69 receptions, 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns represent the damage done by departing Irish receiver Maurice Stovall in 2005. Notre Dame will also have to replace Matt Shelton, Notre Dame's third option at wide receiver last fall and his 28 catches.
Everyone expects Rhema McKnight to return to form in 2006. McKnight will try to return from a knee surgery that ended his 2005 season and replace Stovall, but can McKnight replace Stovall's knack for making the circus catch and his ability to win in almost any jump ball situation?
Senior Brady Quinn certainly set the world on fire with his recording-breaking junior season, but he certainly had help from his receivers, and Stovall especially, who was almost unstoppable when Quinn would throw the ball up and hope the Philadelphia, Pa. native would come down with it---Stovall almost always came down with the ball.
McKnight led the Irish in receptions the two previous seasons prior to 2005, but only has six touchdowns in his career to show for his effort. We fully expect his trips to the end zone to drastically increase this season, but can he be the type of impact player Stovall was last year, especially when recovering from knee surgery?
Shelton knows about knee surgery and the Collierville, Tenn. native saw his production drastically decrease in 2005 due to the injury. Shelton emerged as a deep threat in 2004 after inexplicably sitting silent on the bench his previous three seasons to lead the team in touchdowns (6), and also set a ND record for yards per reception (25.8). Shelton simply wasn't the same player in 2005 but did play an important role and will need to be replaced this season as the third receiver in Notre Dame's offense.
The Irish do have plenty of hopefuls after McKnight looking to fill the roles of third and fourth receiver in the Charlie Weis offense.
Junior Chase Anastasio has been waiting quietly for his chance to emerge on the depth chart. Anastasio has played a lot on special teams both as a return man and on Notre Dame's coverage teams, but the Burke, Va. native has only one reception in his Notre Dame career. We've heard many accounts of Anastasio playing very well in practice but so far his exploits on the practice field hasn't got him on the field yet. The time is likely now or never for Anastasio, who has another year of eligibility after the 2006 season.
Sophomore Darrin Bragg is new to the position after spending his first season as a quarterback. Bragg did spend all of 2005 learning the position but hasn't seen the field yet in his Notre Dame career. We simply have no idea what Bragg can do at this point. He was an option quarterback in high school and is a very good athlete, but that doesn't automatically make him a good receiver. Bragg will also likely have to make an impact this spring or he risks getting lost on the depth chart.
Freshmen David Grimes and D.J. Hord both got their feet wet in 2005 by playing special teams as return men. Grimes also recorded his first two receptions of his career in 2005 as the team's No. 4 receiver. Reports out of practice have Grimes being the most ready out of the two. Grimes is very quick, runs great routes and has excellent hands. Hord has that extra gear Notre Dame is lacking at wide receiver, and his speed could push him into the lineup if he can work a little on his hands this spring.
As one of Notre Dame's first early enrollees this January, freshman George West will have a leg up on his three other wide receiver classmates by having the luxury of spring practice to learn the offense and work on his game. West will likely get a strong look at returns as well so we expect him to make an early impact. West's game is a lot like Grimes' so it will be interesting to see if he can make a move up the depth chart this spring.
The Irish will also sign three other top wide receiver targets this Wednesday, February 1, who will report over the summer.
Cleveland, Ohio native Robbie Parris might have the best chance to play early out of the freshmen as his 6-4, 190-pound frame would fit right in for Stovall. Parris is also known for the circus-type receptions Stovall made famous, but he's also recovering from a severe hip injury. Parris should be ready to go by summer, but we're not sure how much lifting he can do between now and summer, and that could determine how much action he'll see in 2006.
Wellesley, Mass. native Barry Gallup proved his worthiness at the Army All-American practices where the 5-11, 175-pound speedy receiver more than held his own against the nation's best players. Gallup's sure hands and quickness could get him on the field in 2006, but he hasn't played a lot of receiver in his career after spending most of his high school as a running back.
The Irish are also adding one of Florida's best receivers to the 2006 recruiting class. Clermont, Fla. native Richard Jackson will bring his 6-2, 195-pound frame to the equation. Jackson is also known to make the miraculous seem easy and reminds us a lot of McKnight on film. Jackson's played at a very level of football his entire high school career so the transition might not be as hard for him as the others.
Most Irish fans were amazed at how much progress Notre Dame's receivers made in such a short period of time under wide receiver coach Rob Ianello. Certainly playing in the Charlie Weis offense helped, but we didn't see near as many dropped balls, wrong routes or missed assignments in 2005. It will be interesting to see how much further Ianello can bring this young group of receivers along because they'll be counted on heavily in 2006, and definitely in 2007 when seniors Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight are gone.
Will the Irish find a clear No. 3 and No. 4 receiver in spring or will some freshmen have a shot in the fall to land some playing time? This will be one of the more interesting positions to follow this spring.