When I write articles or discuss Notre Dame football, I rarely use stats to make a point. But you know what, sometimes stats are just so extraordinary that they simply speak for themselves.
2007: 117 receptions, 1252 yards, 10.7 yards per catch, 8 TD's
2008: 171 receptions, 2382 yards, 13.9 yards per catch, 21 TD's
I'll go ever further here:
2007: 117 receptions, 1252 yards, 10.7 yards per catch, 8 TD's (entire WR unit)
Okay, last set of stats and then I'll move on.
Plays of 30+ yards to a WR:
2007: 4 (none for TD's) – 2 for Tate, 1 for Parris, 1 for Kamara
2008: 23 (9 for TD's) – 15 for Tate, 6 for Floyd, 2 for Grimes
In so many ways those numbers speak for themselves. Also consider that Michael Floyd didn't play against Syracuse or USC and came off the field after the first series against Navy when he injured his knee.
After an abysmal 2007 season the Notre Dame receiving core had themselves an emergence. One of the key contributors was a player who wasn't a part of the unit in 2007 in true freshman Michael Floyd. Floyd came in highly regarded, from a system where he was well prepared, and shattered Notre Dame receiving records for a freshman. In 2007 Golden Tate had only six receptions and one touchdown. In 2008 he showed the nation that from a sheer talent standpoint he has few equals. Tate had single game performances (7-146-2 TD's against Syracuse, 6-177-3 TD's against Hawaii) that beat the statistics he put up his entire freshman year.
There were times during this season that the Notre Dame wide receivers simply dominated, often times with two players going off in the same game. Against Purdue we saw Floyd go for 100 yards but also saw Golden Tate (5-64-1 TD) and David Grimes (4-65-1 TD) also have big games. Both Floyd and Tate also had big games together against North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and to a certain degree against Washington. The unit often got off to fast starts in games where the Irish offense clicked. By the time some of their opponents had finally figured out how to guard them it was too late (Michigan, Washington). Floyd and Tate also showed a lot of big-play ability during the season. It's obvious to everyone that these two players have the ability to run by any opponent and beat them deep. But there is more to their game. Both Floyd and Tate also made plays going over the middle where they showed toughness, they made plays on short throws (slants and screens), and proved to be dangerous in more ways than just blowing by defenders. Floyd and Tate also proved to be solid red zone threats as well, although in the future they will need to more than just fade or stop threats. Floyd, Tate, and Kamara all showed toughness after the catch.
While the 2008 season was a big year for the receiving core there were still several disappointments during the season. As a unit the Irish receivers weren't consistent enough. Once Michael Floyd took over as one of the starters he was a very consistent player until the time of his injury. Beginning with the Michigan State game Floyd had receiving games of 7, 6, 5, 6, 4, 10, and 5 catches in the games leading up to his injury. In the Washington game, where Floyd only had 4 receptions he had 107 receiving yards. So Floyd showed excellent consistency once he became a starter. The same can't be said for the other two receivers who played a lot (Tate and Grimes). At times, especially when he wasn't used a lot early, Tate would tend to disappear. He finished the regular season on a bit of a down note by surrounding the big Syracuse with a down game against Boston College, zero catches against Navy, and he was a non-factor against Southern Cal. The same is said for David Grimes, who battled injuries for much of the season. Duval Kamara never emerged like he should have. He's too big and too talented to not have been more productive. Over the second half of the season as a unit, the Irish receivers struggled to consistently get open. There were just too many ups and downs, which is somewhat expected by a younger group of players.
The effort in run blocking was also inconsistent. There were times where Grimes would block really hard and really well, but there were also games where his effort and execution left much to be desired. Robby Parris and Kamara both gave pretty good effort all season in the run game, as did Floyd. But Floyd wasn't consistent on his execution. Tate was the worst blocker of the unit by a lot. Tate often didn't give good effort in the run game and when he did give good effort he often failed to execute. There were a few times during the season where he would make a really good block (kick return against Hawaii) which shows me he can do it. The issue was that he didn't put as much emphasis on being a complete player as he did as being a playmaker. In order for the Irish offense to become as dangerous as it is capable of being, the receivers will have to become a much better blocking unit, and it has to start with their leading pass catcher.
