Notre Dame lost its top four wide receivers including one its all-time greats this off-season. Will Fuller is getting ready for training camp with the Houston Texans. Chris Brown is trying to make the roster of the Dallas Cowboys and Amir Carlisle the same with the Arizona Cardinals after both went undrafted. Corey Robinson, thought to be the elder statesmen of the group was forced into early retirement due to concussions.
That leaves Notre Dame with a talent albeit inexperienced group of wide receivers heading into the season. As scary as that thought may be, the Irish were in a fairly similar situation just two years ago when they went into the 2014 season with Fuller, Robinson, and Carlisle largely unproven heading into that season. That worked out OK for the Notre Dame passing game.
That said, let’s run through Notre Dame’s depth and breakdown of the wide receivers.
Notre Dame Wide Receiver Depth
|X Wide Receiver|
|6||Equanimeos St. Brown||Sophomore||6-4||205|
Red Zone Targets. Even though the Irish lack much experience, there are some areas where the receiving corps could be better in 2016. The first of which is in terms of red-zone targets. While Fuller, Brown, and Carlisle were a heck of a trio last fall, none where prototypcial red-zone targets. Fuller did most of his damage from outside the 20 and while Brown had a few nice touchdown grabs, the Irish lacked a real monster of a red-zone target.
Enter Equanimeous St Brown and Miles Boykin. True freshmen a year ago, neither was quite ready for a prominent role in the Notre Dame offense. A year later, St Brown is all but a lock to start and Boykin could be ready to carve out a niche in the red-zone. Both have good to great size and could help the Irish solve their red-zone woes.
Quarterback. Last year’s receiving corps did the majority of their damage with a red-shirt freshman quarterback who never attempted a pass on the college level prior to the season. The experience Notre Dame has at quarterback this year will help off-set the inexperience at receiver and that shouldn’t be discounted. A good, experienced quarterback can help younger receivers just as a reliable, veteran receiver can help an inexperienced quarterback.
Last year at this time Deshone Kizer was still learning the offense. Last season he got a masters in the Brian Kelly offense via baptism by fire. Malik Zaire spent all last year in every film session and meeting and is now in his fourth year at Notre Dame. Whoever starts will have the experience to help the youngsters at receiver throughout the season.
Experience. This one is obvious. Notre Dame is one of the least experienced teams in the entire country at the wide receiver position. Torii Hunter started to make his presence felt for the first time in his career last year but other than Hunter, there isn’t much experience here Holmes red-shirted as a sophomore, St. Brown had just one catch as a true freshman, Sanders just one as well, Boykin didn’t play a down as a frosh, and spring sensation Kevin Stepherson was in high school in December. Even Hunter spent some time at corner last year and didn’t exclusively play wide receiver.
Any way you slice it, Notre Dame is greener than those awful jerseys the Irish wore against Boston College in 2002 this year at wide receiver. Hunter is the only receiver on the roster to score a touchdown in his career. The talent and potential is there, but there will be growing pains at the position this year.
Big Play Ability. Notre Dame is hopeful that Hunter can become the big play threat to replace Fuller, but it’s not fair to expect him to completely replace that void. Will Fuller wasn’t just one of the best deep threats Notre Dame has ever had – he’s one of the best in all of college football in recent memory. Hunter will make some big plays this year, but it’s just not realistic to think the Irish won’t fall off here. For the sake of the offense, Notre Dame needs Hunter to at least provide that threat to keep defenses from sticking to close to the line to contain the Irish ground attack.
Leadership. While most people are focused on the loss of Fuller – and for good reason – the loss of Chris Brown could be bigger than most people realize. Brown was the unquestioned leader of the wide receiver corps the last two years. Anyone who watched “A Season with Notre Dame” on Showtime last year saw Brown on the sidelines talking up fellow wide receivers like Corey Robinson after big drops and praising his fellow receivers when they made plays. Right now, we don’t know if Notre Dame has a player like that at wide receiver.
Given the lack of experience and youth at the position, the only logical option would be Hunter. Again, Hunter’s got a lot on his plate trying to step in as the number one wide receiver though. Expecting him to also take on a leadership role would be asking a lot.
Potential. Notre Dame does not have another Will Fuller on its roster at this time. Stepherson will draw comparisons to him, but much like Fuller as a true freshman, he will likely only serve a limited role. From a potential standpoint though, this group of wide receivers has just as much as the group they are replacing. St. Brown has the potential to be better than Robinson was a year ago given Robinson’s struggles in 2015. Holmes and Sanders can eclipse Carlisle is they live up to their potential.
Then there are the incoming freshmen. Javon McKinley was one of the highest rated recruits in Notre Dame’s class of 2016. Chase Claypool is a physical specimen who could find a niche as well. Talent and potential wise, this group is not far off at all from the veteran group they follow. Whether or not they live up to that potential this year – or at any point in their careers – is the question though.
Coaching. Working in Notre Dame’s favor here is the steady and reliable coaching of Mike Denbrock. Over the last few years Denbrock has easily become one of the biggest fan favorite assistant coaches and his work speaks for itself. Combine Denbrock’s coaching in the offensive trio he forms with Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford and the Irish receivers are a very well coached unit. Notre Dame will need every ounce of that coaching ability in 2016.
This was one of the easier positions to judge on the roster. There just isn’t any way to say Notre Dame is better off in 2016 at wide receiver than they were a year ago. Can Hunter explode, St. Brown emerge, and Holmes continue his out of no where ascent? Yeah, sure. But at the same there are so many question marks here that this could end up being the weakest unit on the offense in 2016 as well.
Notre Dame has speed, talent, and size at receiver this year. Until some of these young receivers start to establish themselves though, this unit will be a major wild card for the Irish this fall.
|Offensive Line||Return Units|