Spring Solutions: Wide receivers

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(After a bit of a layoff, we’re back with some more Spring Solutions. If you want to get caught up, check out our write-ups on the linebackers and running backs.)

There are plenty of variables to consider when predicting what the Irish wide receiving corp will bring to Brian Kelly’s table next year. Gone is Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Golden Tate, who had the most electrifying year of any player in college football last season. Also gone is the glue guy, possession receiver Robby Paris. Most importantly, the guy who was in charge of getting the ball to the wide receivers, quarterback Jimmy Clausen, is now fighting for a starting quarterback job for the Carolina Panthers.

Adding to the complexity of the equation are the wholesale changes taking place with the Irish offense. Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense was replaced by Brian Kelly’s collegiate spread attack. Both offenses have been prolific the past few seasons, but have achieved their success through very different philosophies.

Still, if its possible, the Irish find themselves with the chance to replicate or exceed last season’s performance. While there are certainly more question marks in the wide receiving depth chart, the key replacements could in many instances trump the record-setting performers that just walked out the door. While they may not match the statistical brilliance of Clausen and Tate, their successors, Michael Floyd and Dayne Crist, will have more than will likely see their names called earlier in the NFL Draft whenever they chose to leave the Irish.

(Though Floyd and Crist should take note of the recent Irish track record for sliding down draft boards when making their decisions.)

It may be foolish to think that Floyd and a group of largely unproductive wideouts can match the production of Floyd, Tate, Paris and Clausen. Yet this spring gave us the scratch work for Kelly’s formula to achieve.

           WIDE RECEIVERS DEPTH CHART
           2010: Duval Kamara, Barry Gallup
           2011: Michael Floyd,
           2012: John Goodman, Deion Walker, Shaq Evans, Robby Toma, Theo Riddick
           2013: Daniel Smith, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson, Tai-ler Jones

Once upon a time, Duval Kamara was a highly-touted freshman recruit that had the potential to become an elite college wide receiver. As Kamara prepares for his final season at Notre Dame, it’s up to him to finally put together a season that captures a sliver of the potential that recruitniks thought he possessed. It appears that Kelly and his staff are giving Duval every opportunity to see the field, with his name firmly entrenched at the top of every depth chart that’s come out this spring, and he’ll see plenty of one-on-one coverage playing across from Floyd. Another senior who I thought would see a bump in productivity under Kelly was Barry Gallup, Jr. Gallup finally found a niche last season on kick off returns, mostly as a chauffeur for returner Theo Riddick, but looked good with the ball in his hand. If you were looking for Gallup to make noise in Spring Practice, you would’ve been disappointed, because you rarely heard his name among those mentioned by the staff. That said, with the speed and formations Kelly will run out there, there’s a chance for Gallup to find his niche in his final season.

If there’s a front-runner for next year’s Biletnikoff award, you’d have to put Michael Floyd with the lead dogs. It’d be the first time in the award’s history that teammates won in back-to-back years, but Floyd certainly has the skills to pull it off, though a key will be staying healthy, no easy task for Floyd thus far in his career. Also interesting will be Kelly’s usage of Floyd. There was rarely a fade route thrown this fall, a staple of the Weis era with big #3 isolated in the red zone. Floyd will likely be running different patterns in a different system, but he’ll face the same decision Tate made after last season: Stay for a senior season or chase the dream of the NFL.

 The sophomore class is crowded but undistinguished. For the Irish offense to set sail, this group will need to be ready to make the leap. John Goodman is a candidate to succeed, if only because he and Crist gave Irish fans a sneak preview of what the two could do on a long touchdown pass against Washington State. Goodman also displayed his advanced athleticism, taking snaps at quarterback in certain formations against USC. The Fort Wayne native redshirted his freshman season and even toyed with a move to quarterback with an uncertain depth chart, but will be given every chance to thrive at receiver. Deion Walker is another guy that was highly touted, but has yet to make a mark for the Irish, making only a single catch against Nevada after redshirting his freshman season. Walker had an elite list of scholarship offers, but has been stuck behind Floyd and Tate as edge receivers. Theo Riddick joins the receiving corps after averaging 5.5 yards a carry at tailback, but a crowded depth chart, solid hands, and great skill in open space made him one of Kelly’s first position changes. Riddick was knicked up most of the spring after shoulder surgery, but still looked good in the Blue-Gold Game. If you asked 100 Irish fans what freshman receiver would contribute more last season, everybody but Robby Toma’s parents would’ve picked Shaq Evans. But it was Toma who had the coaching staff’s trust down the stretch while Evans failed to see the field as the season collapsed. Still, Evans has the upside to eventually replace Floyd if he puts his mind to it, while Toma profiles as a waterbug-type slot player.

With all the receivers fighting for time this spring, it was the 17-year-old Tai-ler Jones that found his way onto the first string by the middle of spring practice. Jones impressed everybody with his speed, hands, and savvy in 15 short practices, giving Kelly a weapon many thought was a season or two away from contributing. He’ll be in the starting lineup from day one, no small feat at this position.  Austin Collinsworth is a versatile athlete who could play on either side of the ball, but committed quickly to the Irish after he was being heavily recruited by Kelly’s Bearcats staff. If you’re looking for a wildcard, look no further than Bennett Jackson. He’ll need to gain some weight under Paul Longo, but Jackson has track speed and could become a vertical threat. Hometown product Daniel Smith has the physical tools to be a D-I wide receiver, and we’ll find out if he has the speed to contribute this fall. Smith’s offers won’t wow you, but his game tape shows a playmaker that dominated the competition.