A position-by-position preview of the challenges and candidates to solve them at Notre Dame during spring practice, which begins March 3.
Senior tight end Ben Koyack will be Notre Dame’s most experienced pass catcher in spring practice this year.
2 Chris Brown (6-2, 191, Jr./2)
10 DaVaris Daniels* (6-2, 203, Sr./2)
11 Justin Brent (6-1, 205, Fr./4)
15 Will Fuller (6-0, 171, So./3)
16 Torii Hunter Jr. (6-0, 178, So./4)
17 James Onwualu (6-1, 215, So./3)
20 C.J. Prosise (6-1, 220, Jr./3)
88 Corey Robinson (6-4, 205, So./3)
* Will miss spring practice due to an academic suspension
Brown: 17 receptions for 265 yards and one touchdown.
Daniels: 80 receptions for 1,235 yards and seven touchdowns.
Fuller: Six receptions for 160 yards and one touchdown.
Onwualu: Two receptions for 34 yards.
Prosise: Seven receptions for 72 yards.
Robinson: Nine receptions for 157 yards and one touchdown.
Koyack: 14 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns.
Replacing a top target in the passing game has become an annual process for the Irish, and 2014 figures to be no different. Notre Dame has found a way to fill the big shoes of Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert in the past two years. With senior TJ Jones and junior Troy Niklas both departing for the NFL this winter, the offense will need another No. 1 receiver to emerge. Who will it be?
Ten players on the 2014 roster have caught a pass during a game at Notre Dame. Only one of them, senior DaVaris Daniels, has more than 17 catches thus far in his career. Daniels is the frontrunner to become Everett Golson’s go-to receiver in the fall, which makes his absence during spring practice more notable.
Daniels is spending the spring semester away from South Bend because of academic reasons. The Irish are hoping his suspension will be a wake-up call for the physically gifted receiver who has yet to fulfill expectations of the type of game-changing force many think he can become.
“We expect a lot from DaVaris. We’re hard on him,” offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said in December. “We work him hard and we coach him hard. He does a nice job of responding and working his way through. I think we all continue to see him mature and grow and I think that’s going to continue.”
Spring will give players like junior wide receiver Chris Brown a chance to prove they are deserving of more touches in the fall.
If Daniels doesn’t take that final step forward in 2014, there is a large contingent of younger receivers eager to cut into his opportunities. The Irish pass catchers this year separate into three fairly neat groups.
The first — Daniels, Ben Koyack and Chris Brown — have regularly seen the field during the last two seasons and should be primed to take on more responsibility in the offense next season. Next is last year’s freshmen trio of Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and James Onwualu. At times, all three were on the field together in 2013 and all showed a good deal of promise despite being incomplete players. Their goal in the spring will be to prove they can be consistent impact players rather than simply using their top skill (speed, size and strength, respectively) in specific situations.
Lastly is a foursome of untested newcomers that will be on campus this spring. Tight ends Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman have more room to work their way into the lineup with Niklas’ unexpected leap to the pros. Sophomore Torii Hunter Jr., who might have played last fall if not for a serious leg injury, and early enrollee Justin Brent are both candidates to leap directly into rotation of six receivers that the Irish have used in the past.
Notre Dame has sufficiently solved its lack of deep threats in the wide receiver corps. Fuller and Brown have the speed to get behind opposing secondaries. Daniels and Robinson have the height and leaping ability to snatch jump balls from the air near the goal line. Last season, that group helped the Irish finish 23rd nationally with 24 passes that went for at least 30 yards.
Now the Irish need help on the other end of the spectrum — possession receivers. Jones and Eifert both made their collegiate living by being reliable weapons when Notre Dame needed a big catch on third downs or in other crucial situations. The current crop of players doesn’t have a proven short yardage or route-running specialist among them.
There are many options for a player to step into that role. Junior C.J. Prosise and his 220-pound frame could become a threat from the slot position. Robinson has the size as well if he gets stronger in the offseason. Kelly also mentioned Brent as a strong candidate to go over the middle and pick up yards after the catch because of his physical maturity. Notre Dame will need at least one of its receivers to evolve into a new role during spring practice.
Since Charlie Weis’ first season as a head coach, the Irish have never gone without a standout at the tight end position. Koyack, the senior from Oil City, Pa., is next in line to assume that throne. How far he comes during the offseason could have a big effect on what the Irish offense looks like in 2014.
Kelly said Koyack struggled with his confidence during the early part of his career. He seemed to come out of his shell starting in October of last season. He caught three touchdown passes in the space of four games and narrowly missed another against Air Force. He was considered the country’s premiere pass-catching tight end in his recruiting class, and is a candidate to split away from the line in the increasingly popular hybrid tight end/receiver position.
Koyack’s growth as a hybrid player would provide more space for the Irish to use redshirt freshman Durham Smythe as an in-line threat in double-tight-end sets. Smythe impressed the Irish coaching staff at practice during his first season in South Bend. Koyack could also help fill the void left by Jones when Notre Dame needs a big catch on a third down.
72.8 — That’s the percentage (2,411 out of 3,313 yards) of last year’s receiving yardage that belongs to players that won’t be practicing with the Irish this spring. With Jones, Niklas and Daniels all absent, spring time will be a huge opportunity for young players to make an impression on their coaches.
With a new quarterbacks coach and a new quarterback for most of these players, Notre Dame’s second and third groups of receivers can go along way to inspire confidence in their abilities. The playing field is wide open and there are several candidates vying for touches. Watching which pass catchers emerge from the group during the next six weeks will be one of the more intriguing stories of spring practice.