February 11, 2014 // Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame’s Slot Position Soon to Hit Jackpot

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Torii Hunter Jr - Notre Dame WR

Torii Hunter at last year’s US Army All-American Bowl before breaking his leg. (Photo: John Albright / IconSMI)

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 scottjanssenhp@gmail.com.

Comments to this Article

  • Frank Vitovitch commented on February 11th, 2014 at 12:46 am

    Torii Hunter is one of the most intriguing players on the Notre Dame roster this spring. I can’t wait to see what he can do in this offense.

    [Reply]

  • ccb commented on February 11th, 2014 at 1:23 am

    We’ll need Hunter next October v. FSU. He could be the difference maker there and v. Stanford, Michigan.

    [Reply]

  • jeff commented on February 11th, 2014 at 2:23 am

    Lots of talent at the WR position. This offense should score a lot of points in 2014. No excuses now.

    [Reply]

  • David Knight commented on February 11th, 2014 at 10:04 am

    If you think about it, when TR played his first year, he locked on M. Floyd. His next year, he locked on? Tyler Eifert. Sits out a year other than clean up, then this year, he locks on TJ. I can’t imagine ND’s slot receivers being that bad or unproductive. Look at Chris Brown, he never touched the ball, but everytime Rhees threw his way, it was some crappy pass until the Pin Stripe Bowl. When Everett was under the center, there was a better ball distribution. I hope Tori Hunter is the second coming, but I don’t think the problem was the slot receiver talent, I think it was the guy throwing the ball. Respectively submitted from Doha, Qatar.

    [Reply]

    Beej replied on February 11th, 2014 at 10:18 am

    I couldn’t agree more. The best thing that ever happened to TJ Jones was Golson getting the boot, thus his targets/game instantly went up. Golson does distribute the ball as a QB should. Take 2012 for example, John Goodman had 3 (maybe 4?) TD catches. That speaks volumes to Golson’s ability to find the open man/scramble and create hole in the D.

    [Reply]

  • jimbasil commented on February 11th, 2014 at 11:43 am

    When Kelly arrived at ND one of his first moves was to put Riddick at slot instead of using or working to prepare Toma as a threat at that position. A mistake – he didn’t really know any of his players and even before the first practice Riddick was moved. Toma turned out to be a gem but a lightly used gem by Kelly even after it was recognized by most Toma was the real deal. Riddick however athletic he was, was still a RB who had decent hands as proved by his switch back to RB. Kelly somehow thought he could do no wrong with Riddick’s move to slot, hence slot receiver position suffered. I totally disagree with your statement on Toma, Toma didn’t lack playing ability, he lacked a QB who was accurate and he lacked playing time and plays called for him. Funny how that part of the story is always lacking in the telling.

    As far as QB, Kelly did a poor job of having his QB’s coached as seen with AH. Sending Rees out there as a thrower (inaccurate and immobile) in a Golson type offense was one of major dumb moves by a head coach. For someone as bright as Kelly you really have to ask, what was he thinking?

    Yeah, I hope Kelly gets it right this year, because it certainly hasn’t been the talent on ND that has failed. Kelly seems to know good talent when recruiting and he sure knows how to be the front man of a program, but I do question some of his judgment when utilizing players on the field and the plays called.

    [Reply]

    Scott Janssen replied on February 11th, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    I never said Toma lacked ability. I meant that he lacked the kind of athleticism necessary to make the position run the way Kelly wants it run (just as Rees was able to be effective at QB but lacked the kind of athleticism Kelly looks for when getting his offense to run on all cylinders).

    Toma was a fan favorite and rightfully should have been. He played above his talent level and produced for ND when they had very few options. But Toma is not elite in terms of athletic ability. There was a reason his only other scholarship offers were Army and UCLA (and UCLA’s offer was in an effort to entice Manti Te’o to UCLA).

    Torii Hunter will have an impact at the slot position akin to what Golson offers at the quarterback spot.

    [Reply]

    jimbasil replied on February 11th, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    C’mon, I know what you wrote. He certainly didn’t lack athletic ability. He may not have been Riddick or Gilyard (sp) but he had pretty good athletic ability – as seen by his diving and twisting attempts at hauling in TR’s terrible throws. You make it sound as though “fan favorite” means nice guy but… . You and others can keep saying this “He played above his talent level” but it doesn’t mean it makes on iota of sense. As said, he was never given plays to make it happen. When he did get the call, he usually did something with it – as noticed by Mayock on all occasions. Whatever you may think of Mayock as a commentator he still is able to recognize talent when it’s there. PS: You don’t need to be an elite talent (whatever that means) to play a position, just need talent – hence Tailor Jones. Unless of course he suddenly has reached elite talent status.

    Toma should have been given the opportunity to impact games but under Kelly, not so much. That said, the second worst call by Kelly thus far after the Tusla call was Riddick at Slot.

    Tori Hunter will be Tori Hunter and yes he looks to be darn good. I have not qualms with Kelly knowing good talent, I just say he uses it poorly. Toma wasn’t a throw in, so please try not to use those types of statements. It only undermines your cred.

    [Reply]

    Scott Janssen replied on February 11th, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    The only thing that was said about Toma is as follows:

    “Former Irish wide receiver Robby Toma was productive but lacked the playmaking ability necessary to get Kelly’s offense running on all cylinders.”

    The key phrase is “On all cylinders.” Toma was a good and productive slot wide receiver, just as Tommy Rees was a good and productive QB. But neither were elite, as likeable and as lucky as we were to have them.

