s development as a blocker since he was last seen in a competitive environment.

“You can’t cover him, he just has that kind of talent,” Kelly said in March. “The one thing that stands out to me in the few days [of spring] is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Long echoed those sentiments the day before the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s a perfect fit, that’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State,” Long said. “He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.”

If Mack earns that trust as a blocker, then Kelly and Long can play him in any situation, only furthering the mismatches presented.

“I don’t know how you’re going to defend him,” Kelly said the week of the spring finale. “There’s not a safety or a linebacker—if you start spreading him out, maybe a corner can get a hand in there and deflect the ball, and maybe he doesn’t run the route quite the way a receiver would—but he’s going to be very difficult to defend.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Jones could turn into Notre Dame’s No. 2 receiver in 2016 if he takes this opportunity and runs with it. That could mean a huge uptick in numbers, with 40 to 50 catches not out of the realm of possibility.

“While size and match-up issues haven’t necessarily turned Irish receivers into targets, Jones could also pick up some of the slack in the red zone, knowing that the Irish offense desperately needs to improve their efficiency in the scoring zones, especially without quick-strike scorers like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise. Matching Chris Brown’s four touchdown catches seems like a logical next step for Jones.

“In many ways, Jones is one of several unknown quantities that’ll help determine whether or not the Irish are a playoff contender or just a team with some nice young talent. While much of his productivity will likely be determined by the team’s offensive identity and philosophy, he’s another key piece to an offensive puzzle that doesn’t have a lot of experience but has plenty going for it.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Obviously Keith’s projections for Mack were skewed both by the ineligibility and by the name change. That does not mean they would have been wrong.

Notre Dame’s second-leading receiver last season, Torii Hunter, Jr., caught 38 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns in only nine games. It does not take much of an imagination to see Mack producing at a similar pace—though in a very different role than the 6-foot, 195-pound Hunter—over a full season, perhaps something along the lines of 55 catches for 750 yards and four scores.

That would rival, but not exceed, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s output from a year ago (58 catches, 961 yards, nine touchdowns). St. Brown’s dynamism from all positions on the field makes it unlikely Mack outpaces him for top receiver honors, but the two can aid each other by forcing secondaries to split their focus.

More than St. Brown receiving an appropriately high number of targets, the biggest hurdle between Mack and impressive statistics will indeed be his blocking and overall attitude. The Irish have other options at tight end (see below: No.  89, Brock Wright) to contribute to Long’s preference for two tight ends. If Mack does not earn the playing time in all aspects of the game, he will not receive it.

DOWN THE ROAD
The excitement around Mack this spring may have exceeded realistic expectations. In that regard, Mack is set up for perceived failure in 2017. If he matched the above theoretical stat line, some would lament the fact that he scored only four times.

Taking a longer view of his potential, a stat line like that would make Mack seriously consider the NFL after this season, if only because of that buzzword of potential. Some team might draft him on the second day simply to have the opportunity to find out what he becomes. It is more likely Mack comes back for another year, with Smythe gone, but, frankly, it seems unlikely to think he will use the final season of eligibility lost to academics last year.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver