Will Fuller
AP

Last Look: Receiving Corps

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Even with a first-time starter at quarterback, Notre Dame’s passing attack was impressive. While Mike Sanford’s work with DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire deserves a significant amount of credit, the personnel in charge of reeling in the catches made things pretty easy on the quarterback.

Will Fuller leaves Notre Dame will the best two-year statistical run of any receiver in school history. Fuller’s 29 touchdown catches are the most of any receiver in football over the last two seasons. His ability to stretch a defense—or more appropriately, to get behind it—opened up plenty of other options for his teammates.

While Fuller paced the offense, he had a strong supporting cast. In his final season in South Bend, Chris Brown emerged as a bonafide No. 2 receiver, his 48 catches, 597 yards and four touchdowns all career bests. Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter picked up the slack in the slot, combining for 60 catches and nearly 700 receiving yards as well.

There’s a rebuilding job that needs starting this offseason. Fuller is gone. So are Brown and Carlisle, the latter a sneaky contributor the last two seasons. There’s no shortage of talent to move forward with, so let’s take a last look at the season that was and do some projecting as we move forward.

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MVP: Will Fuller. We probably won’t realize how badly Fuller is missed until he’s not out there on the edge of the field, wreaking havoc with the opposing defensive coordinator’s game plan. Fuller made the running game look better, he helped his other receivers get open, and he spread a defense to the widest part of the field—things that you hardly give him credit for when he’s scoring 14 touchdowns and catching deep balls.

You can hardly blame Fuller for taking his talents to the NFL. He had nothing left to prove at this level, and his biggest knock (size) can’t be corrected with another year of torching college defenses. (Maybe his hands could, but I digress.)

As a big play receiver, there’s no rival to Fuller in my time watching Notre Dame football. That he was able to top his production from 2014 with A) a larger emphasis on the running game, B) A new two-deep at quarterback and C) Everybody in the country knowing who he was is a credit to just how great Fuller is at beating cornerbacks into submission.

I just wish we got to see how he’d have done against Clemson without a monsoon.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Corey Robinson‘s star-crossed season. Robinson took a step back after a nice sophomore season. While he had a nice Fiesta Bowl (or a a nice series in the Fiesta Bowl), his season was defined by the plays he didn’t make—not a great thing for a receiver (or anybody).

Robinson battled some under-the-radar injuries for much of the year. A knee that pulled him from the lineup against Georgia Tech lingered. So did confidence issues. Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated broke some news ($) that Robinson was weighing some options that could take him off the field next season, with opportunities to earn a Fulbright or Rhodes Scholarship maybe more important than football. But Sampson reports that Robinson is “all in” for his senior season.

That’s a good thing because there’s nobody else left to lead this position group. And while it’s a talented group, they’ll need Robinson to lead, giving him an opportunity to make his final season in college football a big one.

 

Biggest Surprise: Chris Brown’s dependability. Notre Dame will miss Chris Brown. A career that for too long was defined by a deep ball reception against Oklahoma finished on a long, consistent, high note, with Brown putting together a very solid senior season that could allow him to continue his career on Sundays.

Brown has long been called one of the team’s best practice players. He’s an elite track athlete with a long frame, good hands and major leaping ability. But after struggling to take practice field domination into Saturdays, Brown put together a great season as a senior. He did it all, making clutch catches, moving the chains and also leading the blocking charge downfield.

 

Brightest Future: Equanimeous St. BrownWe didn’t see much in the single eight-yard completion that served as Brown’s only catch of the year. But we did hear plenty of raving about St. Brown’s speed, length and ability to go get the football from Brian Kelly, who doesn’t usually spend time blowing smoke.

Brown’s biggest play of the year was a punt block that the Irish returned for a score. And while he was kept off the field because he had the unlucky job of serving as Will Fuller’s backup, a shoulder injury late in the year robbed St. Brown of valuable practice time during bowl prep.

Hopefully he’ll be healed for spring ball, where he’ll likely slide into Fuller’s job on the field-side of the formation. From there, he’s positioned to make a big leap from anonymous freshman to prominent performer as a sophomore. He’d be following Fuller’s footsteps there, too.

 

Jaylon Smith declares for NFL Draft

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A major knee injury won’t stop Jaylon Smith from heading to the NFL. Notre Dame’s consensus All-American and Butkus Award-winning linebacker declared for the draft on Monday, deciding to turn professional even after surgery to repair a torn ACL and LCL ligament.

