Brian Kelly knew Will Fuller had a chance to be good. He didn’t know he would be so good that he would conclude his sophomore season with 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, numbers he would build upon in 2015.
Kelly also knew the Irish had a ticking time bomb in C.J. Prosise when he converted from slot receiver to running back heading into the ’15 season. A mere 156 carries later, Prosise topped the 1,000-yard mark with 11 touchdowns and a 6.6-yard average.
It isn’t every year that an unexpected offensive star emerges. It was even more surprising that first-year starter DeShone Kizer became one of the top weapons in the country among teams vying for a playoff berth.
Who will be that player for Notre Dame in 2016? Will there be that type of player emerge for the Irish once again?
“On the offensive side of the ball, I don’t know that there’s one particular guy,” said Brian Kelly, who was asked during the off-the-cuff query not to cite Torii Hunter, Jr., who leaped to the forefront in the spring as a 70-catch prospect this fall.
“Not to be elusive, but I don’t know that there will be one particular player. I do think that we have maybe four or five guys that will elevate their games to a level that will give us the production that we’re looking for from an offensive standpoint.”
The following are offensive skill position players who could emerge as upstart standouts in 2016.
• Equanimeous St. Brown – The 6-foot-4 sophomore W receiver appears to be the leading candidate to form the second half of a one-two receiving punch with Hunter, although tight end Alizé Jones would have been Irish Illustrated’s first choice had it not been for his academic suspension.
St. Brown has the length and athleticism. He still needs to add strength to his frame, which will aid his consistency catching the football in contested situations and reroute attempts by defenders. In Thursday’s open practice to the media, he dropped a perfectly-thrown deep ball from Kizer.
St. Brown also will have to overcome what has become a penchant for getting banged up. He suffered a serious shoulder injury prior to the eighth game of his rookie season that required surgery. He fought through shoulder issues during the Blue-Gold Game and continued to play despite obviously ailing. In defense of his deep-ball drop Thursday, Kelly said St. Brown was battling a thumb injury.
All things being equal right now, St. Brown looks to be the No. 1 candidate to become Hunter’s pass-receiving complement.
Said Kelly: “Equanimeous St. Brown is a guy that’s on the verge of doing some really big things for us.”
• Dexter Williams – While it would be an exaggeration to say that Williams looks like a completely different player from his freshman season in 2015, there is an authoritativeness to what we’ve seen of the sophomore running back in two open practices and film.
Kelly referred to Williams’ “explosiveness, reckless-abandon running style and strength.” His pad level is outstanding. There’s an athletic burst to his game that was absent last year when his classmate, Josh Adams, took the first step forward.
On the collegiate level, there is room for three running backs. Adams, senior Tarean Folston and Williams give the offensive minds (Kelly, associate head coach Mike Denbrock and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford) more options/flexibility at the running back position. (Note: Williams was targeted five times and caught all five passes in Thursday’s 7-on-7/11-on-11 work.)
“Dexter Williams could be a guy that really plays much more of a prominent role in what we do offensively,” Kelly said. “He’s an explosive player.”
• C.J. Sanders/Kevin Stepherson/Chris Finke – With the departure of steady, reliable Amir Carlisle (third on the team in receptions in ’15), one might anticipate a drop-off at the Z receiver position, which could happen because of Carlisle’s considerable experience.
But the speedy Sanders, who returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown as a freshman in ’15, is a prototypical slot receiver with the ability to do some damage by creating mismatches with Sam linebackers and safeties.
Stepherson impressed at the X position in the spring – probably his best position – before moving to the Z this summer, where there are opportunities to share this spot due to the overall inexperience at the position. He dropped a pass Thursday, but his hands have been impressive since the spring.
Finke will have the term “walk-on” placed before his name until he snags a much-deserved scholarship. But heretofore, he is a “Notre Dame receiver,” showing once again Thursday why he’s in the mix. Finke was targeted seven times and made catches on each of the last six. He is, like Sanders, fast and elusive. (Note: Denbrock said in the spring that Finke needed to be more consistent catching the football.)
• Durham Smythe/Nic Weishar – With the suspension of Alizé Jones, the natural assumption is that the tight end position has been dramatically undercut, which it has. Yet Smythe and Weishar have the tools to combine for 35-plus catches in ’16 if the offensive staff chooses to involve the tight ends in the passing game.
Weishar is once again opening eyes during pre-season camp, as he did a year ago in the red zone. He showed Thursday that he’s capable of providing yards after the catch.
Smythe is the more complete tight end of the two, which should allow him more playing time than Weishar and create the opportunity for more underneath receptions, particularly if someone at the W position emerges and spreads out the coverages.
• Miles Boykin – The lanky (6-foot-3 ½, 222) sophomore had a year of eligibility preserved last year, which prompts questions of his readiness to emerge as a consistent presence at the W with St. Brown. Plus, Boykin still looks like a player growing into his body as a part-wideout, part-tight end.
But he’s a big target, and if he can learn to use his body as an ally, he’s a potential weapon on crossing routes where his length could be a real asset. He had a solid day Thursday, catching five of the seven passes in which he was targeted, including a 50-yardish catch-and-run late in the practice.
• Chase Claypool/Javon McKinley – Claypool is a gazelle; McKinley is a sturdy wideout who has showed himself better than his three drops Thursday would indicate.
Claypool caught one pass in the 7-on-7 work Thursday, and it was a deep scoring toss by Malik Zaire on rookie cornerback Julian Love. There has also been film disseminated by Notre Dame that has put Claypool’s go-up-and-get-it skills on display.
If St. Brown and Boykin struggle with consistency, perhaps the rookies will get their shot sooner rather than later.
• Corey Holmes – The sense is that the junior wideout, who played Z in the spring but has been switched to X behind Hunter, may be seeing his opportunity slip away. A seemingly lack of competitiveness Saturday in Culver and two drops Thursday at the LaBar Practice Complex left a negative impression.
But Holmes has great speed and rallied late Thursday when he caught a pass from Kizer and weaved his way though traffic for a 60-yardish gain. Notre Dame’s pass-receiving corps is too young and inexperienced to give up on a potential weapon for the Irish.
• Tony Jones, Jr. – The freshman running back is going to have a devil of a time getting reps with Adams, Folston and Williams around. But he’s made a very strong first impression with his pass-catching ability, vision and shiftiness.
As good as Jones has looked, there’s the possibility that a year of eligibility could be preserved. Had he arrived with Adams and Williams a year ago, he might have gotten a crack, particularly once Folston went down in the first game of the season.
• Malik Zaire – Listing him last does not mean he’s the least likely to emerge. While we expect Kizer to ultimately win the starting job and the vast majority of the reps – remember, Kelly likes to throw it and Kizer gives Notre Dame the best chance in the passing game – Zaire still can be a real weapon for the Irish in 2016.
Kizer proved he could run it, too, with more than 500 yards rushing a year ago. Yet Zaire is the more elusive runner and the more likely of the two quarterbacks to ad-lib and break off a 50-yard run. Plus, Zaire could help solve some of Notre Dame’s past issues in the red zone.
With of month of pre-season practice to prepare for the opener against Texas, it will not be a surprise if both Kizer and Zaire play a prominent role against the Longhorns. It becomes more difficult to prepare a two-quarterback game plan on a weekly basis.