While Notre Dame’s secondary has generated the most concern among Irish fans heading into the opening of the 2012 season next Saturday in Ireland, the team also faces some uncertainty at wide receiver.
The versatility of tight end Tyler Eifert should help mask those deficiencies, but slow-developing talent and some recruiting misses have left the team still searching for answers on the outside.
In head coach Brian Kelly’s one-back offense, there will generally be three wide receivers on the field, except in two tight end sets. Notre Dame generally defines its receiver positions by letters, “W”, “X”, “Y” and “Z”. W and X are outside positions, while Y and Z are inside.
Eifert will generally man the Y receiver role. Let’s look at the other three positions and how they’ll be filled this fall.
A drop-off in this position is a near uncertainty with Michael Floyd, Notre Dame’s all-time leading receiver, off to the NFL.
Floyd excelled at nearly every type of route, and under Kelly, his blocking put him over the top, propelling him up NFL Draft boards. Without No. 3, the burden falls to fifth-year senior John Goodman, last seen as the intended receiver for Tommy Rees’ interception that sealed Notre Dame’s Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State.
Goodman has only 28 catches in his career, but has steady hands and a firm grasp of the Kelly offense. He doesn’t have great speed, but has comparable size to Floyd. The Irish would likely be better off if sophomore Davaris Daniels surpasses Goodman, but the Chicago native has not progressed enough to earn a starting role after not playing in 2011. He’s added strength during the offseason, and he could steal increased playing time from Goodman as the season progresses.
True freshman Justin Ferguson would likely be the third option, but has worked at the X as well. The coaching staff would like to save a year of eligibility if the situation allows for it, but expect Ferguson to see the field this year.
How much production the Irish get out of this position, particularly from starter TJ Jones, will go a long way to determining the team’s fate this fall.
Jones struggled for much of his sophomore campaign and has been bothered by a nagging minor hamstring injury. His yards per catch average declined from over 13 in 2010 to under 10 last season.
As a junior, he is now leads all Notre Dame wide receivers in career catches, and has taken on a leadership role with young players like Ferguson and Chris Brown. Jones is most effective on short, quick routes, except when he forgets to turn his head and causes his head coach to turn purple.
At 5’11”, he won’t win many jump balls, but he is generally a sound route-runner.
Brown, a high school track star, has had a strong summer and fall camp and will be part of the rotation immediately. He gives the Irish a bigger body than Jones at the X position, and overall he is a more dynamic athlete despite needing some polish on his technique and some muscle on his frame.
Junior Daniel Smith will look to break into the lineup this year either at the W or the X. He’s yet to record a catch, but has good size at 6’4”.
This position will be one of great fluidity this season due to the cross-training between this position and running back, both coached by Tony Alford. Senior Robby Toma emerged late last season after Theo Riddick was shifted back to running back. Toma is limited physically, but he runs crisp routes and can makes tough catches in traffic, which is mandatory for any slot receiver.
Like Jones, he’ll be playing the role a mentor this season, guiding true freshman Davonte Neal, the most dynamic player in Notre Dame’s freshman receiver class. Neal is an exceptional athlete once the ball in his hands. He has the potential to turn 10-yard slants into 50-yard touchdowns.
Expect Riddick and George Atkinson III, both who converted from wide receiver to running back, to line up in the slot at times as well. The versatile weapons with which Kelly and Alford have to work will allow this position to have a great amount of flexibility.
Atkinson III is the most comparable player to Raghib Ismail since the 1990 Heisman Trophy runner-up left South Bend.
Kelly has repeatedly said that for his system to operate the way he want it, seven receivers have to play. The Irish are closer to that number this year with three true freshman, but five of the top eight have never caught a pass at the collegiate level.
That means someone of the inexperienced group will have to make major strides, even with Eifert a virtual lock to lead the team in receptions. Daniels is the most likely candidate, but Neal and Brown have both made strong impressions with the coaching staff in their two months on campus.
While this group doesn’t even compare with that of their rivals from Los Angeles, the future appears much brighter than it did in February after losing Floyd to the NFL and verbal commitment Deontay Greenberry to Houston.