"I think if you match this team up vs. last year's team, I think this team is better. At the end of the day all that matters is the record."
Those were the words of former team captain Harrison Smith, an Irish athlete that saw it all in his five seasons at the program. And his final sentence illustrates the point of this column and the ensuing series of articles to follow this week:
What would qualify as tangible improvement from each returning Irish player?
We began earlier Monday morning with a review of the team's three returning running backs, which can be (found here).
Next in the series: the team's quintet of healthy returning wide receivers:
In the team's final three defeats (USC, Stanford, and FSU), Jones managed just four total receptions for a paltry 32 yards. It was a relative replay of his injury-riddled end to 2010 (a DNP, two 0-catch games as he battled back from injury, and one grab in the Sun Bowl win). He won't produce big numbers every week, but its imperative Jones put together a consistent effort in 2012 – consider 10 games with 3-6 receptions, 40-60+ yards in each, and a handful of scores over the course of the 13-game season the minimum required.
If not from Jones, from someone else.
(Jones' 2012 Preview column can be found here.)
Tripling his reception total (7) from last fall is a starting point. So too would be adding 4-5 yards per grab to his average reception in the Kelly era (just 9.5 yards).
Goodman was named the team's most improved player in spring 2012. He carries himself like a veteran leader from whom much is expected. Barring injury (Goodman battled an ankle sprain at the end of spring 2012 and a hamstring injury during August 2011), the 5th-year senior will earn a starting nod in Navy and likely the following weeks vs. Purdue and Michigan State.
It's up to him to produce something every Saturday in September and thereafter, whether it be clutch third-down plays, putting his 4.45 40-yard dash time to use on the football field for a few downfield plays, or simply compiling the hidden yards and catches that help teams win football games. If not, youth waits in the wings.
Tommy Rees misfire in Week Five).
Toma's penchant for yards after the catch and clutch plays (a pinball block to spring Jones for a score vs. Michigan, a diving grab vs. BC) in limited action endeared him to the fan base. His hands and ability to get open vs. both zone and man – not to mention a willingness to block at 5'9" 100-and-nothing pounds – brought goodwill from the coaching staff. Now he needs to put together a full season, because technically, Toma is the only sure-fire starter among the group reviewed in this column. He'll start in the slot and barring a spectacular August from incoming freshman Davonte' Neal, hold down the lead role all season.
Notre Dame needs Toma to move the chains for 13 games. That means nearly matching his career totals (36 receptions for more than 400 yards) next fall. And there's no reason a player with his instincts can't help the Irish find the end zone more often in close than the offense did in 2011.
Daniels didn't shine in the Blue Gold Game. He didn't shine in scrimmages seen by the media (or at the Coach's Clinic). And he didn't do enough to crack a weak receiving corps last fall. He did, however, elicit ample praise from head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, both at the outset and conclusion of spring.
Noted for his playmaking ability, Daniels need not lead the team in touchdowns, yards, or receptions: but aside from Tyler Eifert, the offense likely needs him to be the top dog in terms of 20+ yardage receptions and various big plays downfield.
1, 2, and 0-catch games are a given for the first-year player (unless he's better than advertised, of course). But a few breakout efforts need to be intermixed. And no-shows against the likes of Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma, and USC are forbidden.
30 receptions is a modest, but realistic goal. So too is 3-5 scores. Yards-per-catch might be the best indicator of his impact: Look for Daniels to approach 15 yards per grab next fall, the best number at the program since Golden Tate dominated the football field in 2009. (Only Tate, Michael Floyd, Maurice Stovall, Jeff Samardzija, and Omar Jenkins reached that level over the past decade.)
Anything else is gravy, though due to the lack of proven commodities on the offense, more is definitely possible. But for a player that enters his third season with no receptions and not one pass (that I can recall) in his general direction, baby steps are in order.
Someone will break out in 2012: the bet here is Daniels and Toma. Smith would of course suffice.