Almost every year since 2005, Notre Dame has had an “aircraft carrier” figure lined up at wide receiver that opposing defenses had to concentrate on, thereby opening up other avenues for the Irish offense: two-time All-American Jeff Samardzija (2005-06), 2009 Biletnikoff Award winner Golden Tate (2007-09), first-round selection Michael Floyd (2008-11) and even John Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert (2009-12), who was often flexed wide as a receiver last season.
Junior wideout DaVaris Daniels can build on a strong performance against national champion Alabama in which he caught six passes for 115 yards.
All but Tate possessed length and range, but Tate was blessed with immense playmaking skills and supremely powerful hands in traffic.
In 2012, Notre Dame’s collective “air supply” at wideout isn’t necessarily low, but it is mainly in flight-training school attempting to earn its wings.
The corps leader is 5-11, 192-pound senior TJ Jones, who has been the second or third complementary option while snaring 111 career passes and 10 touchdowns. Suddenly, though, it’s like the Miami Heat asking Shane Battier to become the star figure when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are not available. It’s not like Battier doesn’t belong as an athlete at that level, but he might be out of his element as the marquee player.
“I’ve challenged TJ to really kind of maybe step outside his comfort zone a little bit,” receivers coach Mike Denbrock said. “He has certainly earned the respect of his teammates to the point where he can get out in front of them when he needs to say and maybe say something. It doesn’t have to be an everyday thing.”
Jones upgraded his yards per catch from 9.6 on 38 catches in 2011 to 13.0 on 50 grabs last season and was one of the program's most improved players overall. Can he achieve even better production in 2013 without defenses needing to concentrate on Eifert, or maybe someone else in the slot?
The wideout with the most star-power potential is 6-2, 192-pound junior DaVaris Daniels, who made his varsity debut last season with 31 receptions that averaged a notable 15.8 yards per catch. Still, his next touchdown grab will be his first. Daniels was sidelined in this Wednesday’s practice for unspecified health reasons, although he was in football gear.
While he doesn’t possess the range of a Samardzija, Floyd or Eifert, or the explosiveness of Tate (29 touchdowns as a sophomore and junior prior to turning pro), Daniels’ “measureables” might be the best on the team amongst the skill players.
“He’s capable of doing it,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Daniels becoming the No. 1 receiver down the road, if not 2013. “He wants to do it. We have to show him how to do it. Sometimes it’s a matter of maturation. He understand what we want from him because we think he can be great — but he’s got to move his game up there to get there.”
Daniels finished last season with six catches for 115 yards against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game loss. The yardage total was the third-most ever by an Irish receiver in a bowl game. According to Denbrock, Daniels is “head and shoulders” above this season in his consistency toward approaching competition, especially after his performance against the Crimson Tide.
“Even before that you started to see a maturity in him that he’s got it in his brain now that, ‘I can do this at this level and do it very well,’” Denbrock said.
Beyond the Jones/Daniels tandem, everything is open — it’s just a matter of how open the receivers can get versus pass coverage. Seeing action at slot this spring is 6-4, 213-pound senior Daniel Smith and 6-1, 220-pound sophomore C.J. Prosise, a converted safety.
Smith found a niche last season as an effective blocker for the running game, but his seven career receptions have totaled only 47 yards.
“I think Danny understands that there’s a level to his game that still needs to be achieved from a receiving standpoint as far as his route running and some other things,” Denbrock said. “You talk about a guy with fantastic athletic ability and ball skills, Danny Smith registers right up there with anybody we’ve got. As long as he continues to progress, he’s going to be fine. He’ll get some opportunities to catch it.”
So will Prosise, possibly an early front-runner for this year’s “where the heck did that guy come from?” award, a la freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell and sophomore safety Matthias Farley in 2012. Prosise’s combination of size, leaping ability and ball skills have made an impression so far this spring.
“He has really been a bright spot here, the last few practices in particular,” Denbrock confirmed. “As he gets more and more comfortable in what we’re asking him to do, there’s a guy who’s got all the tools to be something pretty good.”
Sophomore Chris Brown (6-2, 192) is about where Daniels was at this time last spring: a fledgling colt eager to run with the bigger horses. Unlike Daniels, the speedster did play as a freshman and made a game-turning play with his 50-yard reception that set up the go-ahead Irish touchdown in the victory at Oklahoma. With Daniels sidelined earlier this week, Brown was his replacement. The main objective is to expand his repertoire beyond the “go” route.
“He’s showing a higher maturity level not only with how he goes about practice but his knowledge of our offense overall,” Denbrock said. “… You hope that as you progress through your career that you become better and better at all the little things and not just one thing in particular, that your game expands as you mature a little bit. I see that in Chris this spring. There are things we can ask him to do in our offense now that we wouldn’t have asked him to do a year ago just because of how he’s grown and progressed.”
Brown has added 20 pounds, which in itself allows him to do a little more.
“If someone has funneled him up the seam, he doesn’t get knocked around as much as he did a year ago,” Denbrock said. “He’s got some work to do there still, but he’s made a lot of progress.”
“He’s not going to run by a whole lot of people, but body position-wise, a big receiver who can help us in the run game No. 1, and No. 2 sit himself down in some zones and catch the football,” Denbrock said. “He’s got a nice set of hands.”
Kelly has already indicated that Onwualu’s toughness will likely land him a spot on all the special teams, similar to recent transfer Justin Ferguson last year.
“Tough guy, physical, loves the game, plays with tremendous passion, good skill set,” Denbrock summarized.
During individual drills in Wednesday’s practice, Robinson made two of the more impressive catches, the first a leaping grab about 30 yards downfield from Everett Golson, and then diving to the ground to snare a low Malik Zaire aerial.
“His catch radius kind of reminds me a lot of Tyler Eifert in that even if the ball is somewhere in the perimeter, he’ll find a way,” Denbrock said. “Great ball skills, good knowledge of the game of football, surprisingly, even though he’s from a small school in Texas and is basketball-oriented maybe family-wise.”
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