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August 26, 2013
Turning the Notre Dame wide receivers into a position of strength has been a personal quest for Mike Denbrock for over a year now.
Long gone are bell cows Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, both first round picks when they turned pro. Since spring ball Denbrock has worked with a talented but unproven stable of receivers to replace that kind of production.
“It’s been a journey from where we started over a year or so ago to where we are now,” Denbrock said. “The credit really goes to the guys, to the players. They have really understood what we needed from them, understood what we wanted from them and then they’ve taken it out to the field and they’ve worked really, really hard to get their games in a position where we can actually look at the wide receiver position and feel really good about the quality we have there and that they’re in a position now to really be the type of producers on offense that we’ve needed them to be all along.”
Denbrock will lean on proven veteran TJ Jones, chosen a captain by head coach Brian Kelly. Last fall Jones matched Eifert with 50 catches to lead the team, trailing the tight end by 36 yards receiving.
Others are in position to take the pressure off Jones.
DaVaris Daniels approached 500 yards last season and put together his best effort against Alabama. Chris Brown made just two catches last season, but has been running with the first team throughout fall camp.
Senior Daniel Smith, on the other hand, has been limited by injury most of August.
Daniels has been pushing toward becoming a consistent option for quarterback Tommy Rees since the final game of last season.
“He’s getting closer,” Denbrock said. “As guys get older in their careers they kinda understand a little bit more about preparation. They understand a little bit more about practicing hard every day, the type of focus that it takes. The type of mental toughness that it takes to keep developing yourself as a football player. The hardest step to take is a very good player to a great player. He’s in that process. I like the progress that he’s made.”
Younger options will likely show how deep the position can be.
Freshmen Corey Robinson and James Onwualu have all but solidified at least situational playing time. Robinson has been the talk of camp, using his length, height and soft hands to beat even veteran corners on some attempts.
“I think it would be hard not to say, ‘Hey, he’s a pleasant surprise,’” Denbrock said. “Here’s a guy who we were his first scholarship offer. It’s not like he was a national prominent recruit that everybody was chasing. But I think we saw something in him that we thought over time would develop and it certainly has developed up to this point a lot faster than any of us could have imagined. We’re just thankful that it has.”
Robinson and Onwualu have benefitted from enrolling for the second semester last year and participating in spring practice. They’ve not only had longer to soak up the playbook but also more time with strength and conditioning coordinator Paul Longo.
Onwualu is already up to 215 pounds and has brought a physical presence to the position that bodes well for getting on the field this season.
“He’s fearless,” Denbrock said. “There’s not a block that he doesn’t think he can make whether it’s on a linebacker, safety or a corner. I’m sure if we asked him to block a down linemen he’d do that as hard as he possibly could. He’s got that intrinsic toughness about him that you love in a football player. You don’t have to encourage him to be tough. That’s just the way he’s built.”
Freshman Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise are also in a position to contribute, Denbrock said. All told the position could go seven or eight deep. And while there isn’t a ton of experience across the board there is optimism that gains made over the last year will lead to a balanced, productive group.
“A lot of it is gonna be predicated on what the situation is in the game,” Denbrock said. “We’ve got guys who are more power guys. Danny Smith, James Onwualu, Luke Massa. We’ve got some speed guys. We’ve got Will Fuller, Chris Brown, DaVaris fits into that category who can run. Then we’ve got some guys who are tremendous route runners and a combination of both. C.J. Prosise has done a nice job. TJ Jones. We’ve got a great balance of different aspects of being a great receiver.
“It’s our job to make sure when we’re setting our game plan up and stuff that we’re letting the guys do the best thing that they can do and giving us the best chance offensively.”
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