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.
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.)