The depth of the 2015 Notre Dame football team is shaping up to be the best of the six-year Brian Kelly era.
By this fall, there will not be an area on the squad better equipped numbers-wise than the three wide receiver positions – the W, X and Z spots – where four more quality bodies arrive in June.
“The thing I remind (the current receivers) is that I’ve got some (freshman) receivers that are going to push all of them,” said Kelly following Wednesday morning’s practice session.
“There are going to be some eyes opened because I think they’re all going to get challenged by the group of receivers coming in. They all want to play and I’m not going to hold them back from playing.”
Already one of the deeper areas on the squad before the arrival of Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Jalen Guyton and C.J. Sanders, the wideout spots have been compromised a bit this spring. Injuries to Will Fuller (hand), Corey Robinson (concussion) and Torii Hunter, Jr. (groin) have slowed some of the progress. Slot/Z receiver C.J. Prosise has cross-trained at running back as well, limiting his reps as a pass-catcher.
And yet Kelly does not believe progress at receiver has been significantly impeded due largely to his notion that the greatest growth of the Irish receiving corps is yet to come.
“For some of those guys it’s more about their physical development off the field,” Kelly said. “Will’s got to continue to get stronger so he can dictate his routes instead of being dictated by a more physical defender.”
Overseeing the daily progress of the wideouts is jack-of-all-trades assistant Mike Denbrock, who continues his niche in coordinating the offense (along with Mike Sanford) while holding the title of associate head coach.
When assistant coaches talk about fundamentals, it’s often considered to be mere coach-speak for the benefit of the masses. But ask Denbrock about what his troops are working on and he breaks out the specifics of receiver play, beginning with the most basic concept of all for a wideout – catching the football.
It’s more than just “catch the football!” when receivers can’t find the handle. There are specific checkpoints and techniques that are emphasized and applied on a daily basis. Denbrock ran down the list following Monday’s practice.
“It starts with hand position,” Denbrock said. “It’s really important where your hands are when you come out of the break because the ball can eat you up if you’re not prepared to catch the ball.
“When the ball’s above your waist, are your thumbs together? Are you framing the ball with your eyes? Are you finishing the catch with your eyes? All those things are a constant reinforcement for me. We are constantly trying to reestablish our fundamentals when it comes to catching the ball.”
Within the teaching and establishment of fundamentals comes the fine line that every position coach confronts. Emphasizing the proper techniques is important; harping on it to the point of distraction is counterproductive, particularly when it manifests itself in dropped passes.
“If you hit a bad shot in golf and you make an adjustment to your swing, pretty soon you’re thinking about the adjustment and not the swing,” Denbrock said. “So when it comes to catching the football consistently, we emphasize it, but I try not to browbeat the hell out of it because I don’t want them thinking about it.
“We’re constantly harping on aggressively going to get the football, which has been – in my opinion, at times -- our biggest issue. We let the ball come to us instead of aggressively going to get the ball like we should.”
Denbrock was asked about each of the eight wide receivers on campus this spring. Here is a critical analysis of each:
• Will Fuller (Sr.) – “Will’s biggest thing is there’s nothing that can stop him from being really great…except himself,” Denbrock said. “He stops himself because his mind sometimes floats. When he’s mentally locked in and consistent all the time, you can’t bump him or he’ll tear you to pieces.
“The little things of dropping passes, that’s on Will. He’s got to fix that and I’m not saying anything he doesn’t already know himself. For him to take the next step, he’s got to clean those things up.
“He pulls his eyes off the catch. He’s going to run for a touchdown, which is great, that’s awesome. I like that mentality. But you can’t do that unless you have the ball.”
• Corey Robinson (Jr.) – Robinson has been slowed a majority of the spring after suffering a concussion early in drills. His return to action last Saturday showed his rustiness.
“(Monday) was much better, but Saturday was awful,” Denbrock said. “It looked like he was running in sand. I know you’re rusty and you haven’t had a chance for a couple weeks to go, but you’ve got to trigger. You’ve got to let it go. You’re healthy, so let’s go.
“Over the course of the summer, when those guys get a chance to work together, I look for him to hit his stride again.”
• Chris Brown (Sr.) – “Chris has had a solid spring,” Denbrock said. “He’s doing some good things and progressing well heading into his senior season. He has work to do. Some of it is footwork, but mainly, it’s a body-position thing.
“He gets himself a little out of whack sometimes, and at the top of the route, when you’re running full speed into it, a lot of guys have a tendency to let their shoulders go up and let their butt go underneath them, so they kind of sit into the route. He’s getting better at it.”
• Amir Carlisle (5th) – “More than anything, just leaving him (at Z) and letting him develop has been the key to his progress this spring,” Denbrock said. “We’ve given him an opportunity to not only experience some success there, but experience some failure, too. That allows you to learn and grow as a player.
“Being a guy you put out there sometimes that looks pretty good doing it, and then being the mainstay at that position who can be relied on every snap are world’s apart.”
When the Irish found themselves short on running backs this spring following the departure of Cam McDaniel, the coaching staff decided to insert C.J. Prosise at running back and not Carlisle, who grew up as a running back and played the position for the Irish in 2012-13.
“It was a discussion early on,” Denbrock said. “We know Amir can be a running back if we need him to be. Hopefully, we don’t need him to be, but if we do, we know he can do that. So we said, ‘Let’s put C.J. back there,’ which allowed Amir to really develop as a slot receiver even more this spring.”
• C.J. Prosise (Sr.) – “He can play any of our wide receiver positions as well as a running back position,” Denbrock said. “I wouldn’t have any hesitation about putting him in there at any of those spots, to be honest with you.”
Denbrock said the Irish have even looked at playing Carlisle and Prosise at the same time, aligning each in a slot position in lieu of a tight end.
“One of them may be the running back, or maybe they’re both playing with one playing in the slot to the boundary and one playing in the slot to the field,” Denbrock said. “There are situations where those guys can play at the same time.”
• Torii Hunter, Jr. (Jr.) – “He hasn’t been completely healthy, unfortunately, and I think with the schedule he’s kept this spring, he’s a little run down right now,” said Denbrock, referring to Hunter’s participation with the baseball team while pulling double duty with football. “It’s unfortunately affected his ability to show what he’s capable of doing.
“We’re going to sit down and have a conversation about it. I like the progress he’s made. He didn’t play very well on Saturday. He’s got a little bit of a groin issue he’s dealing with.”
Denbrock said Hunter is still learning how to juggle his time as a two-sport athlete.
“Part of it is maturing as an athlete and understanding, ‘Okay, this is what I need to do to take care of myself better if I’m going to put this much strain on my body throughout the spring.’ He’s got to do these things to make sure he remains healthy and can compete at a high level in both areas. It’s been a bit of a challenge for him.”
• Justin Brent/Corey Holmes (Soph.) – “Solid football players,” Denbrock said. “Good skill sets across the board. As far as competitiveness and mental toughness, they’ve got to keep growing and coming. Got to keep fighting through.
“They’ll say, ‘Coach, he grabbed my arm.’ Okay, well if I was covering your butt, I’d grab your arm too. It’s just those things that are distracting them from being complete players. They’ve got to continue to grow and mature to the point where they don’t let any distractions throw them off their game or allow one mistake to lead to five mistakes.
“They have to understand formations and signals and how fast we want to go and how we want to do things. They’re talented in a way that can help our offense. They just have to continue to grow up.”