W, X, Y and Z

Notre Dame passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock might not have a well-stocked spring cupboard, but he'll take quality -- and the versatility to play multiple roles -- over quantity any time.

The either/or question posed following Wednesday morning's practice was the type that sustains a hungry fan base during their hope-filled days of spring, a time when a 17-year-old early enrollee freshman is still capable of grabbing headlines:

"Is James (Onwualu) an inside guy or an outside guy?"

The one-word answer given by Onwualu's position coach and the team's passing game coordinator Mike Denbrock was telling. It serves as a microcosm for the wide receivers unit through six practices of the spring session 2013:


Onwualu, like the remaining seven scholarship targets that accompany him on the spring roster, will not occupy one position. Not now, and probably not next season, even after two more of his fellow freshmen join the summer fray.

"We're trying to find a way to incorporate everyone that we've got available to us right now, to get them in the mix and put them in some different places to give opportunities," said Denbrock of his position group, suddenly minus two bodies after last week's transfers. "Anytime you're a little short numbers-wise you have to find (reps) somewhere.

"We're not going to practice any shorter and we're not going to take any fewer reps, so we have to find bodies to do it. We're using running backs, we're using tight ends, receivers, anybody we can get our hands on to get the quarterbacks the work they need and everyone else needs."

Increased spring reps might be taxing on the individuals, but for the veteran assistant coach now in his second tour of duty with the program (Denbrock coached under Tyrone Willingham in 2002-04), it also offers options.

"It really frees up some guys for some opportunities to do some jobs that don't normally do, and we'll see if they can handle the responsibility and do a little something with it."

For senior T.J. Jones, that means some time in the vacated slot role left by the defection of Davonte' Neal. Jones played slot (also referred to as the Z receiver) at times as a true freshman in 2010. For Jones' 6'4" 215-pound classmate Daniel Smith, it means more field time that would otherwise likely favor speedsters Chris Brown and DaVaris Daniels.

"I think its incredibly important to have a guy there that has both," said Denbrock of quickness vs. blocking prowess shown by some of the team's bigger receivers and tight ends (or the Y). "To show some physicality to block an alley defender, sometimes a walk-out linebacker, but also being able to do some things with quickness, to get the ball in his hands and get something positive going.

"I think you're going to see us as we did a year ago, use a number of different guys in a number of different spots. Kind of tailor what we do to what the guys that are good at performing and judge it that way as we go."

Asked specifically of Jones, likely the team's starting X receiver after three straight seasons in that role, Denbrock noted, "I'd say the job is open to all comers and anyone who proves they have the ability to do something positive for our offense. That's a great opportunity for a lot of guys to do a lot of different things rather than pigeon-hole them into one particular position. Get out there and perform and earn your reps.

"You'd like to let them learn one spot," he continued of his younger competitors, "But especially in the spring, where its not quite as critical if they make a mistake, trying to get them a knowledge base across the whole offense and give them as many opportunities as they have to grow, we're trying to do that."

Precocious Prospects

One year ago today, it seemed unlikely converted scout team slot receiver Matthias Farley would make a major impact with his new position mates, the defensive backs. Farley moved to slot last winter and spring and later started 11 games for the Irish defense, one at outside linebacker, the final 10 at safety.

One of his fellow 2012 safety-mates is making a reciprocal scrimmage switch: from the defensive backfield to the slot receiver position.

And redshirt-freshman C.J. Prosise has earned his stripes early.

"He has really been a bright spot, the last few practices in particular," said Denbrock. "As he gets more comfortable in what we're asking him to do, there's a guy that has all the tools to be something pretty good."

Prosise's move was originally made during bowl preparations last December.

"Its a combination of continuing to evaluate the guys in your program," said Denbrock of its impetus. "If you have a need at a certain position you can't be afraid to put guys in spots where the football team becomes a little bit stronger and I think that's really what started it.

"I think we'll sit down and talk about (if the move is permanent). I'd love to have him as an offensive player. He brings a lot to the table and I think he can help us."

Also ready to offer aid after a 2012 season spent as a one-trick pony is 6'2" sophomore Chris Brown.

In 2013, Brown will need to show more than downfield speed, though that's still his calling card and chief differentiator from his peers.

"His overall knowledge and comfort level in what we're doing and what we're asking him to do," said Denbrock of Brown's main area for improvement. "It comes with time. Some guys tend to develop a little faster than others. I've been very very pleased with him this spring. He's showing a higher maturity level, not only with the way he goes about practice, but his knowledge of our offense overall. He's really growing into the type of receiver we all need him to be.

Brown worked with the first unit at Wednesday's practice, primarily due to a precautionary morning on the sidelines for presumed W (boundary receiver) starter DaVaris Daniels, out for unspecified reasons.

"Brown showed some flashes of the type of speed downfield and those abilities that maybe we haven't had for the last year or so," Denbrock noted of his pupil's first season (2 catches, 11 targets, one 50-yard game-changing grab at Oklahoma). "He needs all the work he can get. Its a great opportunity for guys when you don't have the numbers for guys to really step into roles and earn their way as we go.

Also falling under that category is Onwualu's fellow early enrollee, Corey Robinson.

"Corey Robinson catches everything that comes near him, his catch radius reminds me a lot of Tyler Eifert in that even if the ball is somewhere out on the perimeter he's going to find a way," said Denbrock of the 6'4" 190-pounder. "He has great ball skills, good knowledge of the game of football, surprisingly, even though he's from a small school in Texas and may be a bit more basketball-oriented family-wise. (Robinson's father is NBA Hall of Famer, David.)

In good health, the semester enrollee pair will benefit greatly from the absence of transfers Neal and his fellow sophomore Justin Ferguson. Suddenly, both are heavily involved in a seven-man crew rather than more comfortable nine-deep rotation.

"James Onwualu is a tough guy. Physical, loves the game," said Denbrock of his 6'2" 217-pound target. "He plays with tremendous passion, (has) a good skill set. Those guys are a pleasant surprise. Sometimes we're watching practice film thinking (the early enrollees) are supposed to be getting ready for the prom and here they are competing.

"Those guys are doing a great job with what they've been asked."

Which is doubtless more than ever before.

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories