Heading into the spring everyone knew that there would be a lot of competition at wide receiver with the loss of Golden Tate to the NFL and the introduction of the spread offense in South Bend. So far that competition appears to be wide open and right now there is still a lot of work to be done at the position.
“One of the areas that we’re most concerned with is finding that rotation,” Brian Kelly said at the end of last week. With just a week remaining in spring practice, Kelly and wide receiver coach Tony Alford are still waiting for a few receivers to separate themselves from the pack to start alongside Michael Floyd.
There are plenty of options for Kelly and Alford to choose from, and all have had their moments this spring, but right now Kelly just isn’t comfortable enough with the rotation.
“TJ (Tailer Jones), is a freshman (and has) been playing a lot at the X, but he’s a young guy. We lost him at about period 13 on Wednesday. He was gassed,” Kelly said of the mid-year enrollee who started the spring on somewhat of a level ground with the upperclassmen since they were all learning a new offense.
“Theo (Riddick) and him are going to be out at the X,” Kelly added in reference to converted running back Theo Riddick. “Shaq has been making some improvement, Deion (Walker) and those guys are coming on,” he continued. He cautioned, “We just need time at that position. That’s one area is a work in progress.”
This shouldn’t come as a major surprise considering the two vastly different offensive systems in terms of the use of wide receivers. Over the last few years, Weis has stuck mainly with a small group of receivers each season and rarely used more than three wide receivers at a time. Most of the time the Irish went to a four wide receiver look, the 4th receiver would be a tight end or running back split out wide.
In the spread offense that Kelly has brought with him to Notre Dame, there will routinely be four and five wide receiver on the field at a time meaning he will need to find quite a few more capable receivers ready to play extensive minutes by the fall.
The one sure thing at receiver at this point is star wideout Michael Floyd. Despite battling injuries in both his freshman and sophomore years, the Minnesota native has put up numbers that rival any other Notre Dame wide receiver’s production in their first two seasons. In fact, had Floyd not missed six and a half games with a broken collarbone in 2009, he very well could have been the one to break most of the Notre Dame single season receiving records instead of Golden Tate.
As is, Floyd still caught 44 passes for 795 yards and 9 touchdowns during his sophomore campaign. The only two games he played in which he didn’t go over 100 yards were Michigan State and Stanford and he only played half of the MSU game before breaking his collarbone. At the rate he was going, he would have had over 80 catches and 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Despite the impressive start to his career, Kelly noted last week that even Floyd has room for improvement. “Michael (Floyd) we know is a good solid player for us, but he’s got a lot of things he can get better at too,” said Kelly.
Even with the areas where he can improve, there’s little chance that Floyd will be anything except the #1 wide receiver for this offense come the fall.
Floyd can only play one of the wide receiver positions though and outside of him, the entire wide receiving corps has a combined 98 catches; 1,025 yards; and 7 touchdowns in their careers. Most of that production comes from senior Duval Kamara (75 catches, 781 yards, 6 TDs) whose career hasn’t lived up to the expectations set when he set then Notre Dame freshman receiving records.
Take out Kamara’s production and the other six Irish scholarship wideouts on the roster this spring – John Goodman, Deion Walker, Shaquelle Evans, Robby Toma, Theo Riddick, and Tailer Jones – combine for a mere 23 career receptions for 244 and a single touchdown.
With that little bit of experience and an entirely new offensive system, it’s no wonder Kelly isn’t ready to settle on a wide receiver rotation at this point. “I can’t tell you that it’s a position where I’m ever going to sleep easy right now. We’ve got a lot of work to do at that position,” he said last week.
Look for the competition at wide receiver to continue through fall camp with the incoming freshman getting in the mix as well. Bennett Jackson, Daniel Smith, and Austin Collinsworth won’t be as far behind the rest of the receivers as they would be if there was an established offense carried over from last season.
Tailer Jones is one player to really watch here though. Jones has received some playing time with the first team over the past couple of weeks and has displayed very good quickness on practice videos up to this point. It’s possible that Kelly could be inserting the true freshman into the first team to light a fire under some of the older receivers, but it’s also possible that Jones is just that good and could work his way onto the field early in 2010.