Anyone who has ever read my breakdowns knows that I have been very critical of the route running and technique employed by the Irish receivers. Many have criticized me for either demanding too much, over-stating my case, and in some cases of being jealous somehow. But here I want to address this issue. Route running is a very important part of being a great wide receiver. It also can cost a football team games. I'll give you three examples of route running costing the Irish games, or at least chances to move the chains to go down and win games late.
The first example is from the North Carolina game. To begin the 4th quarter, the Irish were now trailing the Tar Heels 29-24. The Irish offense had marched the ball down to the UNC 27-yard line and faced a 3rd and 7 situation. Grimes ran a short in-route that fell incomplete thanks to tight coverage. On 4th down and 7, the Irish ran a similar play and Grimes caught the ball for a 4-yard gain. but three yards short of the 1st down. Here's the thing, if Grimes comes off the line hard and runs a sharp route, the DB would have had to sink or at least freeze which would have given Grimes enough room to at least make a catch for 4-5 yards. He didn't, so the DB was able to break on the ball. Making the 3rd down catch means the short 4th down catch moves the chains and puts the Irish in a 1st down situation inside the 20-yard line. That was huge.
The second example was on a very similar play, if not the same play. The Irish were tied in OT with Pittsburgh at 33-33. They faced a 3rd and 4 situation at the Pitt 19-yard line. Tate came off the ball slower, ran a weak route with a weak cut, and the DB broke on the ball and prevented the Irish from converting on 3rd down. If Tate runs the route properly he picks up the 1st down inside the 15 yard line. Instead the Irish failed to convert and Brandon Walker missed a 38 yard field goal. We all know what happened next.
The final example was against Syracuse. Tate did have a great game against Syracuse, but when I broke the game down I saw that he put up great numbers because Syracuse didn't have a single defender who had half the talent that Tate possesses. Tate's lack of route running ability really hurt the Irish in this game. Here's a prime example. Late in the 3rd quarter Tate caught a touchdown pass to put the Irish up 20-10. After a Syracuse fumble was returned by Toryan Smith and then Gary Gray inside the Syracuse 5-yard line, a Walker field goal put the Irish up 23-10. The Irish would go on to lose 24-23. But a play happened before those two scores that cost the Irish seven points. A great defensive stand and a blocked punt gave the Irish the ball at the Syracuse 21-yard line. Three Armando Allen rushes got the Irish the football at the 8-yard line. On 2nd and goal, the Irish ran a fade route to Golden Tate. Instead of running a solid goal-line route, Tate simply runs to the outside, something I've criticized all season. This allowed the CB to easily read Tate's route and ride him outside. Clausen made a great throw and Tate made a great catch for what seemed to be a touchdown. Reviews showed that Tate's foot was out of bounds. Why was he out of bounds? He ran a poor route. If Tate makes any kind of move at the line and is firm on the route like he should be taught, he has the room needed and comes down with the catch. He didn't, and the Irish ended up missing the field goal on the drive. Those seven points would have put Notre Dame up 20-10 early in the 3rd quarter, and if they still got the points they would end up scoring they win.
Those are three games the Irish could and should have won. There were many, many factors as to why the Irish lost those games. No one player or unit was responsible for those losses. In fact against North Carolina, if the receivers didn't play great, the Irish wouldn't have even been close. But the fact is that there is a problem with the Irish receivers that continues to cost them even more chances to make plays, and in some situations those issues have cost the Irish first downs and points in games where the Irish would end up losing close games. That's unacceptable and something Coach Rob Ianello absolutely needs to learn and correct heading into the 2009 season.
Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Duval Kamara all have outstanding talent. I know many are down on Kamara, but I still believe in his ability. It's up to the coaches to be sure that these players are able to maximize their talents in the coming years, something we did not see this season. The results were great, but could have been so much better, and if Notre Dame wants to become a truly elite offense the wide receivers will have to learn to combine their superior athletic skills with smart, fundamentally sound, and well-coached football.
