Spring Solutions: Wide receivers and tight ends

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Notre Dame headed into last season without a All-American candidate to catch the football. After a pretty incredible run at the position — from Jeff Samardzija-to-Golden Tate-to-Kyle Rudolph-to-Michael Floyd-to-Tyler Eifert — the Irish had TJ Jones to anchor the position, a solid yet far from spectacular veteran receiver.

Jones flourished in his final season in South Bend, putting together an MVP season as a more than respectable No. 1 wide receiver. But the Irish receiving corps also did its part to step up and move forward, with a nice sophomore season for DaVaris Daniels and impressive contributions by a trio of freshmen.

At tight end, life without Tyler Eifert wasn’t all that painful. Troy Niklas did enough in his lone season as a starter to make a move for the NFL. Ben Koyack put a dreadful sophomore season in the rearview mirror and became a model of productivity. With Tommy Rees at the helm of the offense, the Irish receiving corps put up better numbers than the 2012 edition, something most would’ve found next to impossible heading into the year.

With Jones and Niklas gone from their leading roles, and Daniels away from campus after some academic troubles, the wide receivers and tight ends will be a focus of spring. A talented but youthful personnel group must be ready to grow if the Irish are going to achieve their offensive goals.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart and some objectives over the next few months.

WIDE RECEIVER / TIGHT END DEPTH CHART

Luke Massa, GS
DaVaris Daniels, Sr.*
Chris Brown, Jr.
CJ Prosise, Jr.*
James Onwualu, Soph.
Corey Robinson, Soph.
Will Fuller, Soph.
Torii Hunter Jr., Soph.*
Justin Brent, Fr.

Ben Koyack, Sr.
Mike Heuerman, Soph.*
Durham Smythe, Soph.*

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available. 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Luke Massa: If there was a surprise fifth year candidate on this list, it was certainly Massa. But it goes to show you Brian Kelly’s belief in filling your roster with players that can help both on and off the field. Massa will likely return to be the holder on field goals, a job still his with Signing Day leaving a few roster slots open.

It’s still not fair to call Massa just another scholarship. He’s admitted that a serious knee injury put a damper on his wide receiving skills, a setback in spring practice in 2012 just as he was starting to get into the rhythm of a new position. (Massa was the third QB recruit in his class with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix.) Massa has an intriguing body type and athleticism. He could be a solution if the Irish ever deploy an H-back. But just like Tyler Stockton last year, Massa will be a veteran presence that will likely make his biggest impact off the field.

Chris Brown: It appeared that Brown was in danger of being lapped by a youth movement on the roster, losing his spot at the designated deep threat in the Irish roster to Will Fuller. But Brown played a nice game against Rutgers, and he enters his spring at a crossroads in his career.

At his best, Brown is an explosive receiver with the ability to get behind a defense. He’s also a player that’s showed suspect hands and disappeared for stretches. Brown found himself the intended target of an endzone interception when he and Tommy Rees struggled to get on the same page. That was hardly a good thing.

This spring, there is no veteran receiver with more experience than Brown. He’s now that guy. It’ll be up to him to take on a leadership role at the position, growing into a veteran in a position room filled with youth.

CJ Prosise: After a big spring at slot receiver, Prosise managed just seven catches in 2013. The Irish offense tended to favor two-tight end sets with Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack over a Z receiver, likely limiting Prosise’s effectiveness. Kelly has already talked about the switch back to a more traditional spread look. That’s got to be music to Prosise’s ears.

At 6-foot-1, 220-pounds, Prosise is a big, strong and physical receiver. He’s got track speed, making him a candidate to return kickoffs as well. After spending his redshirt freshman season as a safety, Prosise’s sophomore year — his first true season on offense — was a good place to start.

He’ll likely battle with Torii Hunter Jr. for reps at Z, a position that Kelly and the Irish offense just haven’t been able to sort out. There’s a place on the offense for an athlete like Prosise. He’ll need to use the spring to make sure it’s his.

