During a practice last week Mike Denbrock put the offense into a 3rd-and-4 scenario.
He wanted to see how his green group of receivers handled it.
On a couple reps Irish wide outs not named Torii Hunter Jr. ran three-yard routes, got tackled and ended the series. It’s the kind of stuff Denbrock wants to get fixed before Notre Dame ships out to Austin next week. It’s also the kind of stuff he didn’t have to think twice about last year.
“Those teaching moments are invaluable with the group that I’ve got because they’re so young and so green but also so talented,” Denbrock said. “If we can get over that hurdle, if they can understand how critical that is, that they do their job the right way, those won’t pop up.
“They need to experience failure so they can experience some growth along the way.”
Here’s the issue facing Denbrock down Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and Corey Robinson. The Irish lost 158 combined catches from that group, the biggest off-season stat drain in school history. The Irish bring back just 30 catches at the position, a low for the Brian Kelly era that tops just two other seasons since 2000.
One was the 2007 disaster when Notre Dame returned just 29 catches by receivers, with David Grimes accounting for all but three of them. The other was 2002 when Irish receivers returned just 14 catches, which makes sense considering the program ran the option a year prior.
Coincidentally, that turnover was Denbrock’s first season at Notre Dame, but he was coaching offensive tackles under Tyrone Willingham back then.
It’s all a big change from last season when Notre Dame returned all 185 of the roster’s receptions by wide outs. Even with two new quarterbacks, Notre Dame set a school record for yards per play at 7.02 per snap.
“Last year was a little bit of a year off for me, quite frankly,” Denbrock said. “I love the challenge, love the dynamic of this group, love their attention to trying to do things the right way.”
When Notre Dame faces Texas it will likely start Hunter, C.J. Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown, the only three receivers on the roster with a career catch. Beyond that it’s less clear who will play and how much. But Denbrock mentioned Notre Dame could use nine receivers this season, which means Miles Boykin, Corey Holmes, Chris Finke, Kevin Stepherson, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley are on alert.
Denbrock said Sanders has been the most impressive of his younger receivers this month with St. Brown second, although Boykin could emerge as a red zone threat and Claypool might be the best blocker at the position. If the Irish go run heavy, Claypool and Boykin could see their jobs expand.
“I think we’ve done a good job of just having a lot of situations in fall camp where we’ve put the ball on the ground and said we’re gonna play football,” Denbrock said. “Not script everything out so it falls perfectly. Just let the situations naturally happen.
“What it’s allowed those young guys to do is fail and then learn. If you can do that and you’re willing to kind of go through the growing pains of getting those guys to fail, from failure comes growth and I really think those guys are growing every day.”
Notre Dame has targeted that growth in camp with how it’s coached the position. Denbrock has spent much of his time with the slot (Z) and field (X) positions, which means time with Hunter and Sanders. Kelly and Robinson have co-coached the boundary (W) position, giving St. Brown, Boykin and Claypool a second and third sets of eyes on them.
But it’s Denbrock who runs the meeting room. Notre Dame’s young receivers have no doubt who their real boss is, even if the head coach has mixed it up at the position.
“He’s consistent,” St. Brown said of Denbrock. “Whenever we’d do something wrong he’d never let go. He would continue to grind on you and make sure you’d get it right.”
It all means Notre Dame’s receivers should be functional by next Sunday night against the Longhorns. But even the quarterbacks throwing them the ball won’t know exactly what the Irish have until they get to Texas.
For all the work in camp, next weekend effectively amounts to the career debuts for everybody at the position other than Hunter.
“When those lights come on we’ll find out who really took the advice and who didn’t,” said Malik Zaire. “We really won’t find out until the game.”