There were times this year when watching Golden Tate really frustrated me. There were times where it seemed he wasn't giving his best effort, especially if he wasn't involved early in the game. There were times where his blocking and route running would make me scream at my television, well not actually scream, but I wanted to. But there were also a lot of other times where watching Golden Tate was just a lot of fun. It's obvious that Tate loves to play the game of football and he plays the game with a lot of swagger. There's also no questioning of the young man's talent. He is by no means a product of a system, he's the product of his immense ability. The 5'11 Tate is a big time playmaker. On the season he had 15 receptions of 30+ yards. Tate also had 5 receptions of 45+ yards. Six of his 10 touchdowns were 30+ yards. Despite the fact he still basically only runs a couple routes consistently teams just couldn't guard him.
What I love is that Golden Tate is still very far away from being the kind of player he is capable of becoming. Tate is more than a one-trick pony when it comes to his skill set. Tate shows tremendous concentration in traffic. He caught man balls on deep balls, slants, and in routes where defenders had him covered well, several of those catches were in between multiple defenders. He's a tough kid who shows no fear working on any part of the field. That's not a common thing for a speed player who is on the shorter side. When the ball is up in the air he shows great focus and has tremendous leaping ability, often catching the football at or near the top of his jump. Tate obviously wants to catch the football, a lot, and doesn't care where you throw it to him as long as you throw it to him. When he's inspired, Tate also shows a willingness to fire off the ball and attack defenders in the run game.
The issue with Tate is consistency and attitude. Allow me to elaborate on the attitude comments. By no means am I saying that Golden Tate has a bad attitude. I don't believe that. But I do believe that the attitude Tate has can get him in trouble. Not only with his comments off the field but the manner in which he plays the game. I believe Tate wants to be great and I truly believe that he doesn't think anyone can truly cover him. The problem is Tate must learn that to be great requires much more than just ability, especially for a shorter player. Being great requires attention to the little details like route running, understanding the opponents defense, blocking hard all the time, and staying mentally in the game even if balls aren't coming to him early. He talked this season about being a better route runner but I never saw it. He'll be a big-time playmaker who has some huge games but also have some games where he isn't much of a factor.
If Golden Tate is taught the game properly, takes that coaching, and can apply it consistently week in and week out, he will go down as one of the truly great players at Notre Dame. If he doesn't, he'll be a highly productive player but always be a guy who never quite maxes out his ability. Tate struggles to run good routes. The best route he ran all season was on a go route against Hawaii, and it resulted in a 69-yard touchdown reception. But those instances are few and far between. Tate needs to learn how to consistently fire off the ball and use his speed to his advantage. It seems that at times it takes Tate too much time to really get going.
Tate also must learn how to attack a defender. More often than not, Tate just runs in the direction of where his route will end up, rather than attempting to maneuver the defender in order to gain separation. An example would be on his slant routes. Often times defenders are either head up or outside of Tate. If he runs his route properly and widens the defender, eats up the cushion of the defender, then breaks sharply inside, Tate would have chances to catch the ball on the run with separation. But the way he runs his routes now, he catches the ball with a defender tight on him and in order to make a big play, Tate must break the tackle and then run. He did that against Michigan, but his big plays on slant routes were rare. Tate also makes many of his cuts far too early and often times is too erect when he makes his cuts which forces him to use too many steps. By lifting up and becoming erect, he also gives away his cuts which allow defenders to close on him far too early. He just doesn't gain the kind of separation that someone with his speed and athletic ability should gain.
One of the best things about the combination of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd is how different their style of play is. They play off of each other. In many ways where Tate has a weakness, Floyd is strong. But both players are big time playmakers, and like Tate, Floyd is also a player who can beat teams deep, make plays after the catch, and is more than willing to go over the middle and catch the ball in traffic.
Tate was the biggest playmaker, but Floyd was by far the most consistent receiver for the Irish during the 2008 season. Beginning with the Michigan State game and ending with the Boston College game, Floyd averaged 7 catches for 96 yards per game, with six touchdowns. His lowest yardage game was 69 against Boston College, and his lowest catch total was 4 against Washington (with 107 yards and a TD).
Floyd's first career catch was a 22-yard touchdown reception to tie up the San Diego State game. This clutch reception was a prelude to the type of season Floyd would have. When the schedule began to toughen up, Floyd's play got better. Despite a costly fumble, Floyd played very well against Michigan State. He had a huge game against North Carolina, and went for 10 catches and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh.
