Season Preview ’08: Wide Receivers

The first two years of the Weis Era produced three 1,000 yard receiving and four 10+ touchdown seasons from Notre Dame wide receivers, but when Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight graduated following the 2006 season, the Irish entered the 2007 season with a lot of questions marks. It’s hard to argue that they found a whole lot of answers when you consider the leading receiver for the Irish, John Carlson, tallied just 372, and the leading scorer amongst the wideouts, Duval Kamara, found the endzone just four times, but if there is one thing Charlie Weis found out about his receiving corps heading into the season is that he has a lot of talent and potential to work with.

In last year’s offense, it would be hard for most wide receivers to stand out. Notre Dame quarterbacks were sacked an NCAA most 58 times making it tough for the receivers to showcase their talents. Still, when Notre Dame quarterbacks did get rid of the ball, the play from the wide receivers was inconsistent and aside from an impressive second half against Purdue by Golden Tate, no Irish wideout showed the ability to be a big play guy. If the Irish offense is to improve upon its last place NCAA ranking from 2007, finding that big play threat along with developing consistency catching the ball will be key for Charlie Weis and wide receivers coach Rob Ianello this fall camp.

Another area Weis and Ianello will also be looking for some improvement will be out of the #3 wide receiver spot. For all of the success Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovalll had in 2005 and then Samardzija and McKnight had in 2006, the Irish still didn’t have a legitimate third option at the wide receiver position those two seasons. With the depth and talent the Irish have returning at the position, they should have a chance to develop that third option this year.

Returning Depth
Weis named senior David Grimes a captain during the Spring game weekend and will be looking to Grimes to lead the young and talented Irish wide receivers. In his first year as a full time starter in 2007, Grimes had his ups and downs. He caught 27 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns (3 if you count the touchdown the Pac 10 refs ruled wasn’t a catch despite some pretty clear video evidence of the contrary) in 10 games – numbers that aren’t very impressive for a #1 wide receiver. Most alarming from Grimes stats last year was his paltry 8.3 yards per reception. With his speed and quickness, that number should have been much higher.

By all accounts though, Grimes had a very good spring and is fully healthy after missing some time in 2007 with various injuries. Grimes entered last year as the only receiver with any real game experience but his production didn’t back that up.  Size has always been an issue for Grimes and with last year’s offense that knock was on display as he struggled getting open at the point of attack. He has, however, shown the ability to get open downfield at times in his career. In the Blue-Gold game Grimes caught two passes for 39 yards and showed some good moves in the open field.

Duval Kamara became one of Jimmy Clausen’s favorite targets towards the end of the season and ended up leading the Irish in receiving touchdowns with four. Kamara also led Notre Dame wide receivers with 32 catches for 357 yards – all pretty impressive numbers for a true freshman in last year’s offense. At 6’5”, he is a matchup nightmare for any college cornerback and with size is a prime target in the red zone on fade routes as evidenced by his touchdown catch at the end of the first half against Duke. Kamara led Irish receivers with 4 catches for 48 yards and the game winning touchdown in the Spring game, but also showed very inconsistent hands – something we did not see much of during his freshman season.

The only other returning wide receiver to see extensive action last year is junior Robby Parris. Parris has been compared to Jeff Samardzija throughout his career, but up until now he hasn’t shown those comparisons to be very accurate. He had problems with consistency catching the ball last year. At times he would appear very sure handed, but would drop seemingly easy catches at others. The label “possession receiver” gets thrown around a lot, but seems like a good fit for Parris – he has just enough speed and if he can eliminate the drops, he could be a very productive receiver in this offense.

Promising Talent
Golden Tate burst onto the scene in the second half against Purdue with 3 spectacular catches for 104 yards and a TD – the only 100 yard performance any Notre Dame wide receiver posted in all of 2007. The only problem was Tate only caught 3 other passes for 27 yards for the rest of the year. Part of the problem was his transition from high school running back to college wide receiver. Tate didn’t pick up the nuances of the position right away and as a result he was relegated to running basically only go routes. Complicating matters for Tate this spring was his missed practices due to his baseball obligations.