    Toma is the most productive slot receiver Notre Dame has had since Brian Kelly has been the head coach at ND, but he isn’t the explosive athlete that Kelly looks for at that position (like a Mardy Gilyard). It can’t be ignored that he scored one touchdown in his four years at Notre Dame (and that included when quarterbacks other than Rees were throwing to him).

    jimbasil replied on February 11th, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Um, Key phrase here – ” … Toma didn’t lack playing ability, he lacked a QB who was accurate and he lacked playing time and plays called for him. Funny how that part of the story is always lacking in the telling.”

    Meaning, Kelly never allowed the offense to hit on all cylinders with regard to slot not the player at the position. You use phrases like Explosive for a position but ND lost MF and yet somehow T Jones fit right in as a go to receiver. – I don’t know why Gilyard captivated your attention with slot – he was a different player – Kelly had Toma and didn’t use him well. Get over it, it has zero to do with ability but more to do with being used or underused as the case is. Yeah, I’d like to have had Golden Tate here too but it didn’t happen. And no TR wasn’t good, he was just the only guy being used.

    I keep going over this with you guys, Kelly sometimes just doesn’t use his talent well, TR case in point along with Riddick and Toma and last year the RB squad. Just poor management on offense.

    I don’t dislike Kelly (all that much) but I do think he’s got weird quirks in his management and these are clear indicators he needs to reconcile his game day offense. Weis and Willingham were awful – Kelly is a clear upgrade but why these inconstancies with his offense? Surely Gilyard didn’t make Kelly a good coach.

    Jordan replied on February 14th, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Judging by this highlight video, i would say Toma is an athlete, but he didnt get the targets he needed to be effective.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Mnit6TiMS4

  • SteelFanRob commented on February 11th, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    “jimbasil,”

    Haven’t you learned by now that BK can’t be criticized at all? No matter how valid the criticism, can’t do, “jimbasil”. It doesn’t matter that you just made a very correct and articulate case for BK under-utilizing talent, as in the case of Toma, and making a bad call on shifting Riddick to the slot. That doesn’t matter. No criticism of BK is allowed on here.

    BTW: I totally agree with you on Robby Toma. The condescending attitude of some toward Toma reminds me of what happens with Cam a lot.

    [Reply]

    jimbasil replied on February 11th, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Cam is a good player a good RB. Why so many look to see him on the bench is beyond me. Bryant and Folston will be good RB’s as well, but Cam has earned his spot as ND’s #1 RB. The three should give Defenses anxieties if only Kelly will use them in a focused run game.

    [Reply]

  • chris commented on February 11th, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    It’s not the receiver, its the quarterback problem.
    And i’m talking about Rees.
    Half the time his pasd is off. He locks onto favorite receiver, gets scared and threw the ball into stands, or gets intercepted.

    Thanks god we won’t be seeing him anymore

    [Reply]

    jimbasil replied on February 11th, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    To be fair, TR was put into an offense which was designed for another QB. Kelly had ample time to switch much of the O up but continued with it anyway. A head scratcher for sure.

    [Reply]

  • Beej commented on February 11th, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    @ Jim

    I have to agree with the misuse of talent. Riddick is case and point. His production at RB his senior year shows how it was almost criminal to throw him into the slot. This year’s jammed up RB’s is another frustrating example. Obviously Kelly wasn’t going to consistently go under center with Rees (agreed head scratcher), but it surely was puzzling to see more empty back sets than 2 back sets when there exists explosive talent at RB….minimal to none explosive talent last year in empty back sets.

    [Reply]

  • Michael the Archangel commented on February 11th, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    So what makes a WR be a better candidate as a slot receiver ?

    Torii Hunter might indeed be THE next man in there, but there seems to be many
    potential candidates. Take Brown, Daniels, Fuller, Prosise and Brent,
    and whomever else I’m forgetting,
    what qualifies or dismisses them as being a better slot position receiver than wide-out?

    I don’t know enough about BK’s expectations of what an ideal slot should be able to do.
    Anybody care to clarify ?

    [Reply]

  • HURLS commented on February 11th, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    “Onward to vicTorii, Old Notre Dame”?

    [Reply]

  • KURT COOLMAN commented on February 12th, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Well, it sounds like this kid had to break a leg to get into the Big Time.
    Unless Notre Dame decides to go down field with this kid, he may as well break his leg again running 2 yard curls and outs at the line of scrimmage.
    Turn him loose.
    It worked with the Rocket and Tim Brown.
    Watch more film of potent passing plays which demonstrate the receiver behind the defense, well down the field, and catching up with the pass in full stride.
    Notre Dame fans are craving for a scoring machine.
    It seems like Coach Kelly has the pieces in place.
    Fill the air ways.
    Killer instinct prevails with this talent.
    GO ND!

    Kurt Coolman

    [Reply]

    Michael the Archangel replied on February 13th, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Many years ago, our HS coach took us to state by throwing mostly 25-35 yard pass patterns. Simple plan. Took fewer completions to get beyond/at the end zone w/ ND 2014 Model,
    Great athletes with QBs who could extend plays- turn it loose- opening up lanes for that old school draw play. Remember that one? Even more effective with mobile QB and 30 yard completions. Ah! The possibilities.. . when 31 points means still not done!

    [Reply]

  • 2581 commented on February 12th, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    It’s a “dominant” performance, not “dominate” …

    [Reply]

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