It’s 3rd-and-7 in the fourth quarter and the game is on the line. Who’s Notre Dame going to throw the football to?
Last season, it was a short multiple-choice answer. A: Michael Floyd, B: Tyler Eifert, C: run the football.
It would have been foolhardy for the Irish to spend much time looking elsewhere with Floyd, a first-round draft choice in ’12, and Eifert, the likely top tight end on the board when the draft rolls around again in April, 2013.
But when Notre Dame opens the 2012 season next Saturday in Dublin, the goal for Irish receivers coach Mike Denbrock is to make sure the Irish quarterback has more options.
“We knew other guys were going to get some catches in games last year,” said Denbrock who, in his second tour of duty, has shifted from tight ends to wideouts. “But we knew where the ball was going when the game was on the line.
“Those roles, at least to this point, are yet to be determined. You can’t say this guy is taking Michael Floyd’s spot. It’s going to take five or six of them to get that done.”
With 100 receptions last year, Floyd caught 33.1 percent of Notre Dame’s completions. Floyd and Eifert combined for 53.9 percent of Notre Dame’s receptions. It would have been foolish for the Irish to try to force-feed other receivers who weren’t prepared to be go-to guys on 3rd-and-long.
But in the never-ending pursuit for depth and multiple options, it would appear that Notre Dame will have alternatives to forcing the football to the player everyone in the stadium knows is getting the ball.
Vying for playing time at the W position are fifth-year senior John Goodman, sophomore DaVaris Daniels and freshman Chris Brown. On the opposite side of the field at the X, junior TJ Jones will take the first snap while junior Daniel Smith and freshman Justin Ferguson try to work their way onto the field.
The Y or tight end position, coached by Scott Booker, features Eifert, sophomores Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas, and senior Jake Golic after sophomore Alex Welch went down with a season-ending knee injury. And at the Z, which running back coach Tony Alford also instructs, there’s senior Robby Toma and freshman Davonte Neal. Senior Theo Riddick, who has moved to running back, will get some time at the Z with two years of experience at the position.
“You’re going to see us using a lot more personnel than in the past,” Denbrock said. “How much that gets done is going to depend on the continued performance of guys earning spots and earning jobs and earning reps. It’s going to play itself out.
“Those guys are going to decide how deep the rotation goes. Right now, I wouldn’t say anybody has been eliminated from the mix.”
"You're going to see us using a lot more personnel than in the past. Those guys are going to decide how deep the rotation goes. Right now, I wouldn't say anybody has been eliminated from the mix."
-- Mike DenbrockDenbrock’s goal, in addition to developing more weapons to employ, is to maximize the various skills of the deepened receiving corps.
“We’re trying to position those guys properly so that their talents can be used to the best of their ability in every play situation we have,” Denbrock said. “One guy may be our vertical threat. One guy may be our underneath catcher. One guy may be our seam runner. Maybe one guy can run a wheel route better…
“Whatever it happens to be, we’re trying to get those guys in a position where their strengths play into our strengths offensively. We’ve got more guys who can handle the ball and do something with it when they’ve got it. We’ve got to take advantage of that.”
With more players involved, Denbrock has seen the morale of the troops improve. When more guys are in the mix, more are engaged.
“It really has risen,” said Denbrock of the receivers’ morale. “It’s really paid great dividends from that perspective alone. Getting more guys involved, having more guys at least see the opportunity to get on the field and play and contribute has upped everybody’s game.”
But it’s still going to come down to productivity. Rotations shorten pretty quickly when a young receiver runs the wrong route or whiffs on a downfield block.
“Last year, it really boiled down to when success was happening for us offensively, Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert and a solid run game were what we leaned on,” Denbrock said.
“We want to develop to the point where if (the opponent) does decide to take Tyler Eifert out of the game, if they’re shadowing him or rolling somebody over him, we develop ourselves on the other side of the field to the point where we can exploit it.”
The numbers are there to do it.