WR targets: measured by heart and skill set, not statureRiddick, Jones, and backup slot receiver Robby Toma each stand (well) below the 6-foot mark. The senior tandem of Goodman and Deion Walker, though blessed with 6'3" frames, are both slimmer, trimmer athletes – neither close to the imposing perimeter statures presented by Floyd and regular Duval Kamara last fall.
There is, however, one untested athlete among the ranks that could change the collection of pass-catching targets Smurf-status.
"Daniel Smith was just a little bit limited and might be for a couple more days but his size/speed ratio really could be off the charts," said offensive coordinator Charley Molnar of the 6'4" 215-pound-and-growing sophomore. "He could be a surprisingly good football player as we go through his career here."
(Smith received the weekend off to heal his strained hamstring.)
"Goodman is a bit bigger than TJ and probably faster, but didn't play as many reps as TJ did last year," Molnar continued. "Those two guys are battling for playing time. Theo and Toma are battling. We'd like to see Danny get in there."
Molnar then offered telling words regarding last week's notable name and formerly forgotten senior, Walker.
"And of course Deion – I know coach (Kelly) probably mentioned it to the media: Deion had one of the better off-seasons of all the players. Not from the standpoint that he was the best, but he made the most progress. From where he was, to where he ended up at the end of the off-season, was outstanding. If he can translate that on the field in spring practice, he can really play. Because he's got some skills, he just doesn't bring them to the practice field day in and day out."
Did Molnar see this off-season transformation as a possibility?
"We always knew he had skills. You just never knew if he wanted to play or not on a particular day. When he did, he would really show you glimpses and you'd say, ‘Deion, that's what we've been waiting to see, you got it.'
"But whatever motivates Deion, whether intrinsically or extrinsically, it just didn't happen day in and day out. The best kind of motivation comes from within. It had to be hurtful for him to be at that (Sun Bowl) game and not get on the field; or against Utah in that last home game, when so many guys got an opportunity to get on the field and he didn't even get in – and he didn't deserve to.
"I think in Deion's mind that's never going to happen to him again."
First glance – Wide Receivers vs. Defensive BacksTwo sessions: an 8 vs. 6 (no DL/OL) and 7 vs. 7 offered a quick glimpse at perimeter battles between the Irish skill position offensive competitors, and the first two units of linebackers and defensive backs.
- Deion Walker received post-snap instruction for his too-high form on a perimeter block attempt – Walker beat sophomore Lo Wood deep down the left sideline, reeling in a perfect pass from Dayne Crist. He was also out-muscled by senior Robert Blanton on an out-route (incomplete) and was previously beaten to his spot by Blanton on a similar pattern. Crist later missed T.J. Jones deep after the sophomore had a step on Wood.
Wood later read an Andrew Hendrix slant, burst in front of Walker on the route, and returned the QB's offering to the end zone. A fantastic read and break on the ball by Wood, though Hendrix could have telegraphed the throw (I was watching Walker, not the QB). Hendrix later rolled and found classmate Alex Welch down the seam, albeit vs. the second unit defense. Nice ball placement by Hendrix who put the pigskin on the tight end's back shoulder vs. decent zone coverage.
- Robert Blanton and Gary Gray were simply better than their wide receiver counterparts: Gray's highlight was a leaping downfield pick while Blanton broke up several balls, those listed above plus a slant route from Tommy Rees and the first-string offense. Not exactly a ground-breaking statement, but Notre Dame's cornerbacks are, at present, better than its collection of wide receivers. Kelly's spread offense and a pair of experienced quarterbacks could offset that advantage by spring's conclusion, but Gray and Blanton have the Floyd-free unit on lock down entering early April.
- Luke Massa looks like a wide receiver rather than QB playing wide out, at least when the ball approaches. The sophomore reeled in two nice sideline passes, then later absorbed a nice pop from senior safety Dan McCarthy attempting to corral a deep throw with one hand (he appeared to see McCarthy coming and might have made the catch with two mitts instead of one). It's early, but the 6'4" Massa has adapted well, and possesses a much more natural gait than I'd have guessed. He has the ability to change direction and deceive in his routes – key as straight-liners don't work at the position in the modern passing game.
- No surprise early, but the initial first-team offense appears to be: John Goodman (WR), Theo Riddick (Slot), T.J. Jones (WR), Tyler Eifert (TE), Cierre Wood (RB), Dayne Crist (QB1A), Zack Martin (LT), Chris Watt (LG), Braxston Cave (C), Trevor Robinson (RG), and Taylor Dever (RT).
A Jones/Goodman battle would be intriguing should Floyd return, as both will receive extended field time this spring. The Crist/Rees duel will see its share of ebb and flow for the next 17 days and again in August. If I had to pick an early "sixth" OL starter, it would be 5th-year guard Andrew Nuss, but that's due more to versatility (and Brian Kelly's stated opinion) than any skill set advantage over fellow second-string linemen such as Christian Lombard and Mike Golic.