Room to roam is the best friend of any pass catcher. But creating that space – and from both sides of a college football field – often presents a challenge, especially for talented but raw underclassmen.
“It’s always a work in progress,” said wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock of his young targets this spring. “It seems like one position or another (each spring) is full of guys that haven’t played a lot of football. There’s always going to be a little of that going on.”
Last year it was the tight ends that lacked experience and even a modicum of production entering 2015. This season it’s instead Denbrock’s group that, sans senior Torii Hunter, Jr. (35 receptions last season) and a concussed Corey Robinson (just 16 grabs in 2015 after notching 40 the previous fall), has an aggregate two receptions to its credit – and neither came during competitive game action last fall.
“I hope they can see opportunity,” Denbrock said of the potential that two tight ends could more often than not take the field together next fall. “I’m not against it. I’m going to let them tell me. If we need to have three, or four, or five wide receivers on the field because they’re the best at what we do, then that’s how we’re going to run our offense.
“If it’s three wide receivers and ‘back (plus one tight end) then we’re going to do that. The good thing is we’re versatile enough to be able to interchange those things.”
THE MORE YOU CAN DO
The versatility of which Denbrock speaks has presented, and to be blunt, somewhat forced upon, his youth-filled troops this spring. While the aforementioned Hunter is well known for his ability to play any receiver position, he’s now set at the X (Will Fuller’s former spot) and it’s instead the younger competitors that have been asked spread their wings.
“I’ve even played Aliz’e (Jones) the last few days a little as the boundary receiver,” said Denbrock of his athletically gifted sophomore tight end. “We’re calling it ‘11A’ personnel, so (base) personnel with a second tight end as the boundary receiver. We’re trying to make sure our package is complete enough to take advantage of the athletes that we have.”
(Irish fans might remember All-America Tyler Eifert often aligned to the boundary as a senior in 2012.)
Jones isn’t the only player pulling double duty on the boundary, or “W” position. With Robinson out for an extended period (since at least March 21), and 2015 starter Chris Brown hoping to play his trade in the NFL next fall, the W remains a work in progress.
“EQ is doing some fantastic things,” said Denbrock of lanky sophomore target Equanimeous St. Brown, who toiled last season behind Fuller at the X or “field” spot. “I think the first couple days we put him to the boundary and worked him there he was a little bit off.
“I don’t think he really felt comfortable, he was used to free-wheeling it out to the field and now that he’s done it a couple days he’s wrapped his brain around how to create space for himself. I don’t know if he’s going to end up there. But it’s good that he has to play there this spring. It’s a positive for him.”
Firmly entrenched on the boundary albeit as a scout teamer last season was redshirt-freshman Miles Boykin.
“He was out for a couple of days (with a broken finger). He has three pins in his finger and he’s probably caught the ball as consistently as he did before,” said Denbrock. “So I told him when it heals we’re going to crush them with a hammer to keep the pins in there. He seems more consistent with them in there.”
THE FIELD VS. THE BOUNDARY
Jones (6’4 ½” 240), St. Brown (6’4” 205), Boykin (6’3 5/8” 225), and Robinson (6’4 ½” 215) are similar in height and length if not overall frames (Boykin appears massive in shoulder pads while St. Brown is slightly built), and their physical makeup is not unlike the best W of the Kelly era, eventual first-round NFL Draft pick Michael Floyd, who measured 6’3” 224 as a senior.
It’s a far cry from the 6’2” 194-pound Chris Brown who manned the position last fall and actually dropped to 182 pounds during the grueling three-month slate.
Brown thrived last season (48, 597 yards, 5 TD) despite far less space with which to operate than that afforded to Will Fuller, who played his entire career to the field side (138 receptions, 2,352 yards, and 29 TD in 2014-15).
“Most of the time when you’re the field receiver, it lends itself to having a little more space, so there’s more room to freely move around,” said Denbrock of the X who aligns to the far hash mark. “When you’re to the boundary, you’re somewhat squeezed in (by the near sideline). Sometimes you have a tight end on your side, sometimes we’re in empty (no running back) and you have a ‘back on your side, whatever.
“You have to understand how to navigate and create space for yourself in different coverages you’re going to see. Even though the routes are sometimes similar, understanding how to create space for yourself is really the big difference.”
Denbrock – and the growth of a handful of freshmen and sophomores including the incoming rookie tandem of Chase Claypool (6’4” 215 pounds) and Javon McKinley (6’3” 205 pounds) – will determine how the myriad unproven but versatile pieces best fit.
(Note: A story detailing the desired and varied attributes of Notre Dame’s slot receivers – both for 2016 and the Kelly era to date – will be published Friday.)