One of the more frustrating aspects of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend is the lack of offensive production. Notre Dame fans were awed by the offensive muscle flexed by Kelly as the head man of the Cincinnati Bearcats and couldn’t wait for the scoreboard to start spinning inside Notre Dame Stadium. Fast-forward five seasons and no one could have guessed the Kelly era would be more known for its defensive play.
The most publicized stumbling point for Kelly’s offense has been an inability to stabilize the quarterback position. Former 5-star quarterback Dayne Crist never panned out at Notre Dame or Kansas, where he utilized his final year of eligibility. Tommy Rees did his part to handle the absence of playmaker Everett Golson after his dismissal for academic reasons, though his limited mobility hindered Brian Kelly’s wide-open offensive philosophy. With Golson’s return and redshirt freshman Malik Zaire’s emergence – including impending dual threat arrivals DeShone Kizer and Blake Barnett – Kelly’s signal callers will have ample athleticism moving forward.
But there’s an area of Notre Dame’s offense that receives far less attention, and one that has struggled just as heavily since Kelly’s arrival: slot wide receiver. The lack of production is even more perplexing given Kelly’s history with wide receivers.
Mardy Gilyard was a Rivals 2-star running back with only one scholarship offer upon his arrival at the University of Cincinnati. Then Bearcat head man Mark Dantonio assessed Gilyard’s skill set and moved him to defense for one season before Brian Kelly arrived and made the final position switch to wide receiver. Gilyard helped headline an explosive aerial attack that launched Brian Kelly to Notre Dame, hauling in 204 receptions for 3,003 yards and 25 touchdowns during his collegiate career. The shifty wide out would become a two-time All-American and earn MVP honors at the Senior Bowl before being drafted into the NFL.
The tale of the slot position at Notre Dame has been much drearier. Kelly attempted to infuse more dynamism by experimenting with running back Theo Riddick in the slot, though the huge returns never came to fruition, resulting in Riddick moving back to his original position. Former Irish wide receiver Robby Toma was productive but lacked the playmaking ability necessary to get Kelly’s offense running on all cylinders, leading to further position adjustments. Running back Amir Carlisle was given an opportunity as well former safety C.J. Prosise. Even bruiser Will Mahone, known more as a power running back, was given a few looks, all to no avail.
The lack of success at the slot position made recent recruiting losses even more crushing. Notre Dame opted to end its long term relationship with Rivals 4-star wide receiver and YouTube sensation Isaiah McKenzie near the close of National Signing Day, and the Fighting Irish came up short in their quest to land elite 4-star slot receiver, Michiah Quick, who ultimately signed with the Oklahoma Sooners. Missing on both prospects left Notre Dame empty handed yet again in its attempt to fill a major hole in offensive production.
While ND fans bemoaned the recruiting misses, one player on Notre Dame’s roster is all smiles.
Only one year has passed since Torii Hunter Jr., the son of nine-time Golden Glove winner and Detroit Tiger Torii Hunter, signed with Notre Dame. Sidelined his freshman year due to a broken femur he suffered during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Hunter may be the most dangerous passing threat signed under the Kelly era despite having yet to play a single down. And the Texas native with professional bloodlines has the résumé to back up the hype.
Torii announced his presence on the national scene with a dominate performance at Nike’s The Opening, an annual event showcasing the premier high school football talent in America. His outstanding play landed him numerous additional scholarship offers as well as tournament MVP honors. Such high level of play caused Brian Kelly to gush about his potential on National Signing Day, telling the media, “We think he’s got that burst, that ability to take it and go from anywhere on the field.”
Though not completely healed, Hunter was able to participate in practice during the latter half of Notre Dame’s season and left enough of an impression to continue his habit of snagging awards, being named offensive scout team player of the year.
Brian Kelly struggled to suppress his smile when reporters asked about the young Hunter’s progress during bowl season practices, only offering a small teaser of what we will see in 2014. “You’re going to be talking about him,” Kelly promised.
How good could Torii Hunter Jr. possibly be when practicing with a leg that had yet to completely heal from a fractured femur? Notre Dame captain T.J. Jones didn’t mince words.
“He could be one of the greats to come through here,” Jones said.
With the return of star quarterback Everett Golson and the impending debut of Torii Hunter Jr., Notre Dame’s offensive pieces are finally in place after five years of misfiring.
Now the eyes of the Irish faithful will once again be on the scoreboard at Notre Dame Stadium to see if it finally begins to spin.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, as well as appeared on MSNBC as a sports contributor. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.