For the last 20 years, when Notre Dame has struggled – which has been frequently – the knock on the Irish has been a lack of big-play athletes at the skill positions.
Few doubt Notre Dame’s weapons this season as the Irish have evolved into one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
The development of Will Fuller the past two seasons with 24 touchdown receptions in 21 games – many of which are long scoring tosses – has turned Notre Dame into a lethal, quick-strike unit.
Entering the ninth game of the season this weekend in Pittsburgh, the Irish are third nationally in 70-yard plays (4), eighth in 60-yard plays (5), and ninth in 50-yard plays (9).
It’s not always the deep ball to Fuller, although his five receptions of 40 yards or more are tied for 10th nationally. C.J. Prosise has turned into a big-play running back. Notre Dame is among the nation’s top 25 in 40-, 30-, 20- and 10-yard plays with Prosise accounting for 44 plays of 10 yards or more. Only two other players in the country have had more.
Against UMass, Notre Dame had runs of 57 (Prosise), 58 (Brandon Wimbush) and 70 (Josh Adams) yards. Last week at Temple, quarterback DeShone Kizer sprinted 79 yards for a score.
Granted, it takes great athletes to make those runs, but it often requires some tenacious dirty work from others to make it happen.
In the process of becoming one of the most explosive offenses in the country, the Irish wide receivers have developed into outstanding blockers on the perimeter as well as downfield where really good plays become great ones.
“When you throw perimeter passes and you get big gains, that’s an indication of what the receivers are doing relative to blocking,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“By and large, all of those guys are committed to being more than just a one-dimensional player. They know how important it is.”
Wide receiver blocking is the lifeblood of a big-play offense. Led by receivers Chris Brown, Torii Hunter, Jr., Corey Robinson, Amir Carlisle and even the touchdown-making Fuller, no defense can take the blocking efforts of Notre Dame’s wideouts lightly.
“Never taking a play off,” said Brown as to the key to being a successful blocking receiver. “The ball may not be coming your way, but if you think about it, it’s going to your brother.
“Would you want their guy to get a free hit on him? No, obviously, so you can’t take a play off.”
It was Brown who helped spring Kizer on his 79-yard run, squaring up cornerback Sean Chandler, who was one of many Temple defenders who got off blocks well, but not on that one.
“When it’s one-on-one blocking, it can be difficult to decide which (side) to go to,” said Kizer, recalling his second-quarter jaunt. “Chris does a good job of establishing himself on one side of the body to allow for the runner to make a cut. He made a perfect block at the perfect time.”
For Brown, it required the will to get the job done on a 3rd-and-1, even though the play just as easily could have been a straight handoff to Prosise between the tackles with Brown playing no role in the outcome of the play.
“Typically, on a 3rd-and-1 with two tight ends and eight men in the box, a wide receiver doesn’t have to block,” Kizer said. “Chris takes every play as seriously as he can.
“That’s an example of a guy who’s not necessarily a big part of play, doing his job, and executing.”
With Prosise, creating a sliver of room often times is enough. Prosise – who first flashed his big-time ball-carrying ability on jet sweeps from the Z receiver position a year ago – combines patience with flat-out explosiveness. If a defender hasn’t brought him down within the split seconds after he gets his hands on the ball, the potential for a big play increases exponentially.
“On a lot of my big runs, I know (the receivers are) a big reason because they’ve busted out, cracked safeties and are in position to block corners so I can make big plays,” Prosise said.
“Any time you have guys downfield who are working for you, working their butts off to get you in the end zone, it definitely helps me and makes my job easier.”
Irish center Nick Martin usually doesn’t see the plays evolve because he’s busy blocking in the trenches. When he goes in the film room a day later, however, he sees how it all unfolded.
“A lot of people think being a receiver is all fame, catching touchdowns, but it’s not,” Martin said. “The majority of the time they’re blocking. Our guys have bought in. They’re excited when they make good blocks and they should be. It’s a big part of football.”
Martin is particularly impressed with Fuller’s efforts as a blocker. A receiver who has a chance to make a whole bunch of money catching passes that is willing to pay a price as a blocker quickly earns the respect of an offensive lineman.
“It’s huge, it’s selfless,” said Martin of Fuller’s blocking intensity. “That goes back to the kind of team we are. You look at any guy blocking outside, it means he cares more about you than he does himself.”
As someone who frequently has to take on blocks by wide receivers, safety Matthias Farley knows what gives him trouble in the open field.
“Hand placement is huge,” Farley said. “Even more so, the willingness to block.
“Our receiving corps has the will to block and they’ll get after you. It’s not just going to be a hit and shuck. They’re going to stay on the block, they’re going to keep their feet moving, and they’re going to take pride in it.”
As one who has been on the bad side of such plays this season – Notre Dame’s defense is tied for 95th in allowing plays of 50 yards or more (6) – Farley knows that sinking feeling. It takes a skilled athlete to pull off a big run or pass reception, but usually, it’s accompanied by some dirty work.
“A lot of those screen plays that hit, it’s because somebody downfield is blocking their tale off or staying engaged with a guy on the second level, which isn’t easy to do because those DBs or linebackers are trying to get off the block,” Farley said.
“It’s that mindset of the willingness to block, and then perfecting the nuances of it.”
Receivers have to pick their blocking battles wisely. There’s a huge difference between cracking back on a 190-pound cornerback or a 205-pound safety as opposed to a 240-pound linebacker with the Superman-type qualities of Irish junior Jaylon Smith.
Ask Smith about a wide receiver trying to block him and a bit of bravado oozes out.
“They have great hand placement and things like that, but as far as a wide receiver going against me?” said a bemused Smith. “I can’t really speak on that.”
But he does recognize and acknowledge the efforts put forth by the Irish receiving corps.
“Our guys are very sound,” Smith said. “It’s more understanding their leverage on their block, whether they have inside leverage or outside leverage. That’s important for receivers and tight ends.”
Kizer understands the importance of the nuances, both in his job as well as the players around him.
“As a team, we like to pay attention to detail,” Kizer said. “The blocking of our receivers is one detail that most people don’t see when evaluating an offense.
“But our guys and the mentality that we have to execute each play allows for our receivers be some of the best blockers on the team. It’s what allows us to have big game-changing plays. Once we pass that first and second level, it’s off to the races because of the great outside blocking that we have.”
There wasn’t much for Brown to contemplate when an opportunity presented itself against Temple on Kizer’s long run.
“If he’s going to take it all the way to the crib,” smiled Brown, “I have to make that block.”
For Brown, who has evolved into a viable No. 2 receiver behind Fuller – he trails Fuller in receptions by just four – the love of the game has made becoming an exceptional blocker an easy endeavor.
“I’ve always tried to pride myself on not letting (the) guy (I’m blocking) make the play,” Brown said. “(Receivers) Coach (Mike) Denbrock says it all the time. If my guy is not able to make the play, then I’m doing my job.
“If you love the game, you’ll love every part of it. Blocking is a part of the game as a receiver and so is catching. You’ve got to love them both.”