(Unless otherwise noted, each player's class designations are referenced in terms of 2012, not last season).
Position Competition #7 and #8 – Wide ReceiversFor the sake of winter arguments, junior T.J. Jones and senior Robby Toma rank as sure-fire starters next fall. Jones is well-versed at each of the three positions: X–a spot he's manned for two years; W–the spot vacated by Michael Floyd; and Slot–likely his best position, but the one also best-manned by Toma, who's shown late-season flashes in head coach Brian Kelly's attack both of the past two seasons.
It wouldn't be the upset of the century if one of the pair doesn't start throughout 2012, but its nearly impossible that they won't both serve as key members of the 4-5-or 6-man wide receivers rotation considering the dearth of experience and proven playmakers in the unit.
5th-year senior John Goodman returns to challenge for a starting spot. Like Jones, he can play each position and will likely be first evaluated at the vacated W spot. Goodman caught just seven passes last season as the team's No. 5 wide receiver in a 5-player rotation and five of the seven occurred when the contest had long-been decided (the exception and excellent leaping third-down grab on a comeback route–albeit short of the first down marker–at Wake Forest.)
Just three Irish receivers have recorded a reception during their careers to date:
T.J. Jones: 61 receptions, 662 yards, 6 Touchdowns. Best Games: Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue 2011; Purdue, Michigan and Navy 2010
Robby Toma: 36 receptions, 415 yards, 1 touchdown. Best Games: Maryland and Boston College 2011, Tulsa and Army 2010
John Goodman: 28 receptions, 315 yards, 1 touchdown. Best Games: Stanford 2010, Washington State 2009
DaVaris Daniels: Challenge to the Vets?From early-August camp 2011 through the season's first month, Brian Kelly offered that the true freshman Daniels was on the verge of Saturday playing time. Said Kelly of Daniels in August, "He's going to play this year. But (No.) 6 and No. 7 would be Daniel Smith and DaVaris Daniels."
Instead neither appeared from scrimmage, and Daniels' eligibility was preserved, likely a wise choice after a 2-2 start to the season with what the staff likely saw as a manageable schedule over the final two months (just three games in question remained after Pittsburgh: USC, at Wake Forest, and at Stanford).
In short, Brian Kelly wanted DaVaris Daniels to help his offense last fall, but there were signs it wouldn't benefit the player…or the offense.
"No, there isn't (a higher authority), but there are conversations that take place and those conversations require me to sign off on him, and I wasn't able to sign off on him," Kelly explained after noting he wanted Daniels to make his debut over the opening four contests.
Lauded by Kelly for his undeveloped athleticism, Daniels instead served on the Scout Team, playing the part of the opponent's most athletic pass-catcher each week.
"DaVaris Daniels, we needed a Chris Givens (Wake Forest) kind of receiver. We popped him down there and he did a great job, said Kelly late last season.
Daniels can't be treated with kid gloves this spring and certainly not next August. If the staff has its druthers, and Daniels has progressed as expected, the veteran Goodman should receive a stiff challenge from the versatile redshirt-freshman from the outset of spring practice as the former has shown he's best-suited for a reserve role over three seasons as a contributor.
Uphill Climbs – Massa and SmithFormer quarterback prospect Luke Massa fought his way onto the field late last season. Massa served as a member of both the kick and punt return teams, his 6'4" 220-pound frame, quick feet, and general acumen as a football player afforded him the unlikely opportunity to contribute as a redshirt-freshman.
Junior-to-be Daniel Smith has competed precious little to date. A six game kick coverage starter as a freshman in 2010, Smith appeared in the same role vs. Navy last year – Game #8 – and then never again.
The South Bend, Clay-product has battled leg injuries, reportedly hamstring and otherwise, since his arrival on campus. He missed spring 2011 with a leg ailment and cannot afford to miss any more time without being passed, permanently, by underclassmen such as Daniels and incoming freshmen Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson.
If Kelly has a doghouse, I can venture a guess there's at least one junior who's failed to escape it during their time together in South Bend.
Conversely, look for Massa to fight for multiple special teams, earning a starting nod on the unit next fall. His conversion as a true wide receiver likely won't be complete this fall, a reality that suggests one or more yet-to-be discussed prospects will emerge in a trial-by-fire.
Note: Part II of our wide receivers competition preview will be published at 5 pm.