James Onwualu: While he didn’t show up on the stat sheet (Onwualu made just two catches for 34 yards), Onwualu capably filled the role of Daniel Smith, serving as the team’s best blocking receiver. This spring is an opportunity to add another element to his game, expanding his duties to an all-purpose receiver.

Onwualu is a bigger and more physical receiver than most of the depth chart. He also lacks the top end speed of some teammates. He excelled as a running back and receiver in high school and could be a versatile weapon, though he’ll need to continue to evolve his game. But this spring will be about expanding his role in the offense and continuing to be one of the team’s best special teamers as well.

Corey Robinson: After becoming almost a cult-like hero for his UND.com practice video highlights, just about any freshman season that didn’t include double-digit touchdowns and a YouTube highlight reel would’ve been a disappointment. But after flashing moments as a deep threat, jump ball specialist and making a few clutch catches, this spring is key in Robinson’s development.

Keep your eye on the unofficial spring roster. Robinson could check in a few inches taller, growing just as his father did post entry in the Naval Academy. But just as important as any growth spurt is an evolution to Robinson’s game. There’s every chance for Robinson to become a dominant pass catcher. He’ll need to build on a very good base, a set of hands and catch radius that’s the best on the team.

Will Fuller: That Fuller’s freshman season included a per-catch average almost 10 yards better than anyone else on the team is telling. Now he’ll have to use spring practice as a springboard to becoming an all-around receiver and a potential impact player. Still skinny, Fuller’s year in the weight room will come in handy as his reps increase.

Fuller is among the fastest players on the roster. Seeing TJ Jones run a (unofficial) 4.40 forty gives you an idea that Fuller can straight up fly. Daniels departure might really open a door for Fuller who will likely transition to an outside receiver position. Getting Fuller on the same page as Everett Golson could lead to some explosive plays downfield.

Torii Hunter Jr: It’s finally time to see what Hunter can do. After missing last year after a freak broken femur suffered at the US Army All-American Bowl, Hunter will try and immediately make an impact at a crowded position. With speed and athleticism and a smoothness that turned him into the MVP of The Opening, Hunter could be the Irish’s solution at slot receiver.

Kelly talked about Hunter’s impressive bowl season with the Irish. This spring he’ll need to establish himself in a depth chart that still is looking for a premium playmaker. After dominating “Trick Shot Monday,” this spring Hunter will give Hunter a chance to make a name for himself on the field as well.

Justin Brent: Consider Brent the X Factor of spring workouts. Some think he’s got the size, speed and talent to come in immediately and contribute. Some think he’ll redshirt, spreading the depth chart out by another year. But Brent enrolled early with hopes of battling for playing time immediately, and we’ll get a progress report starting next week.

There’s so much to like about Brent as a prospect. He’s probably the most physically dominant receiver on the roster already and he should be spending the next couple months wondering about a prom date.

If he can grasp a college offense quickly and get into the rotation this spring, Brent could be ready to make moves early next season.

Ben Koyack: Entering his senior season, Koyack still has the chance to be the next great Notre Dame tight end. The Oil City, PA native certainly had the recruiting pedigree that led you to believe he could be an elite player. Now, with Troy Niklas heading to the NFL and Alex Welch gone, Koyack is the lone survivor at the position, and posed to have a monster year.

Koyack needs to be a do-everything tight end. He’s got the bulk and size to play attached. He’s shown himself to be a productive receiver as well. We’ll ultimately see how Kelly views the Irish personnel at tight end this spring by seeing how many two-tight end sets the Irish utilize. Either way, expect Koyack to be the constant at a position with a lot of uncertainty.

Mike Heuerman: One of the biggest indicators to Heuerman’s spring will be the new roster listing for him. Undersized enrolling early last year, Heuerman needs to have the bulk and size that’ll allow him to attach to the line. We have seen so little of the young tight end, but his recruitment showed an impressive athlete with a mean streak. That’s a guy that can find the field.