How much Tate develops during camp will determine how much time he sees in the fall. Of all of the Notre Dame wide receivers, Tate is the most capable of getting behind a defense for the big play. In the Blue-Gold game, his 57 yard reception from Jimmy Clausen set up the game winning score for the offense, but it came on a go route just as his big plays did a year ago. If he can develop his route running and learn the finer aspects of the position such as the double move, Tate could very well be the big play receiver this offense needs.

Heading out of last spring, George West was listed as one of the starting wide receivers for Notre Dame. West started to establish himself as a capable receiver last spring, but caught just 21 passes for 172 yards during the 2007 season. Like Grimes, he is a smaller receiver who won’t win many battles at the line, but he has the quickness to be able to make defenders miss in the open field. This skill wasn’t on display last season which is apparent by his 8.2 yards per reception tally, and with the incoming talent in this year’s freshman class, he will have to show that skill on the football field in a hurry.

Unproven Vets
Richard Jackson was the most highly touted receiver in the first full recruiting class under Charlie Weis, but has yet to make much of an impact on the field. Last year he sat out with injuries and ended up sitting out the Blue-Gold game this spring with another injury. Coming out of high school, Jackson looked to be a very sure handed receiver and actually compared to Jeff Samardzija more favorably than Robby Parris based on his film. Like George West, however, time could be running out for Jackson with the crop of incoming wide receivers.

Incoming Freshmen
Michael Floyd could very well be the most talented wide receiver on the Notre Dame roster the second he steps foot onto the practice field. He is easily the most highly touted wide receiver recruited by Weis and the most highly touted receiver recruit at Notre Dame since Ty Willingham secured a commitment from five star rated Rhema McKnight. Floyd’s big play ability was on full display during the Army All American Bowl this past January when he was catching passes from fellow incoming frosh Dayne Crist. In high school he has shown the ability to make both the spectacular catch and the big play out of the short pass. At 6’3”, 210 lbs he is also a huge target and will be physically ready to play from day one.

The other two incoming freshman wide receiver, Deion Walker and John Goodman, are both talented enough to play as true freshman but will likely have a harder time seeing the field than their freshman counterpart. Goodman looked rail thin during the All American game and will need plenty of time in the weight room before he is ready to contribute much on the field. Walker was a five star recruit on Scout before the ESPN All American game in which he didn’t play much. He has big play potential, but at 185 lbs coming out of high school, its hard to imagine him making a big impact this fall.

How it Will Play Out
Grimes and Kamara enter fall camp as the starters, but by season’s end, it’s very possible that Kamara and Floyd are the best receivers on the team. It is very clear that Weis has high hopes for Grimes though after making him a captain for this year so it seems likely that all three receivers will play pretty often. If Floyd can step in and make an impact from day one, he will give Notre Dame a viable third option at receiver for the first time in the Weis era. In 2005 Matt Shelton saw plenty of action but never saw his numbers reached his 2004 totals and in 2006 David Grimes had his moments, but wasn’t a consistent threat.

Throw into the mix Golden Tate who could be the big play threat this offense needs to open up the underneath routes for the other receivers and Robby Parris’s ability to be a steady receiver and Notre Dame could very well have legit five wide receiver sets this year. In past years Weis was forced to use tight ends and running backs in five receiver sets because he didn’t have the talent and experience at receiver to put five wide outs on the field at once.

In order for Weis to find himself having the luxury of being able to use legit five receiver sets, however, every receiver will need to continue improving during camp. Right now, there is just a lot of talent and potential at this position. Grimes has the potential to be a nice down field target; Kamara has the potential to a huge target and first down machine if he can eliminate the drops from the spring; Tate has the potential to big the big play guy if he can improve his route running and keep learning the offense; Parris has the potential to be a solid receiver as well if he eliminates the drops; and Floyd has all the potential in the world.

Turning that potential into on field production will be the job of Ianello and Weis in the coming weeks, but it’s clear that at least on paper this year’s crop of wide receivers has the potential to be the deepest group Weis has had to work with since arriving in South Bend in 2005.

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