What’s your preference Irish fans?
Short and quick; a nightmare to track in space?
Big, strong, and fast; perhaps a former running back that’s a legitimate threat on Jet Sweeps?
Versatile, dependable, and clutch?
Notre Dame’s slot receivers have featured a variety of physical attributes and skill sets during the six-season Brian Kelly era to date. Season No. 7 might produce yet another:
“Well that’s a big piece of it for sure,” said position coach and associate head coach Mike Denbrock of current slot man Corey Holmes, he of the 4.39 40-yard dash this winter. “I think more than anything for him it’s an opportunity to expand his knowledge of what we do offensively.
“Unfortunately (because of) and injury that we have where somebody can really grow in our offense and get a lot more work. I could put him out with Torii (Hunter) and (Kevin) Stepherson (at the X) but dividing our wealth of talent equally gives him an opportunity to learn, grow, and be counted on as somebody that has to step in there and perform.
“That’s different for him. He’s kind of been to this point a little bit of an add-on guy where hey, if you get something out of him, that’s great. He’s got to get in there and do his business like he’s been a starter from the very beginning and we have to be able to lean on him to make plays for us.”
IN SANDERS’ STEAD
Holmes is getting his chance because projected starter, sophomore C.J. Sanders, has been sidelined this spring and likely through at least half of the summer due to hip surgery.
“C.J. is probably the ideal type of guy for our slot,” said Denbrock when asked of a specific body type and skill set for the position. “Robby Toma did a great job in that spot because he could break people down in space. He was a nightmare. Most of the time the slot isn’t going to get bump pressure so he can release off the line and get into space and make plays.
“That (type of) guy probably ideally fits it, although for some of the down the field things, if you want to be a vertical passing game team you want a bigger body in the spot so the quarterback can see him with all the stuff going on around him. It’s a pretty interchangeable position so I think we can do some different things.”
Kelly has proven that in spades over his last seven football seasons, featuring a variety of body types and athletic traits in the slot:
2009 Marty Gilyard (Cincinnati): The team’s best player, Gilyard (6’1” 187 pounds) dominated to the tune of 87 catches, 1,191 yards and 11 touchdowns.
2010 Theo Riddick and Robby Toma (54 rec. 601 yards, 3 TD): Converted in the off-season from running back, Riddick was the starter until a nagging ankle injury shelved him for the second half of the season. Toma filled in thereafter and collected 14 catches for 187 yards over the final six games of the regular season.
Riddick’s best stretch occurred in Games 3-6 where he produced better numbers than Michael Floyd, notching did 33 receptions, 343 yards, and three touchdowns.
2011 Riddick and Toma (57-643-4 TD): Nearly all of Toma’s contributions occurred in three of the season’s final four contests (Maryland, BC, and FSU), when he collected 16 receptions for 172 yards. Riddick scored two touchdowns at Michigan in Game 2 but only one more the rest of the way (Air Force) and eventually was needed back at running back after an injury to Jonas Gray on Senior Day.
2012 Toma and Riddick (60-622-2 TD): Riddick started at running back and led the Irish in rushing (915 yards, 5 TD). He continued to produce in space, catching 36 passes for 370 yards and two scores. Toma was the starting slot throughout the season with a game-high 58 yards at Michigan State and another 50 in the comeback win over Pittsburgh. He also notched a game-saving third-down reception to set up the winning field goal vs. Purdue in Game 2.
Riddick helped win the Stanford game with a clutch, sliding 16-yard catch in traffic on 3rd and 8 in overtime.
2013 Vacant: Or close to it. Leading receiver T.J. Jones (70-1,108-9 TD) operated out of the slot often though he spent more time at X. The Irish featured a two tight end offense (and might do so this fall) and as a result, it was the slot position that was most often removed from the proceedings. C.J. Prosise collected 7 receptions for 72 yards on the year.
2014 C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle (52-825-5 TD): The pair was targeted a whopping 95 times, suffering 7 drops. (Oddly, Prosise was targeted 12 times in the loss to Florida State including, technically, each of the final four pass attempts to conclude the contest.) Prosise added a 50-yard touchdown sprint that helped beat LSU in the Music City Bowl.
Carlisle shined early with two touchdowns against Michigan before injuring his knee one week later against Purdue. 11 of his 23 grabs occurred pre-injury in less than 2.5 contests.
2015 Torii Hunter, Jr, and Carlisle (60-718-3 TD): Ranks second to the Toma/Riddick combo of 2012 as the most efficient season at the position during the Kelly era. Hunter and Carlisle accounted for 42 first downs on 77 pass targets (just two drops).
Hunter moves to Will Fuller’s vacated X receiver spot for 2016, ceding the slot to a combination of at least Holmes and Sanders – and likely more.
Including injured players, Notre Dame’s 2016 spring alignment is as follows:
X (Field): Torii Hunter, Jr., Kevin Stepherson
W (Boundary): Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, cross-training tight end Aliz’e Jones, Corey Robinson (inj.)
Z (Slot): Corey Holmes, walk-on Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders (out, hip surgery)
Where Holmes, a player redshirted last season as a sophomore and not yet with a collegiate catch to his credit will end up, or how much he’ll help the offense is anyone’s guess. His Autumn opportunities will be determined by the development of Notre Dame’s tight ends, the health of other receivers, the progress (and positioning) of incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley, and of course, Holmes’ growth through August.
“We know he can play the X,” said Denbrock of Holmes. “He can be the field No. 1 receiver. What we wanted to get a feel for him was is he versatile enough to use his speed in different spots? Slot, outside, wherever. He’s showing promise there.”
And raw speed. Yet another attribute that could be featured in Kelly’s ever-evolving slot position in South Bend.