With only three tight ends on campus this semester, Heuerman will get plenty of opportunities to build chemistry with the No. 1 offense. It’ll be up to him to parlay that into an opportunity next fall.

Durham Smythe: Another redshirt who drew praise from Kelly during bowl prep. Smythe was tasked by the coaching staff to add weigh and turn himself into a tight end who can play attached or in the slot. Again, we’ll see if he’s physically grown into that role yet.

Anyone with a true feel for how Smythe will do has an insiders perspective. But most of the word on the Texas native has been positive. With a more than great opportunity in front of him, Smythe needs to embrace the challenge of contributing right away and take control of his fate this spring.

No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Syracuse: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 12 Syracuse (8-2).

WHAT? The Irish can burgeon their Playoff claim with a second top-15 win. It will be their third if considering when teams were ranked, but Stanford has plummeted from its No. 7 ranking in September.

The Orange, meanwhile, can come this close to securing a spot in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. Syracuse will still most likely need to beat No. 20 Boston College next weekend, but even a loss there could have the Orange in consideration after a win this weekend. Suffice it to say, such would be a program high tracing back to at least 1998, which ended with a 31-10 loss in the Orange Bowl to Florida.

WHEN? 2:30 ET with kickoff set for a dozen minutes later. For all the griping about moving this game to Yankee Stadium, at least it gives those in attendance a chance to still enjoy New York City on a Saturday night.

WHERE? Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, New York City. But yes, this is considered a Notre Dame home game because words don’t have meaning.

NBC will have the broadcast, with the game streaming online here or on the NBC Sports app.

Per usual, NBC Sports Gold is available to international fans.

WHY? Obviously, this is the 10-year rematch of the 2008 Irish loss to Syracuse in South Bend.  Despite lacking a head coach — Greg Robinson was fired the week prior, though he coached through the end of the season — the Orange pulled off a 24-23 victory to spoil Notre Dame’s Senior Day.

It was not just a cold day, but a snowy one, with students apocryphally throwing snowballs at the Irish sideline. That dramatic retelling ignores the very obvious truth that the undergrads were proving who could throw the farthest, and only three or four genuinely reached the field. They were poor optics, to be sure, but no worse than the quartet of scrawny shirtless freshmen in the stands.

The day did reap some reward for Notre Dame. A future All-American linebacker spent his official visit bundled up in the snow, wondering why people live anywhere on this mainland. Those snowball-throwing students, though, showed enough passion despite the weather to get Manti Te’o’s attention.

The Irish never played Syracuse during Te’o’s time, but they have won their last two meetings, both technically Orange home games though held in MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands: 31-15 in 2014 and 50-33 in 2016.

A STAT THAT MAY HAVE BEEN MISSED IN THE WEEK’S COVERAGE
Syracuse is No. 70 in rushing yards allowed per game at 169.0 and No. 78 in yards per carry against at 4.40. Those numbers are very similar to Pittsburgh’s: No. 76 in yards per game at 172.0 and No. 79 in yards per carry at 4.41.

Then again, the Panthers held Notre Dame to 112 yards on 35 rushes (sacks adjusted), a 3.2 average.

BY HOW MUCH?
Favored by 10 points with a combined point total over/under of 65.5, the Irish are expected to win 38-28. That would necessitate holding the Orange to 16 points below its season average. That is ambitious, even for Clark Lea’s defense.

It is a cliché to say a game will hinge on the turnover battle, but it is such for a reason. It is true, and perhaps especially true this weekend. Syracuse has forced 25 turnovers this season, 2.5 per game. Notre Dame has coughed it up 12 times. (Even if removing senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s five interceptions, the Irish average 1.17 turnovers per game with junior Ian Book starting, compared to 1.2 turnovers per game all season.)

One turnover may happen; it usually does. Notre Dame may not be able to afford any more than that. The Orange will score, and giving up chances to match that is a recipe to end an unbeaten season.

