"It must be a rain-out, because we've got all our baseball players here," head coach Charlie Weis joked during stretches at practice on Monday. Quarterback Evan Sharpley, punter Eric Maust, and wide receiver Golden Tate are all missing significant practice time this spring to play baseball for the Irish. While the missed practices will no doubt affect all three of them, Sharpley is comfortably fixed as the second-string quarterback behind Jimmy Clausen, and Maust is the only punter Notre Dame's roster.
Tate, on the other hand, is battling for playing time at wide receiver. This spring would be a prime situation for him to demonstrate the skills he picked up and improvements he made over the winter. So far, though, Tate has only been to two of five practices. Weis, however, isn't concerned with the missed practices, saying Tate will have plenty of time to catch up in August.
"I think that in training camp he'll have plenty of opportunity to make his way up the depth chart," Weis said.
Currently, Tate is listed as the fourth "Z" receiver on the depth chart. The Hendersonville, Tenn. native doesn't see himself as behind any other the other receivers, though.
"After two days, I feel right there with the other guys," Tate said. "Obviously, there's room for improvement, but I feel pretty good about it."
The former USA Today All-American has made up for the lost practice time by putting in extra individual effort to prepare for the upcoming season.
"I mean, ultimately it's up to me," he said. "I just need to be here watching extra film and doing extra studying. I've been doing that the first two days so that might be why I feel like I'm OK instead of a step behind.
"If I need to do another rep after practice is over, that's what I'm going to do and that's what I've been doing."
The mental workload of balancing two sports is admirable enough in itself, but the physical toll makes the task even tougher. For example, Tate had three baseball games this weekend against Cincinnati, followed by football practice on Monday. While it was a little rough at first, he said he's adjusted.
"I mean it's tough, but it's manageable," Tate said. "I thought when I got out here I was going to die because I wasn't in shape, but I made it. I've been through two days and I feel pretty good"
Despite the difficulty, Tate said he has no regrets about his choice and always knew that he wanted to play both sports.
"For the most part, I had my mind made up that I was going to play baseball," he said. "I love both sports and when the time comes, if the time comes, that I have to choose one, then I'll make that decision. Right now, I'm happy with my decision."
When Tate arrived last summer, he was faced with an entirely different, but equally difficult challenge. He had to learn to play receiver. Even though he rushed for over 1,000 yards in his junior and senior seasons at Pope John Paul II High School, most scouts projected Tate as a wideout at the next level. The move wasn't exactly as easy as planned.
"When I first got here, I just figured I was going to run a pattern, catch the ball, [and] block," Tate said. "But there are so many defenses, in college it's a whole other game."
As a freshman, Tate showed flashes of brilliance. Most notably, against Purdue, he made three spectacular diving catches for 104 yards and a touchdown. Most Irish fans thought this game would be a coming-out party, but Tate saw little playing time after that, catching only three balls the rest of the year, something a attributed to the steep learning curve associated with becoming a Division I receiver.
"I had a tough time memorizing the plays and my fundamentals weren't up to par," Tate said. "That's one of the things I'm stressing during camp: my fundamentals and understanding the game instead of being an athlete just running around out there. I'm trying to understand it a little more and slow it down."
It might be difficult for someone with 4.4 speed to slow down, but Tate said he's made progress so far in the offseason.
"I think I've definitely learned some new things at receiver, and some things to focus on, some things I need to improve on, some things I do well," he said. "I think I've improved on getting my steps down, getting to the right yardage and I'm slowly but surely understanding what the defense is doing."
Recievers coach Rob Ianello and Clausen have been two of Tate's main mentors in improving himself as a wideout. He said he often comes in on his own to talk with Ianello and watch extra film. The experience of learning from the guy throwing you the ball also has its advantages.
"Jimmy's certainly been a great guy to talk to because he's the quarterback," Tate said. "He knows where to throw it, your steps, and what you need to do."
Weis also stressed the importance of the quarterbacks and receivers having a strong rapport.
"The quarterback's chemistry with the receivers is always a critical thing," Weis said. "Because you know you can count on them. I've coached quarterbacks before that wouldn't throw it to a guy because they thought they couldn't count on him."
Tate isn't one of those guys, saying that he and Clausen have a very good relationship.
"I think it's great," he said of his chemistry with Clausen. "You know, freshman-freshman. We've been here the whole summer. We talked before we got here. So it's good."
For now, though, Tate is concerned with regaining his starting spot in the Irish outfield. After starting regularly in centerfield in late February and early March, he has recently found himself on the bench, replaced in the outfield by sophomore Billy Boockford. But just as in football, don't expect the lack of playing time to get Tate down.
"I played well for a while," he said. "In baseball you're either hot or cold, and unfortunately, I'm cold and he's hot. He's been doing a great job."
If there's one thing Irish fans hope Tate doesn't change, it's his ability to run a "Go" route. All three of his game-changing catches against the Boilermakers came on plays when he was just supposed to run straight as fast as he could and leave the defensive backs in the dust.
"He has straight-line speed," Weis aid. "Any time you have straight-line speed, you have an opportunity to get on the field."
This talent spawned a series of t-shirts sold on the Notre Dame campus. The front reads "Golden is Thy Tate", a play on words of the lyrics of "Notre Dame, Our Mother." The back shows a diagram of a play in which two of the receivers run crossing routes, but the third, labeled "23", Tate's number, runs straight down the field. Though he's seen the shirts around campus, Tate isn't letting the celebrity go to his head and uses it as extra motivation to become a more well-rounded player.
"I'm glad I have fan support," he said. "But then again, you can't let that make you relax. I smile when I see them around campus. But at the same time, I want to learn how to run something else other than a ‘Go' route."
But for right now, as Weis said jokingly, "he's just trying to not strike out."
Baseball Balancing Act
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