You might not remember the eight-yard hitch Equanimeous St. Brown secured to begin the fourth quarter in Notre Dame’s 62-27 win over UMass last September, but it’s notable nonetheless.
It was the only reception by a returning Irish receiver not named Torii Hunter that gained a yard last fall.
Including capable walk-on Chris Finke, Notre Dame rolled out 10 targets and a quartet of tight ends set to compete for playing time in its opening training camp practice of 2016. Among them were an aggregate 44 receptions, 480 yards, and 4 scores. The overwhelming majority courtesy Hunter:
-- WR (X) Hunter: 35 career receptions, 428 yards, 3 TD
-- TE Durham Smythe: 4 receptions, 25 yards, 1 TD (the result of a fake field goal at Virginia)
-- TE Nic Weishar: 3 receptions, 19 yards
-- WR Equanimeous St. Brown: 1 reception, 8 yards
-- WR C.J. Sanders: 1 reception, 0 yards
For the sake of reference, last year’s collection of talent returned a ludicrous 259 receptions totaling nearly 3,900 yards with 30 touchdowns.
A new era of pass catchers dawns in South Bend – perhaps its fitting a senior with one career start is at the forefront of that youth movement.
“It’s been tough for sure,” Hunter admitted of his dual focus, growing his own game while bringing along two handfuls of others. “I think these guys are way ahead of where we were (when he was young). They’ve got the basic offense down, they just need to make plays these first few days and get their confidence up.”
Those plays could lead to more reps, which could lead to playing time on Saturdays. And in the unique case of the 2016 Irish, any playing time on Saturday could result in a career that takes off from ground zero.
“I think they understand that,” said Hunter of the reality that starting jobs are available to relative rookies. “No job is set in stone right now because there’s not a lot of experience. There are opportunities out there and they need to take advantage of it. I tried to make that clear all summer.”
Hunter, who was targeted for 35 passes last season (28 receptions, 20 first downs, 1 dropped pass) will likely enjoy opportunity in the triple digits this fall, just as leading targets Will Fuller (99 last year; 119 in 2014), T.J. Jones (125 in 2013), and Michael Floyd (133 in 2011; 132 in 2010) before him.
That ongoing chain of top target excellence – four of head coach Brian Kelly’s team MVPs were WRs over his six seasons in South Bend – is not lost on the new main man.
“It was the way they approached every day,” he said of predecessors Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Amir Carlisle, and T.J. Jones. “They kept me motivated throughout the tough times of camp and back end of the season. I want to be that spark during camp and in a long season for these guys.”
From complementary piece to go-to-guy. From pupil to mentor. And is the honor of captaincy afoot?
Regardless, it’s a new era on the perimeter in South Bend, one ushered in by Hunter and his host of young combatants.
At A Glance:
X: Hunter, Soph. Corey Holmes, Fr. Deon McIntosh
W: St. Brown, RS-Fr. Miles Boykin, Fr. Chase Claypool and Fr. Javon McKinley
Z: Sanders, Fr. Kevin Stepherson, Soph. Chris Finke