We all knew that there would be some bumps in the road for the Notre Dame wide receivers in 2016. The Irish are replacing all three of their 2015 starters and two weeks into camp the young receiving corps is still struggling with consistency. That lack of consistency has their head coach concerned with just over two weeks to go before the season opener.
“I’m concerned,” said Brian Kelly on Media Day Wednesday. “They are all young. I mean, I’m concerned with every one of them,” he added. His lone senior and expected go to wide receiver is no exception. “Torii Hunter, how many catches — where is my resident stat guy? How many catches? 35? He’s had 35 catches.”
Those 35 catches are more – far more – than the rest of the receiver in the mix for extensive playing time. Equanimeous St. Brown has one career catch for eight yards. CJ Sanders one for no gain. The next catch for Corey Holmes, Miles Boykin, Kevin Stepherson, Chase Claypool, and Javon McKinley will be the first of their careers.
“They are all suspects to me,” Kelly said Wednesday. “They all have to go out and prove themselves. Having said that, it does me no good to worry about it; but to coach it and develop it during practice and get them ready.”
Kelly is confident that his young receivers are willing and able and will be ready for the season. “They are all capable of doing it, but I’m concerned about all of them, because none of them have really had a full year of production yet.”
Hunter has the closest to a full year of production with 28 catches for 363 yards and two touchdowns a year ago in his first full season playing. Injuries derailed his freshman season and then got his sophomore season off to a slow start. Despite Kelly’s “concerns” about Hunter’s 35 receptions, the senior is the closest thing to a sure thing the Irish have in their wide receiving corps.
Kelly, Mike Sanford, and and Mike Denbrock have been working on building the confidence of the other receivers who don’t have Hunter’s experience throughout camp, but like developing all young players, it’s been a process.
“It’s just a matter of going out there every single day and building their confidence and building their mental toughness,” Kelly said on Wednesday. “But that’s the biggest thing with the young receivers is they are all sore right now. They are all tired. All their hamstrings hurt, you know, and they are playing hurt for the first time.”
Playing hurt and banged up is new to a group of receivers who are not used to this many reps after playing behind Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, and Amir Carlisle a year ago. “We are going through that whole process of, hey, you got to fight through this. So that’s the process we are in, and we’ll get them through it. But they are all suspects right now.
It’s not all doom and gloom at wide receiver though and part of Kelly’s comments on Wednesday were likely meant to get the young receivers’ attention. While consistency has been a problem throughout camp for virtually all of the wide receivers, Kelly sees the improvement.
“I think they have all, in particular, Equanimeous (St. Brown), Miles (Boykin), Chase (Claypool), have been more consistent, no question, route running, catching the football. There’s been that consistency certainly from the first week to the third week. So we are getting more consistent.”
That is encouraging specifically for St. Brown and Boykin whom Kelly had mentioned throughout camp were struggling with their consistency. St. Brown’s route running was where it needed to be early in camp while Boykin needed work on staying on his feet and not jumping for every ball thrown his way.
This wide receiving coprs has opened eyes with big plays and spectacular catches in between their bouts with inconsistency. Boykin specifically has been turning some heads in camp with some circus catches including a ridiculous one-handed catch behind the back of freshman Julian Love. If Boykin combines some consistency with those circus catches, Notre Dame could have a special player on their hands. He won’t fly by anyone like Will Fuller, but with his massive size, there is no reason he can’t be a big time red-zone threat this season if he gains his coaches trust.
Those catches should give the coaching staff, and all Notre Dame fans, hope that despite its youth, this group has the chance to be special. Brian Kelly is seeing it. Boykin, and his fellow wide receivers, are slowly gaining that trust, even if they are still a work in progress.
“We are not at the level that we need to at – a championship level,” Kelly said at Media Day. “They are playing okay but we need better. We have a high standard for that play and they are getting better, but they need to get better quicker.”
With just over two weeks to go until the season opener at Texas, there isn’t a whole lot of time for them to get better, but for now improvement is progress. There will be a drop off from last year’s veteran group – that much is inevitable. There is clearly talent and potential in this group though.
Now, if Brian Kelly is still concerned about each of his wide receivers on September 4, we may have a problem. For now though, this looks like a group that is developing as it needs to in camp.