‘Z’ no more: Plans for slot receiver evolve

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As our frame-by-frame analysis of practice videos attest to, there’s an appetite for everything football in the spring. Practice footage of one-on-one blocking, seven on seven passing drills or running against a no-touch defense still gives us ammo for our annual rite of spring. Playing the guessing game of how Brian Kelly plans to feature running back X or tight end Y.

Perhaps no position draws fans attention like wide receiver Z. Better known as the slot receiver, Kelly came into South Bend promising big things about the position. Whether that was a lack of depth or personnel, that breakout has yet to happen.

With Theo Riddick and Robby Toma graduated, Amir Carlisle injured and Davonte Neal gone, Irish fans everywhere are looking to find the early answers toward filling the slot. At a position that’s had a spotlight on it since day one, one that’s also its share of coaching changes and personnel twists, it’s rather understandable that most of us diving deep into spring tape continually try and read the tea leaves each at the slot every opportunity we get.

With freshman James Onwualu making a name for himself in his first practices and converted safety CJ Prosise also doing big things, media members took their opportunity with receivers coach and passing game coordinator Mike Denbrock, hopeful to get a assessment of the depth chart at slot receiver.

Instead, we got reboot of the offensive system.

Denbrock shrugged off any questions pinning a receiver to the inside spot, a distinction this offense feels far less concerned about making.

“That’s because you guys are still stuck in, ‘You’re a Z, you’re an X, you’re a W,” Denbrock said with a smile Wednesday afternoon. “We really don’t run our program offensively that way any more. Guys can be a running back on one play and a Z on the next play. Or they could line up as one of the outside receivers.

“That’s the way we’re really going to try and do things. Try and get guys that do things. Get guys that do the job the best, at the right position to do those jobs, and then let them go.”

While the news that the search for a position specific Z receiver is over is interesting, maybe more interesting is the acknowledged philosophical change the Irish have made on offense. Last year, we saw Kelly adapt to his personnel, playing a different brand of football after two seasons of trying to play his own signature style. It looks like those changes are going to stick.

With Denbrock explaining the shift away from one of the spread offenses’ core beliefs, we start to understand the coach Kelly is becoming. That’s how guys like Danny Smith can play inside receiver, and why lanky outside profile guys like Onwualu will get their shot where water-bug type receivers usually play. It’s a really fascinating peak behind the curtain courtesy of Denbrock.

And just one more think we can keep track of this spring…