If you’re looking for an appropriate image to associate with the wide receiving corps from the “first half” of the season (I know it’s been seven games), take your pick:
- There’s Will Fuller running by the Texas Longhorn secondary.
- Or Will Fuller breaking Virginia fans’ hearts.
- Or perhaps Fuller running three strides behind USC’s fastest man, Adoree Jackson.
One of the deepest and most athletic groups of wide receivers in school history hasn’t let Everett Golson’s transfer or Malik Zaire’s injury slow them down. And that’s mostly because of the excellence from Fuller and the emergence of senior Chris Brown as a capable No. 2 receiver.
With five games remaining and DeShone Kizer getting more and more comfortable in the job, there’s plenty of opportunities for big games ahead. Let’s take a look at where the Irish sit and hand out some kudos.
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Baddest dude on the block: Will Fuller
Any first-half All-American team without Fuller on it feels incomplete. It also doesn’t appreciate what makes Fuller the offensive weapon that he’s become. The junior isn’t sneaking up on anybody this season, not after 15 touchdowns in 2014. But even with chaos at quarterback and an offense more geared to the running game, Fuller is still impacting football games—on pace to better last year’s historic season, even if he’ll be doing it in 17 less touches.
The junior has cleaned up the major deficiencies in his game, and has significant cut his drops this season (though the rain at Clemson got the better of him). And his confidence against USC has to have Irish fans feeling even better—Fuller wanted the challenge against Adoree Jackson and relished the opportunity to make game-changing plays against a cornerback most expected to be his athletic superior.
There’s room for improvement still. The screen game—last year’s bread and butter—hasn’t taken off. There’s also more downfield opportunities, Kizer taking a shot on 50-50 balls deep is never a bad gamble.
Finding a way to slow down the Irish offense usually starts with defenses committed to stuffing the run. That means less defenders downfield, a conundrum that Brian Kelly knows how to exploit. Let’s see if Fuller can put some separation in the record books by continuing his consistency and doubling his touchdown total.
Most Improved: Chris Brown
That the Irish coaching staff has turned Chris Brown into a legit No. 2 wide receiver is a credit to Mike Denbrock’s coach and Brown’s ability to harness his skills. Long talked about as one of the best athletes at the position, Brown seemed to be giving his best performances on the practice field.
That’s turned this season with Brown showing good hands, the ability to move the chains and a ball magnet—his 27 catches are nearing his 2014 season total and he’s already doubled his touchdowns. The second half of the season could give Brown some downfield opportunities, too.
Area for Improvement: Holding on to the football.
For all the playmakers on this team, one constant source of attention needs to be holding onto the football. We’ll give the drops a pass after the Clemson monsoon. But both Brown and Torii Hunter Jr. have lost fumbles inside the 10-yard line, turning scores into turnovers because they were trying to do too much.
Interestingly, we saw the reaction from the Irish players and coaching staff, thanks to behind-the-scenes footage on both Showtime and UND.com. The staff was both firm (BK serving mostly as the bad cop) and encouraging (Denbrock acting as the good one), knowing that the psyche of this group needs to stay confident—because the personnel at this position has too much talent to go into a funk.
We saw Corey Robinson conquer his demons last week with a huge catch for the go-ahead touchdown. We’ll see Hunter and Brown get their shots in the coming weeks as well. But with quick screens and jet sweeps not going off the play sheet anytime soon, keeping the turnovers down, especially inside the scoring area, is critical.
Pay no attention: CJ Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown.
The two freshmen really haven’t made a dent in the stat sheet. But last week we saw their value on Notre Dame’s special teams pay immediate dividends. The most obvious was St. Brown’s block of a USC punt that Amir Carlisle scooped up for the score. St. Brown jumped so high he blocked the kick with his jersey number. In the coming weeks, expect to see St. Brown get another look at receiver, even if it means taking Brown or Corey Robinson off the field.
Sanders impact on special teams has been one of the below-the-radar successes of the season. On his 14 punt returns, Sanders is averaging 10.1 an attempt. Put that into context with these elite return men.
CJ Sanders - 14 punt returns, 142 yards, 10.14 yards per, 1 TD Adoree Jackson - 11 returns, 112 yards, 10.18 yards per, 0 TDs Jabrill Peppers - 14 returns, 144 yards, 10.29 yards per, 0 TDs
It’s only a matter of time before Sanders breaks a kickoff return, especially with some of the blocking wrinkles the Irish are displaying.
The tall and small combo of St. Brown and Sanders have been game-changers in special teams. They’ve also shown future freshman the best way to contribute, especially with a depth chart that’s as stacked as the receiving corps.