SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has plenty of time to figure out who will emerge to fill the gaping crater of receptions left behind by Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, but in the early stages of that process, there have been some expected hiccups.
Notre Dame’s two leading returning receivers are Torii Hunter Jr. (28 catches, 363 yards, two touchdowns in 2015) and Corey Robinson (15 catches, 200 yards, one touchdown), and both of those guys have had split focuses this spring. Hunter is shuttling between the football and baseball teams, while Robinson recently returned from rubbing elbows with politicians in Washington D.C. Wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock admitted that both players have been missed at times, though added he’s not concerned about either catching up on missed reps when they can.
But with both Hunter and Robinson sporadically unavailable, Notre Dame’s crop of inexperienced-yet-talented receivers have been thrust into the spring spotlight.
“There’s a lot of times where the ball will get thrown and the quarterbacks are kind of looking over at me and saying, Are you gonna yell at the receiver because he did the wrong thing, or are you gonna yell at me because I threw the ball where it wasn’t supposed to be or whatever,” Denbrock said Monday, adding in a hoarse tone, “as you could tell, there was a little bit of that going on today at practice.”
The group of Corey Holmes, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, C.J. Sanders and Kevin Stepherson has two receptions for eight yards to its collective name (St. Brown and Sanders each caught a lone pass last year). But Holmes, St. Brown, Boykin and Sanders were all four-star recruits, and Stepherson has been roundly praised by coaches and teammates for his ability to quickly adapt to college practice as an early-enrolling freshman. There’s talent here, and it’s up to Denbrock & Co. to figure out how to best use it.
At this stage, Denbrock is still figuring out where each of those players best fits in the offense — at the W (wide), Z (slot) or X (boundary).
“We’ll kind of let them tell us, this looks pretty smooth right here, I think this guy looks a little more comfortable at X, I think this guys looks a little bit more comfortable at Z, this guy could play anywhere, let’s move him around,” Denbrock said. "A lot of that is fun about spring football. We don’t have to get ready to beat Texas or anybody else. We can kind of just be mad scientists and move guys around and let’s see where they fit best.”
Fuller, Brown and Carlisle were Notre Dame’s three leading receivers in 2015 and combined for 142 receptions, 2,210 yards and 19 touchdowns (59 percent of the team’s receptions, 66 percent of the receiving yards and 76 percent of the receiving touchdowns), with Fuller accounting for most of that production. Since coach Brian Kelly took over in 2010, Notre Dame has had a clear-cut No. 1 target, from Michael Floyd to Tyler Eifert to T.J. Jones to Fuller.
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Quarterback DeShone Kizer, though, said having a pass catcher take that top-target torch isn’t crucial to the team’s offensive success.
“Last year, there was a big emphasis on No. 7 (Fuller) and how great he was,” Kizer said. “This year is a year I truly believe we’re going to have to spread it across the board because there’s so much talent.”
But that’s a line that’s been repeated plenty when there wasn’t that clear-cut go-to receiver at this point in the year. “Spreading the ball around” was a common theme after Floyd left, even though a productive Eifert was right there on the roster. Jones asserted himself as Tommy Rees’ favorite receiver after questions of how to replace Eifert’s production were asked. And after Jones left, Fuller went from catching six passes his freshman year to exploding for 76 receptions, 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2014.
That chain is a testament to the offensive structure and player development put in place by Kelly and Denbrock, though having a player emerge into that No. 1 target isn’t something that can be forced. Maybe it’ll be Hunter or St. Brown or Holmes or Boykin or one of the tight ends (Durham Smythe, Alize Jones and Nic Weishar). But pinning those hopes on anyone at this point in the spring would be premature.
“If somebody ends up being as reliable to them as a get out of jail free card as Will Fuller was, I’m sure they’ll know where he’s at every down,” Denbrock said. “I think that will come here over time over the summer and the fall.”