Here is where it proves worth remembering the Irish running backs have not lost a fumble in 37 games, tracing back to its last in a baseball stadium, a 16-13 victory against Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015. Relying on the ground game again would reduce Notre Dame’s turnover risk. Let’s presume that happens.

Notre Dame 35, Syracuse 27.
(9-1 in pick; 4-6 against the spread, 4-6 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s Senior Night special for all, but especially two linebacker captains
Can Notre Dame count on Book’s health?
Conversation around Notre Dame changes, even as the Playoff poll does not
The rise of Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Syracuse
And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium
Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise
Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever
The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

OUTSIDE READING:
Inside the creation of a football field at Yankee Stadium
Why does Notre Dame ever deviate from its ionic uniforms?
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick talks Brian Kelly, a 10-0 start, moving the Syracuse game and more ($)
Subway alums on board for Notre Dame return to New York City
Who is the third-best team in the country?
Don’t let anyone tell you the Irish are out with one loss.
All the chaos that can still happen in the season’s final three weeks
The highest-graded players in every Week 12 marquee matchup in college football
‘Finally, we got one’: Ball State football upsets Western Michigan in overtime thriller

Friday at 4: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

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For the better part of two seasons, junior quarterback Ian Book has been compared to his position coach, Tom(my) Rees. Both began their Notre Dame careers as understudies, seemingly physically-limited, clearly not as athletic as particular peers at the position. The Book-led Irish comeback in the Citrus Bowl seemed to cement his standing as super-sub, a la Rees in 2012 behind Everett Golson.

Perhaps the Rees comparisons should have instead featured senior Brandon Wimbush.

Last week, it was Rees who texted Wimbush on Monday, distracting him throughout a class as he tried to figure out what could possibly be so urgent. Once Wimbush got to the football facilities, Rees told him that Book probably would not play against Florida State. It was a role Rees had handled himself in 2012, most notably when Golson suffered a concussion against Stanford and Rees started the next week against BYU.

‘That guy’s been through everything you can imagine at the quarterback position here,” Wimbush said of Rees. “He’s helped me. He’s led the entire quarterback room, being that young figure who was here not too long ago.

“He has the experience and the knowledge and the wisdom to teach us. He’s done a great job of putting us in a position to succeed on and off the field.”

Wimbush threw two interceptions last week, his fifth and sixth of the year. Yet, the 42-13 victory made his spot-start an unqualified success. His demeanor in handling it, the benching back in September that made last weekend just a spot start, and any of the expected turmoil in the interim, all extended the success to off the field, as well.

As the 10-0 Irish continue this regular season unbeaten and set for the Playoff, Wimbush’s contributions warrant more praise. Not becoming a malcontent is a low bar to clear, but one too high just a couple years ago. It has not gone unnoticed in this locker room.

“Brandon is a high character guy, great guy to be around, we love him to death,” junior defensive Daelin Hayes said following the victory against the Seminoles. “It was our job to go out and have his back.

“He came out and obviously with him being the starter, he handled that as well as anybody could possibly handle that situation.”

Notre Dame likely would have beaten Florida State with freshman Phil Jurkovec at the helm. Frankly, given the first-quarter interception return to the three-yard line from senior Nick Coleman and Julian Love’s two-point return, the Irish may have prevailed with you or me at quarterback. Can you successfully hand off to Dexter Williams 20-plus times?

But Wimbush removed most, perhaps all, stress from the situation. That is not as dramatic as Rees leading the winning drive against Purdue or throwing the winning touchdown against Stanford. It may not stand the same test of time in lore. But it should. Wimbush took the back seat maturely, as frustrating as that must have been. Then he stepped forward when needed, threw three touchdowns and enjoyed a victorious Alma Mater.

The Irish needed that stability as much as they once needed Rees’ heroics.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever

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When now-No. 3 Notre Dame opened its season against now-No. 4 Michigan, the Irish relied on their quarterback, and senior Brandon Wimbush delivered. In meeting No. 12 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame once again will presumably need its quarterback in order to keep up with the Orange scoring pace, averaging 44.4 points per game.

