Receivers coach Mike Denbrock can talk about quality competition and youth movements. But he’ll do it in the same hoarse voice he used Monday after a spring session of false starts in the passing game.
No position has more to gain heading toward next month’s Blue-Gold Game than receiver. That’s because no position lost more this winter. And for Denbrock, that can mean losing his voice.
“There’s a lot of times where the ball will get thrown and the quarterbacks are kind of looking over at me and saying, ‘Are you gonna yell at the receiver because he did the wrong thing, or are you gonna yell at me because I threw the ball where it wasn’t supposed to be or whatever,’” Denbrock said. “As you could tell, there was a little bit of that going on today at practice.”
The numbers put Notre Dame’s receiver rebuild in better perspective.
The Irish lost 20 touchdown receptions, 169 catches and 248 targets. When compared against the returning talent, it’s clear that the more scarce the statistic the harder it will be to replace. Notre Dame lost 64.4 percent of its targets, 70.1 percent of its receptions and 80 percent of its touchdown catches.
In other words, replacing guys who run routes might be easy. Replacing guys who can catch passes will be harder. And replacing talent that can create touchdowns will be the most difficult of all.
So while Denbrock wouldn’t mind a more balanced passing game, he’d prefer the recreation of Will Fuller’s production. Torii Hunter Jr. is Notre Dame’s new No. 1 receiver for now and Denbrock said the dual sport senior can play any of the three positions. He also said Hunter has the team’s best hands, with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson probably second.
Beyond that, Denbrock doesn’t have many answers just yet.
“I think (a go-to guy) develops naturally to a certain extent. And if that’s two or three guys, that’s awesome,” Denbrock said. “If it’s one guy who kind of separates himself and is a guy that we got to make sure we’re getting a number of touches to like we ended up having to do with Will, then that’s great too.
“So we’d love to spread the wealth around to more guys if we have guys that can play at that level in a sustained fashion that they can be that explosive guy in our offense. We’ll spread it all over the place.”
For now the issue is getting receivers in the right spots as the staff experiments with lineups. Aside from keeping C.J. Sanders in the slot and Miles Boykin in the boundary, Notre Dame will move around just about everybody else, including Stepherson.
Hunter and Corey Holmes, who’s already played some slot receiver this spring, represent the two players who could get work at all three receiver positions.
“That’s one good thing, the versatility at the position is pretty good,” Denbrock said. “That’s exciting to be able to flip and flop and move those guys all over the place and use them in different ways. That will be a little bit different than what we’ve shown in the past couple years.”
For now, Equanimeous St. Brown, Holmes and Stepherson project at the X position, which is where Fuller played last year. The W, which lines up in the boundary (short side of the field) is Robinson and Boykin. Hunter and Sanders are the primary slot options. Walk-on Chris Finke is also getting work in the slot.
With three quarterbacks taking reps against the backdrop of the receiver turnover, Denbrock knows this will have its rough patches. Unlike last year when the depth chart was set for fall after one spring practice, Notre Dame’s receiver position is more work in progress.
And for now it’s more work than progress.
“Just kind of experiment a little bit in moving those guys to different spots,” Denbrock said. “A lot of that is fun about spring football. We don’t have to get ready to beat Texas or anybody else. We can kind of just be mad scientists and move guys around and let’s see where they fit best.”