For the first fall since 2007, there won’t be a shiny golden helmet on Michael Floyd’s head. Rather, a beady-eyed cardinal will be gracing the helmet of Notre Dame’s all-time leading receiver when toe once again meets leather.
The loss of Floyd leaves a glaring hole on the outside of the Irish offense. Floyd was tall, fast and physical—the three most important attributes for a wide receiver. And three of the main reasons the Arizona Cardinals made him the No. 13 pick in April’s NFL Draft.
While preseason All-American tight end Tyler Eifert is expected to shoulder much of the load, Notre Dame still must find some production from its wide receiving corps if it has any hopes of exceeding last year’s eight wins.
The most talented of the currently unheralded bunch is sophomore DaVaris Daniels, who did not see the field as a freshman. The son of longtime NFL defensive end Phillip Daniels, the younger Daniels was ranked as the top prospect in Illinois in the 2011 class by 24/7 Sports.
Head coach Brian Kelly singled out Daniels in the spring as a player who had taken a leap forward from the end of the 2011 season and expects him to be a key contributor to the Irish offense this fall. A leg injury limited him early in the spring, but his grasp of the offense and understanding of the intricacies that come with playing wide receiver in major college football became more and more apparent, culminating with a pair of catches for 47 yards in the Blue-Gold Game.
A chronic hamstring issue has hampered the development of junior T.J. Jones. Other than Jones, no returning Notre Dame receiver can match the raw talent of Daniels. Making reference to a player’s raw talent can often have a negative connotation for veteran players, in that he may not be living up to his natural ability, but for a young player like Daniels, it’s a compliment.
He can catch. He can jump. He can run. However, becoming an elite receiver requires more than that. Route running, blocking and reading coverages are just as important at this level. Even the great Floyd didn’t arrive in South Bend as a master of all trades, so much of that simply comes with time and game experience.
Players like Theo Riddick, George Atkinson and Robby Toma can help the Irish stretch the field horizontally, but Daniels is vital to doing the same vertically. Kelly will turn to Daniels to create big plays comparable to those of Floyd from a year ago, such as his touchdown receptions against USF and Purdue.
Daniels will likely be the beneficiary of playing with a quarterback who can be an effective downfield thrower. Junior Andrew Hendrix and sophomore Everett Golson both possess more of a “laser, rocket arm” compared to incumbent Tommy Rees, who played the majority of snaps in Floyd’s final season at Notre Dame.
At 6’2” and just under 200 pounds, Daniels is still physically inferior to Floyd, but has the frame to add more weight and improve at getting off of blocks and breaking tackles. A strong summer under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo should help Daniels progress towards that point.
Kelly believes in Daniels. Daniels believes in Daniels. Even Irish fans believe in Daniels. But is that simply wishful thinking because his development is so critical to the effectiveness of Notre Dame’s offense this season?
We’ll find out in less than eight weeks.