Irish head coach Brian Kelly turned heads Saturday when he discussed Notre Dame football’s wide receiver position.
“He was clearly this week our best receiver consistently,” Kelly said to reporters following Saturday’s practice.
“He” might not be whom you’d expect. “He” was junior Chris Brown, the owner of 17 career receptions and one touchdown in two seasons.
Granted, senior DaVaris Daniels, the expected top target, was limited during the first week of fall camp with a groin issue, per Kelly. Still, Brown has risen from last season’s crop of unproven wide receivers behind starters TJ Jones and Daniels. With Daniels suspended for the spring semester and away from the team, Notre Dame was without an active, proven commodity after Jones’ ascension to the NFL.
Without Daniels, Brown’s 17 career receptions led the active receivers.
Without Daniels, Brown’s 50-yard reception against Oklahoma in 2012 gave him one of just two grabs by an Irish player from a current Irish quarterback.
And without Daniels, Brown began to rise.
“When DaVaris was not with us, Chris really by de facto was the veteran of that group,” Kelly said. “So he was put in a leadership position in the spring and really kind of took off. So I think the circumstances really led to him emerging at that position.
“I think when you see some light at the top there you kind of take hold.”
It’s just one week of fall practice, and don’t expect Brown to usurp the top job from Daniels himself. But if Brown can continue his development and form a capable alternative across from Daniels, Notre Dame’s offense should be in a better position to thrive.
Just how important is a steady second receiver? Why, for example, could Notre Dame not lean heavily on Daniels and then spread the remaining targets around equally to some combination of Brown, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Amir Carlisle, C.J. Prosise and Justin Brent? Well, the Irish still very well could. But recent history shows there’s something to be said for teams that have a second pass-catcher who can perform at a comparable rate to the top receiver.
Of the teams that finished in the final AP Top 25 rankings at the end of the 2013 season, 19 of the 25 squads received comparably strong production from their No. 2 pass-catcher. The No. 2 option on those 19 teams amassed at least two-thirds of the number of receptions tallied by the No. 1 receiver. For instance, Notre Dame—which finished 21st in the final AP Top 25—featured Jones (70 receptions) and Daniels (49). Daniels reached 70 percent of Jones’ reception output.
How many receptions will Chris Brown tally in 2014?
The only teams with one-dimensional pass-catching units—whose No. 2 targets didn’t reach the two-thirds mark in receptions—were Clemson, Stanford, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, Duke and Vanderbilt. Four of those teams had their No. 1 receiver eclipse 100 receptions on the season.
In other words, almost all of the top 25 teams in the country last season had a reliably productive second receiver or an elite, 100-catch first option.
Is Brown ready to become one of those top two receivers, filling the void left by Jones? It appears the speed merchant from Hanahan, South Carolina, could be on his way, filling in for the man whose career his is starting to resemble.
“I think [Brown’s growth] started with, first, we had a great mentor in TJ Jones,” Kelly said. “I think he saw the growth in TJ and kind of mirrored that.”
There’s still a long way to go, but Brown’s strong start this fall bodes well for the Irish offense.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.