Irish Wide Receivers Golden in 2005

The Notre Dame wide receiving group must have had huge smiles on their faces last week leading up to the BYU game. Head coach Charlie Weis installed a game plan that called for an air attack to exploit a blitzing Cougar defense and small secondary personnel against the tall pass catchers of the Irish.

The plan was perfect not only in theory but execution as Notre Dame ripped up BYU for 467 passing yards and six touchdowns. Quarterback Brady Quinn consistently found Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija open and these three were the catalyst behind the 49-23 win. The high level that the group as a whole is playing with is on display every Saturday.

"I tell them they should feel very fortunate that coaches, Coach Weis in particular, has great confidence in them and we can start a game like that and play a game like that," wide receivers coach Rob Ianello said. "It's great confidence in the group and we played accordingly."

Notre Dame is in a unique position. They have two 6-5 receivers over 210 pounds, a treat Ianello has never had to enjoy during his coaching career. This screams mismatch galore against opposing defenses. With Weis's creative mind and the physical tools present, it's no wonder the Notre Dame record books are being rewritten.

Stovall's performance last Saturday, 14 catches for 207 yards and four touchdowns, is half a season's stats when compared to his first three years in an Irish uniform. Stovall's best year came as sophomore when he pulled down 22 catches for 421 yards (19.1 average) and three touchdowns. The career totals coming into this season were 61 catches for 1046 yards and six touchdowns.

The senior has obliterated his season high totals and his numbers in 2005 could threaten the first three years combined. Stovall already has 40 grabs for 625 yards (15.6 average) and five touchdowns. He broke the Irish single game reception and touchdown mark against BYU. Much was made about the weight he lost in the off-season. Weis thinks bigger is not always better and this way of thinking is turning out to be golden for Stovall. But he's also stepping up in the leadership role as well.

"Maurice has done a great job leading our group by doing some extra things," Ianello said. "Last week, they were on fall break and the receivers were on their own three mornings in a row. Maurice was a catalyst in those meetings. But they've been on their own. They watch tape on their own outside of what our normal meetings are.

"It's a group that comes to work everyday understanding there are things to improve on all the time. You get better as a player or you get worse as a player and our goal is to get better every week as a group and individually as players. Maurice has taken that in stride along with everyone else."

We haven't even begun to talk about Samardzija. The junior from Valparaiso, Indiana is having an All-American year. He already has tied Derrick Mayes for the single season touchdown mark at 11. Samardzija's 107 yards per game is 7th best in the nation and is second behind USC's Dwayne Jarrett's 12 scoring receptions. He has a touchdown in each of the first seven games in 2005 (first ever Irish player to achieve that feat) and with a year of eligibility left, has Mayes's record of 22 career receiving touchdowns well within his sights. With 44 catches through seven games, a strong finish could threaten Tom Gatewood's record of 77 receptions back in 1970.

This all comes from a guy that languished, like most did, in Bill Diedrick's offense. Samardzija had 20 catches for 327 yards in the two previous years. More importantly, he had no touchdowns. This year Samardzija lives in the end zone. It's a byproduct of Weis's offensive system.

"If you play well and you play within the system, then good things will happen," Ianello said. "If you read a quote by Samardzija on Sunday in the papers, if we have to run it 60 times to win, we'll run it 60 times. If we have to throw to win, we'll do whatever it takes to win and that's the entire mindset of the receiving group. If you catch a few balls along the way and get in the Notre Dame record books, then it's terrific."

This all being done without Rhema McKnight, who is out for the year with a knee injury. McKnight led the team in receiving yards and receptions the past two years but got hurt during the second quarter of the Michigan game. He'll be back next year to bear the fruits of the pass friendly offense. Matt Shelton, the primary deep threat last year, is more a third-down receiver this year. In 2004, he averaged 25.8 yards per catch. This season, it's 10.8 a grab but he's kept the chains moving on key drives.

This is all part of Quinn's brilliant play, creative offensive thinking and players executing. Between 2002-2004, the Notre Dame was no better than 54th nationally in passing offense and maxed out at 218 yards a contest last season. This year, the Irish are fourth and throwing for 340 yards per game. During this same time period, Notre Dame had one receiver ranked in the top 100 in receptions and yards per game (Arnaz Battle in 2002). This season alone, the Irish have three players in the top 70 in receptions per game (Samardzija, Stovall and Anthony Fasano) and two in the top 30 in receiving yards a contest.

The young guys are starting to get into the swing of things. Freshman David Grimes notched his first start of the year against BYU and has caught two balls on the year. Weis said D.J. Hord, who was back on kickoff returns last Saturday, is close to cracking the wide receiver rotation. The bye week helps these players get more meaningful reps during practice.

"The open date we have now is an opportunity for some of the younger guys on the depth chart who haven't been getting a lot of snaps to really get a lot of valuable work," Ianello said. "We had the open date prior to the USC game. We had a lot of guys get some valuable work there and progress forward. We have the same opportunity this week. This can only be a benefit for these guys to get extra snaps and continue to push those guys along." Top Stories