And the Irish will have junior Ian Book ready to go, per head coach Brian Kelly on Thursday.

“He’s had a good week,” Kelly said. “Normal rust on Tuesday, Wednesday ran the offense effectively and then [Thursday] settled in as if he had not had a week off.”

Despite a ribs injury that kept him sidelined against Florida State, Book is already back working within the entirety of Notre Dame’s offense.

“We have run game in for him,” Kelly said. “He’s going to get hit. We feel very comfortable — we wouldn’t play him if we had to put him in bubble wrap.”

This should be an occasion for Book to put up some gaudy stats … in part because Syracuse runs its offense at a high pace, creating more plays for both teams; in part because the Orange defense is somewhat susceptible to the passing game; in part because Book’s numbers in his six starts have been relatively absurd on their own.

Syracuse averages 82.2 plays per game, fourth-most in the country and just behind Wake Forest’s 83.9. That distorts giving up 261.3 passing yards per game (No. 107), but the 7.5 yards per pass attempt still shows a struggle to defend the pass. For comparison, Northwestern gives up 6.8 yards per attempt, and Book memorably threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-34 passing against the Wildcats, mostly with the rib injury.

Yet, the Orange may present Book a challenge he has not yet seen. Giving up a 56.0 percent completion rate (No. 32), Syracuse makes opposing quarterbacks work for their gains harder than any of the six defenses Book has faced. If styles make fights, then it is worth remembering Book leads the country with a 74.5 completion rate.

Book can also prove once and for all whether this season or last was the anomaly as it pertains to his turnovers. Book has thrown four interceptions in 2018, just as he did in 2017. This year they have come on 204 attempts, nearly triple last year’s 75. The Orange intercepts the opposition once every 25 attempts (14 picks on 350 attempts), a number that would pose a concern against the more inexperienced version of Book.

“They play good defense,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t call them a trapping defense in a sense that they’re in a lot of exotic (coverages). They’re a four-down front that plays Cover 1 and they rotate down and play some three-down.

“My first characterization of them wouldn’t be that of a team that takes the ball away. I think they’re fundamentally sound and they put their kids in good position.”

This is all of such concern because Syracuse is going to score. The offense is too high-powered to presume otherwise. Notre Dame behind Wimbush would probably not be able to keep up. With Book back, it becomes more likely, if not outright probable.

Nick Coleman’s interception on Florida State’s second play last week set up an Irish score and Coleman for an increased role at nickel back moving forward. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Orange will stress the Irish defense in ways not yet seen, particularly its nickel packages and senior Nick Coleman. Notre Dame has struggled to replace senior Shaun Crawford since his preseason ACL tear. With an interception and a pass breakup a week ago, Coleman once again asserted himself as Notre Dame’s presumed nickel back. Freshman Houston Griffith has struggled in coverages, leaving only junior Julian Love as a remaining viable option, which then forces freshman TaRiq Bracy (or, less likely due to his lackluster performance this season, junior Donte Vaughn) into outside coverage.

Thus, Coleman will be counted on against an offense with four receivers averaging 11.17 yards or more per catch with at least 28 receptions, all with multiple scores this season.

“Certainly with their [one running back, no tight end] personnel, the nickel will be a very important piece in terms of what we do,” Kelly said. “I thought [Coleman] was savvy. … I got a chance to see him a lot this week, and I thought he was on top of his game.”

As Eric Dungey goes, so goes Syracuse’s offense and the four-year starting quarterback is having quite a productive season, accounting for 26 total touchdowns. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey further complicates that concern, the best dual-threat the Irish have faced this season. On paper, it was a schedule littered with such concerns, but Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson was knocked out for the season by injury before Notre Dame arrived, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has not been as mobile since tearing his ACL in December, and the same can be said of Florida State’s Deondre Francois regarding his ACL tear to start the 2017 season.

