Changing Slots At Notre Dame

The job descriptions for Notre Dame’s receivers used to be like alphabet soup: The “Z” was the man in the slot, the “W” needed to be more physical and would be on the shorter or boundary side of the field, the “X” would be stationed wider and might be faster …

2013 Notre Dame Spring Football: Mike Denb...

For Mike Denbrock and the 2013 Notre Dame receiving corps, the job description is more direct: just catch, block and run. The position where you are aligned is irrelevant (although that has generally been the case even prior to this year).

“We don’t really run our program that way anymore,” Denbrock said of the various letters attached to a receiving position that defines the athlete. “Guys can be a running back on one play and be a Z on the next play, or they could line up as one of the outside receivers. If we feel like a bigger guy is needed inside [at the slot], we’ll move him inside by the way we can exchange personnel.”

The best example this spring might be the slot. Typically, that position might be ideally suited for someone like the graduated Theo Riddick or currently injured Amir Carlisle — smaller-framed running backs who can create mismatches when shifted to the slot. That still might be the case in the fall when Carlisle is healthy again.

Nevertheless, lining up for Notre Dame at the slot during Wednesday’s practice (April 3) were 6-4, 213-pound senior Daniel Smith, followed by 6-1, 220-pound sophomore C.J. Prosise, who worked at safety last season and even had an audition at drop linebacker. They might not fit the slot “profile,” but they do lend another look to the position that is needed.

“It’s incredibly important to have a guy [in the slot] that has the versatility to both show some physicality and block an alley defender that is sometimes a walk-out linebacker, but also be able to do some things with quickness and being able to get the ball in his hands and let him get something positive,” Denbrock said. “But I think you’re going to see us — as we did a year ago — use a number of different guys at a number of different spots and kind of tailor what we do to what the guys are good at performing at, and kind of judge it that way. We’re just evaluating all that right now.”

Senior TJ Jones (111 career catches) lined up in the slot earlier in his career. If needed, he can move inside again, as could DaVaris Daniels (31 receptions last year), or someone else. Beyond Jones and Daniels, who was suited up but did not practice on Wednesday as a precaution while dealing with an unspecified health issue, Denbrock’s crew has a total of nine career receptions, seven by Smith and two by sophomore Chris Brown.

“The job is open for all comers and anyone who can prove it,” Denbrock said of the slot, but also the outside positions. “We don’t obviously have as much depth as we’d like to have … it’s a great opportunity for a lot of guys to do a lot of different things and not pigeonhole themselves into one specific position.”

An overall knowledge of the offense is needed if a receiver is to be plugged into different spots, much like Michael Floyd was two years ago and tight end Tyler Eifert last year. From that perspective, seniors such as Jones or Smith, and up-and-coming Daniels, all of whom played more extensively last year, might have the edge.

Meanwhile, sophomore speedster Brown, early enrollees James Onwualu and Corey Robinson, and senior Luke Massa, who was slowed last year by a knee injury, have opportunities to try to master one position first … but also get a grasp of the overall picture. Their reps have been elevated appreciably this spring with the departures of sophomores Davonte’ Neal and Justin Ferguson from Notre Dame.

“We’re kind of trying to find a way to incorporate everybody that we’ve got available to us and put them in different places,” Denbrock said. “Try to get guys to do the jobs best in the right position to do those jobs and let them go.”

When asked if Onwualu is going to be lined up on the inside or outside, Denbrock cracked a laugh and affirmatively answered, “Yes.”

“Maybe you’d like to let them learn one spot, especially in the spring, when it’s not as critical if they make a mistake,” Denbrock said. “[We’re] trying to get them a knowledge base across the whole offense and give them as many opportunities as we can to grow.”

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