Seven receivers will practice with the varsity next season, but if passing game coordinator Mike Denbrock and the team's head man have their druthers, there'll be a solid six-player rotation prepared for battle each Saturday next fall, and that process begins this spring.
T.J. Jones (the "X" receiver) and DaVaris Daniels (the "W" or boundary receiver) are assumed starters, Jones has held the role since the outset of his true freshman season after his January enrollment in 2010, Kelly's first spring, opened the door to a Day One start in his first fall.
Daniels was the starter when healthy last season and, like Jones, one of a small sampling of Irish that played well in the BCS Championship game loss to Alabama.
The slot is wide open after the graduations of technical starter Robby Toma (39 targets, 24 receptions) and RB/Slot Theo Riddick (56 targets, 36 receptions), but logical projections -- both in terms of talent and the depth chart -- point to sophomore Davonte' Neal stepping into the role.
The squad lost two of its top three pass targets to graduation in Tyler Eifert
and Theo Riddick, as well as its fifth, Robby Toma. Also moving on is graduate student John Goodman
, who made the most of limited opportunity, catching seven passes and three touchdowns on nine pass targets.
Position Coach: Mike Denbrock (Perimeter Receivers/Passing Game Coordinator) -- 7th season at Notre Dame (2002-04; 2010-present)
Spring Combatants: Seniors T.J. Jones, Daniel Smith and Luke Massa (a redshirt-junior); junior (redshirt-sophomore) DaVaris Daniels, sophomores Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson, and Davonte' Neal; January enrollee freshmen James Onwualu and Corey Robinson
Incoming Talent: Four-star prospects Will Fuller (Roman Catholic HS, Philadelphia) and Torii Hunter (Prosper HS, Prosper TX)
Leading Returning Receiver: Jones: 50 receptions, 649 yards, 4 touchdowns. Targeted for 74 passes (in the regular season) and nine more in the BCS Championship game.
In reality, the position designations are more for practice reps and organization than in-game slotting. Tyler Eifert manned the "W" last year, but he was a tight end. T.J. Jones moves all over the field as did Michael Floyd (a technical "W") before him. Daniels will do the same.
There are thus no true position-specific battles, just rotation time in an offense that guarantees only two truths:
1.) A running back, two wide receivers, and a tight end will join the team's quarterback and offensive linemen, leaving the 11th field spot open to another receiver, running back, or tight end, and …
2.) It will change drive-by-drive, down-by-down, with two or three tight ends likely in short yardage, four receivers in long yardage, and an empty backfield among the frequent machinations in Brian Kelly's evolving spread attack.
For sophomore slot Davonte' Neal, that reality means he must not only win the slot role, but prove he can bring more to the base offense than running backs such as Amir Carlisle or Will Mahone, or tight ends Ben Koyack and Alex Welch, or perhaps perimeter receivers such as Chris Brown, as there's little doubt T.J. Jones could move to the slot and thrive for 13 games.
Neal's weekly immersion as the punt returner on an annually horrible unit didn't reap any benefits in 2012, but that time under fire should aid his cause for 2013.
He's one of the most intriguing players for the spring session -- one of a handful of young players that could help make the 2013 Irish the fastest/quickest of the four-year Kelly era.
Jones and Daniels give Kelly a chance for a quarterback-driven/perimeter driven offense for the first time in his tenure (or at least since it was attempted and later scrapped in his initial season, 2010).
Jones rivaled Eifert as the team's top third-down chain-mover last season and Daniels improved immensely despite losing most of November to a broken collarbone and nearly two full games to an early season knee injury. The sky's the limit for the latter, as in his first season of competition, Daniels was able to beat man coverage vs. both Oklahoma and Alabama in high pressure situations.
Though Jones will likely be the team's lead man in 2013, it would be a great sign for the offense's potential and ceiling if Daniels ascends to that mantle. To do so, attention to detail and a professional attitude for nine months, not just on game week, is essential
Jones has evolved into a tremendous technical receiver: his route running and hands (concentration) finally catching up to his abandon after the catch. Daniels has the size/speed ratio to be special, and must take steps similar to Jones for the offense to reach its peak.
He hasn't officially arrived (let's avoid excessive hype for a player that hasn't scored a collegiate touchdown), but Daniels ranks as the unquestioned X-Factor among presumed starters for 2013. He can take the passing game to a different level.
From competing to competitors
The loss of Eifert from the perimeter (his positioning more often than in-line tight end) cannot be understated, both as a blocker and chain-mover, not to mention downfield/fade route threat. But it can be overcome, just as the loss of the all-star Floyd after 2011 was negligible as the 2012 season progressed.
Senior Daniel Smith carved a niche last fall as the team's blocking receiver. Its a highly undervalued skill set (just ask a running back), but the 6'4" 215-pound South Bend (Clay HS) product has to add the threat of mid-range route to his arsenal. Smith caught 7 passes last season, averaging under seven yards per grab.
His playing time is assured -- how much is likely dependent on what he can bring to the team when the ball is in the air, not tucked under a runner's arm.
Post Potential: He technically caught two passes, but only one registers -- Chris Brown's 50-yard strike down the post in Norman started a fourth quarter scoring barrage against the heavily favored Sooners. It was the highlight of Brown's season, one of the best play calls (plus execution) of the Kelly era, and will, if Brown reaches his potential, be a fitting marker and first career catch for a player that can doubtless take the top off a defense.
The rest of Brown's season included two drops, multiple missed opportunities (some the quarterback's fault) and just one more catch on 10 more pass targets. But in (very) limited practice viewings last August, Brown showed the potential to be much more than a one-trick pony. He wasn't afraid to run or catch over the middle; he came back for the football; he looked like a sophomore rather than a true freshman less than a month into his collegiate career.
In 2013, that has to translate to Saturday, because the Irish need a third reliable perimeter target, and the 6'3" 182-pound Brown is the most gifted of the bunch.
Ferguson vs. the Freshmen
At 6'2" 196 pounds (August 2012 listing), and with a season on special teams under his belt, sophomore Justin Ferguson is our odds-on favorite to earn the sixth spot in the team's game day rotation. But two semester enrollees, James Onwualu and Corey Robinson, will receive ample spring reps -- the two players from that Ferguson/freshmen trio that show well in March and April will have a major advantage heading into August.
Onwualu is likely more game-ready than was Ferguson as a true freshman, but a year in the Irish strength program and varsity time for the better part of two months should help Ferguson offset Onwualu's athletic edge.
Notre Dame's so-called "sixth" receiver for 2013 won't be the player with the most potential. Rather, he'll be the blocker/pass catcher/route runner/assignment correct target that can be counted on and trusted to carry out the staff's plan on a day-to-day basis.
We won't know who it is until at least mid-August (incoming freshman Will Fuller will begin to stake his claim in the summer), but Ferguson can quell any early freshmen uprising with a solid spring.
(Note: Click here for a look at our first preview of the spring, the team's new look running backs unit.)