Smith made the announcement via social media, confirming a decision most expected regardless of the injury status.

Smith received a first-round draft grade from the advisory committee before his injury, a grade revealed in the days before the Fiesta Bowl. While the injury may impact how high in the draft he goes, Smith has a $5 million insurance policy that protects him should he slide out of the first round.

“It’s really just perseverance from here, with the adversity that I’m going through right now and dealing with the knee injury,” Smith said during the low-key video announcement. “I have the same vision, it’s just a different path.”

Smith ends his three-year career at Notre Dame with two 100+ tackle seasons, the team-leader each of the past two years. He was a three-year starter for the Irish and their first consensus All-American on defense since Manti Te’o in 2012.

Kevin Stepherson begins ND career as early enrollee

Kevin StephersonTWITTER
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Five members of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class are getting a jump start on college. The latest to make it official is wide receiver Kevin Stepherson. The Florida native arrived in South Bend over the weekend, set to begin classes this Monday.

ND Football’s official Twitter handle made the news official this weekend:

Stepherson is a three-star prospect who camped at Notre Dame over the summer. Shortly after that he committed to the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Miami, North Carolina, Florida and a dozen others. Stepherson was one of Jacksonville’s top players, a Super 11 pick from the Times-Union before his senior season.

Multiple publications have Stepherson listed at 6-foot-3, a lanky receiver with a long stride. While that may have an inch (or two) of fluff, he dominated on the camp circuit this summer, has an incredible highlight reel (see below), and was an early target by the Irish staff.

Stepherson will join classmates Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Spencer Perry, and Devin Studstill as early enrollees.

 

Javon McKinley commits to Irish at U.S. Army All-American Bowl

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class just added another key piece of the puzzle, with U.S. Army All-American Javon McKinley pledging his commitment to the Irish during the fourth quarter of the All-Star game in San Antonio. The four-star receiver picked Notre Dame over finalists Oregon and Washington and scholarship offers from Stanford, USC, UCLA and a few dozen others.

“I think they offer best for me the combination of early playing opportunity and one of the best hands-down degrees in the nation,” McKinley said during the live broadcast on NBC before sprinting back to the sidelines.

A consensus four-star recruit, McKinley is a big-bodied receiver with dynamic ball skills. He broke onto the national scene with a monster junior season at Centennial high school in Southern California with a ridiculous 2,062 receiving yards and 25 touchdown catches. The Irish have recruited McKinley hard, with Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford both putting in major time to land the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder. He’s been on the top of their recruiting board for over a year.

While some question if McKinley has elite speed, it’s worth pointing out who he put those ridiculous numbers up against. He caught 14 passes for 240 yards against Gardena Serra, a program that produces a half-dozen D-I prospects every year (most heading to USC). He followed that game up with monster efforts against St. John Bosco and caught two touchdowns in the CIF Open Championship against Concord De La Salle.

When asked about McKinley’s speed this August by the Los Angeles Times, high school coach Matt Logan said the following:

“I don’t know where that came from, that’s never been the case. He’s run away from Bishop Gorman and De La Salle players.”

Notre Dame had plenty of participants in the Army All-American game. Offensive lineman Tomy Kraemer, Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year, stood out along the offensive line. Running back Tony Jones, long snapper John Shannon and linebacker Daelin Hayes all took part in the festivities.

McKinley is the 22nd member of the Irish 2016 recruiting class, joining Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson at receiver. He is an excellent student, boasting a 4.1 grade point average and a recruitment by Harvard as well.

Report: Smith expects full recover from ACL, LCL surgery

during the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.
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Jaylon Smith had surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his knee on Thursday. And according to SI.com’s Brian Hamilton, a source close to the situation called the surgery a success.

Smith had the ACL and LCL repaired in his left knee. There was no sign of nerve damage, a rumor floating around since NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport tweeted it earlier in the week. But the immediate prognosis after the surgery is that Smith will be back to his normal self after rehabbing the injury.

“What we do know is there’s going to be a full recovery,” the source told SI.com. “The repair is solid, and he’s very optimistic. We’re optimistic. And Jaylon is ready to get going with his rehab.”

Smith hasn’t declared whether that rehab will take place under the supervision of Notre Dame or an NFL team. He has until January 18th to decide whether or not to enter the NFL Draft as an underclassman. The true junior is coming off a consensus All-American season and the Butkus Award.