Dungey, meanwhile, has taken 147 carries for 690 yards, not adjusting for sacks, and 12 touchdowns. With Coleman at nickel, the Irish will need to rely on linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill to keep an eye on Dungey, especially in the red zone.

He is but a piece of an offense ranked No. 28 in rushing yards per game with 216.1, No. 6 in rushing touchdowns with 32 and No. 12 in attempts per game with 46.1.

“The whole change in their ability to sustain their offensive structure is their ability to run the football,” Kelly said. “If they can’t run the football, this team is not 8-2.

“… By being an effective ground team, it sets up everything they can do.”

Everything the Orange does may make it the best offense first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has faced. In the Notre Dame Stadium press box before last week’s 42-13 victory, it was an easy conversational piece to ponder if Syracuse is the best offense the Irish will play this season. The answer is obviously yes. The follow-up question was tougher to answer, who has been the best thus far?

Michigan’s has come furthest, the best at this point, but it was a shell of this version to open the season. Stanford’s was expected to be much more than it has been, bothered by uncharacteristically poor offensive line play. The consensus settled on Wake Forest, which also scored a season-high 27 points against Notre Dame. If/when the Orange tops that, it will not be an indictment of Lea’s defense, but a challenge to Book’s offense.

Lastly, will freshman defensive end Justin Ademilola play? This is largely a piece of housekeeping, but Ademilola has appeared in three games, meaning he can play in one more before losing a year of eligibility. Given how many games are left — two — and what is at stake — a Playoff berth — burning the year may make sense. Defensive line depth is not something to be taken for granted, and Ademilola has shown he can hold his own for a handful of snaps per game.

The only other freshmen worth monitoring in this regard would be running backs C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith and receiver Joe Wilkins, all having played in two games to date. Barring injury, four games should be the logical limit for each.

Mike Tirico Podcast: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise

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Brian Kelly can very much understand what Dino Babers has done to bring Syracuse to No. 12 in the country. Babers orchestrated that rise along the exact same timetable the Notre Dame head coach made his career on, a timetable that then risked his career, Kelly explained to NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico on his eponymous weekly podcast.

Babers is in his third year leading the Orange, now at 8-2 after back-to-back 4-8 seasons.

“He has stuck with his system and developed his players,” Kelly told Tirico. “These young men are now veterans on the offensive line. He has gone out and brought in some veteran players on the defensive line. He can do some things on the line of scrimmage that he couldn’t before.

“They present a challenge because they can run the football, they can throw it, they’re balanced on offense. … He’s a smart football coach, and he’s developed Syracuse into a winning team.”

While each of Kelly’s first two seasons at Notre Dame matched Babers’ combined wins in his first two with the Orange, it was still Kelly’s third that saw his break through, a la Syracuse currently. That season, as many remember, ended in the BCS national championship game.

This followed a trend for Kelly, going 19-16 in three seasons at Central Michigan before moving to Cincinnati where he went 34-6 before taking over the Irish. That final season with the Bearcats featured the same regular season record Kelly’s third at Notre Dame did, 12-0.

Then, one could say Kelly and the Irish stagnated for three seasons. He had not needed to navigate those years at the FBS-level before.

“Got here and after that third year, really went past that three-year turnaround again and stopped doing the things that I had been doing in the process that I had always stuck with,” Kelly said. “The 4-8 season (in 2016) was a re-awakening of getting back to the things that I had always done and just validates the fact that if I stick with the process and the things that I have always done as a football coach, then we can have success.”

This, along with the general enormity of coaching at Notre Dame and all that comes with it, had Kelly unprepared for the scope of the gig despite being a 19-year head coach when he arrived in South Bend.

“I don’t think I was actually adequately prepared for it,” he said in a moment of candor.

To hear Kelly expound on that list of responsibilities, on recruiting players who fit the University’s culture and on his early career in politics, give Kelly and Tirico a listen via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever else you may get your podcasts.