One position coach who has had reason to smile is wide receivers coach Rob Ianello. Not only has his group been performing at a high level, Ianello is the recruiting coordinator for the Irish. Yesterday's big commitment of five-star cornerback Darrin Walls was a big nab for Notre Dame, especially for the fact that the defensive backfield has had their share of struggles the past season and a half. Ianello and some of the other staff will hit the road Thursday and Friday across the nation to view potential prospects in person.
As for this year's team, through five games, it has been a banner year for the wide receivers. The statistics dwarf the 2004 production. Jeff Samardzija has eight touchdown receptions. This is eight more than he had last year. Maurice Stovall is finally performing at the level many Irish fans wanted to see from day one. He has more yards (388) and receptions (23) in five contests than he had in all of 2004. The size of these two players, both 6'5" and over 215 pounds, gives Notre Dame an edge over opposing defenses.
"You have to use your advantages," Ianello said. "For some guys, it's quickness. For others, it's their height. We have to take advantage of anything we have."
The amazing part of the success with this group is that they are doing it without Rhema McKnight. The senior wideout injured his knee during the Michigan game and has not played since. McKnight led the team the past two years in receptions and yards. The emergence of Samardzija, the stepped-up play of Stovall and the utilization of tight end Anthony Fasano in passing situations has squelched the concerns. Ianello, displaying the confidence that is so evident in this coaching staff, expected the group not to miss a beat.
"You develop your depth from the bottom up," Ianello said. "That's how you develop your depth. Everybody has to be ready to go and get a chance to take advantage of the opportunity in whatever role they're in. Everybody has a different role but whatever role you have, you accept it and do a good job with that role. Some guys get to emerge from those roles and it makes it that much stronger as a team. We're trying to build that within our team. We really don't talk about injuries. That's part of football. The next guy has to be ready to perform."
Another reason for the drop off not occurring has been Matt Shelton. Shelton was the main deep threat of last year's squad, averaging over 25 yards per catch and grabbing a team-high six touchdowns. The senior had off-season knee surgery that limited his practice time and number of snaps early on. But Shelton appears to be easing his way into the offense with short receptions and key third-down conversions. He caught seven balls for 68 yards against Purdue and six passes for 87 yards two weeks ago versus Michigan State.
"When you are coming off a knee (injury) like he was coming off of sometimes there's two things that come into play," Weis said. "One is getting healthy and other one is having confidence that you're healthy. I think that both those things have come into play for Matt."
Along with the great play, Ianello has been pleased with the group's attitude and coachability. One of the keys to a good team is to be open to criticism and correcting mistakes at practice and during games. Ianello said his players possess both attributes.
"It's been a pleasurable group to coach," Ianello said. "They are responsive to coaching. They take constructive criticism. They take it to heart. It's a very prideful group. That makes it real positive and fun to come in and meet with them. It's a good group of kids off the field. They all have different interests off the field. Maurice likes to sing. Jeff plays baseball. There are a lot of different personalities in the group. You let the personalities be the personalities. That makes it fun."
Weis brought in a first-class staff to help build this team into a winner. Ianello coached the last two years at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez but was brought into South Bend to lead one of Notre Dame's deepest and most experience position group. Despite their experience, Ianello treated them all like wide-eyed newcomers.
"I told them all from the first practice of spring ball that I was coaching them like they were freshmen," Ianello said. "With this offense and their experience with the coaching staff, they were freshmen. We haven't had much background together. We just started at ground one with all of them at fundamentals. We've tried to build some depth from the bottom up with this group and they've done a nice job so far."