How we got here: Wide receivers (and tight ends)

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For the first time in years, Notre Dame entered the season without a preseason All-American set to anchor the pass catchers. From Tyler Eifert to Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph to Golden Tate, the Irish leaned heavily on their best receivers during Kelly’s first three seasons, featuring a heavy dose of the Irish’s best pass catcher each campaign.

Halfway through the ’13 season, there’s better balance in the receiving game, but still one veteran stands out above the rest. TJ Jones is finally able to pick up the slack in the pass game, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded him and also able to do a wide variety of things well, working from a variety of positions. He may not be the top-flight talent that Notre Dame has been lucky to have, but he’s proved himself to be a productive player.

Working with him is DaVaris Daniels, who has all the makings of another big play receiver except the consistency this offense craves. Daniels has looked like a world beater some Saturdays while going missing on overs, a frustrating part of the process that’s helped explain some of the wild inconsistencies this offense has had.

Troy Niklas built on an impressive first year at tight end, transitioning well to a pass catching type after serving as a glorified blocker last season. And young talent has pushed for time almost immediately, with Corey Robinson, James Onwualu and Will Fuller looking the part of productive college players after being under-the-radar recruits.

Let’s take a look at how Tommy Rees’s receiving corps has done this year at the midpoint.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

TJ Jones — 33 catches, 481 yards (14.6 ypc) 4 TDs
Davaris Daniels — 25 catches 385 yards (15.4 ypc) 4 TDs
Troy Niklas — 14 catches 250 yards (17.9 ypc) 4 TDs
Chris Brown — 7 catches 125 yards (17.9 ypc)
Corey Robinson — 4 catches 66 yards (16.5 ypc)
CJ Prosise — 4 catches 34 yards (8.5 ypc)
William Fuller — 2 catches 48 yards (24 ypc)
Ben Koyack — 1 catch 19 yards
Daniel Smith — 1 catch 9 yards

THREE KEYS

Attention to detail. It’s not hard to listen to Brian Kelly the past few weeks and get the picture that he’s been frustrated with some of the mental mistakes made by this group. With the exception of TJ Jones, it’s been a learning experience for nearly all involved, disappointing when you consider guys like DaVaris Daniels sometimes look so dominant.

With senior Daniel Smith lost for the year, that’s more inexperience that’s going to be called upon to pick up the slack. But to achieve what this team wants in the second half, there’s going to be more pressure put on this inexperienced group, already tasked with understanding the complexities of a check heavy offense.

Developing youth. We’ve already seen flashes of Corey Robinson and Will Fuller. But expect the freshmen (including James Onwualu) to start pushing Chris Brown for playing time. The No. 3 wide receiver job is wide open and Brown has had a few drops to pull things tighter.

But if the offense is going to continue to depend on empty sets and five wide, a few of these guys are going to need to be rookies.

Beating man coverage. The book is out on the Irish receivers. They’ve struggled to beat man coverage on a number of occasions, partially responsible for Tommy Rees’s mediocre completion percentage.

Against USC, the Trojans will likely challenge the Irish receivers aggressively, following the blue print crafted by Michigan, Michigan State, and Oklahoma. It’ll be up to the Irish receivers to make defensive coordinators pay.