When Floyd was starting and healthy, you knew what to expect from him, which for any quarterback is a comforting feeling. Floyd also showed diversity in how he can attack opponents. He showed the ability to run by defenders, quieting one of the criticisms of his game coming into his freshman season. He showed the ability to work the middle of the field and be a chain mover. He showed the ability to make tough catches in traffic. He also showed the ability to make big plays after the catch, as we saw against Washington. Floyd also drew several pass interference penalties that set up touchdowns for the Irish, as well as being their best red-zone weapon.
For a freshman, Michael Floyd shows a solid understanding of how to run routes and plays the game with relatively solid fundamentals. He was the Irish' most fundamentally sound player, and this was as a freshman. It's a credit to Floyd, but also somewhat of an indictment of the rest of the group. Floyd also shows a good understanding of how to get open that is rare in a freshman.
There is much more to Floyd's game than just solid fundamentals, smarts, and excellent instincts. Floyd also is a very good athlete. As mentioned earlier, one knock of Floyd coming into his freshman season was that he wasn't as athletically gifted as other freshman standouts such as Julio Jones and A.J. Green. By the end of the Stanford game, those criticisms ceased, or should have ceased. Floyd showed the speed to run by defenders and make plays downfield. Not only did he make big plays downfield against MSU, Purdue, Stanford, and North Carolina, but Floyd also used his speed against Michigan to beat Donovan Warren and draw a pass interference penalty that set up Golden Tate's long touchdown on the following play.
Floyd also showed excellent leaping ability to go along with great ball skills, excellent hands, and outstanding concentration. We also saw Floyd's ability to make plays after the catch, although I'd love to see the Irish coaches find more ways to get Floyd the ball in space and allow him to make more plays after the catch, whether it be lining him up at different positions, running screens to him (inside and outside), using motions to get him moving, or designing more schemes where both Floyd and Tate are able to catch the ball on the run on routes other than fades.
Floyd still needs work with his technique. His back routes (comebacks and in routes) are too choppy. Like Tate, Floyd tends to lift up as he gets to the top of his route, which is a giveaway to the defense. This also forces him to take extra footwork and where his choppiness comes from. He will need to learn to drive through the top of the route and sink his hips when he gets to his cutting point. This will allow him to sell the deeper route much better but also allow him to stop more suddenly and efficiently.
Floyd shows good effort in the run game (usually), but has a lot to learn as a blocker. First of all, Floyd doesn't take good angles to defenders. He'll need to learn when to go high on a defender, when to go low, when to try to force the defender to go over top, when to go underneath, and once he's engaged with a defender he needs to learn how to drive the defender away once the defender commits to a side. He also needs to move his feet better in the run game. These are things Tate must also learn, but Tate must first learn to give better effort, whereas Floyd gives the effort, he just needs a lot of refinement.
Floyd's freshman season was a huge success and his future is very bright. He is the best overall receiver on this football team already, and if he is able to stay healthy, stay hungry, and continue to develop he will have a dominant career at Notre Dame.
If you look at the entire 2008 season for David Grimes, there are many positives but also a number of negatives for the senior captain. It was quite an up and down season for Grimes.
First and foremost I felt that Grimes showed toughness and leadership during his senior season which was important to me. I felt that his leadership helped Golden Tate and Michael Floyd tremendously. So whatever else happened on the field, the fact Grimes displayed the character and leadership we saw helped the Irish win football games.
On the field the results weren't as glowing. As I mentioned, Grimes production, and at times his execution and effort, was just too inconsistent. Throughout most of the season Grimes blocked very well, but there would be games where his effort just didn't seem to be there. It makes me wonder if he was battling injuries during that time, because Grimes isn't a lazy player and it wasn't his usual performance.
Grimes made some huge catches and some big plays for the Irish (4th down TD reception against Purdue, excellent TD catch against Hawaii, clinching TD reception against San Diego State). At other times, he would drop easy passes in key situations or run a really poor route. One example is the Syracuse game. The Irish were up 20-10 and on the verge of putting the game away. The Irish throw Grimes a pass on 3rd and goal from the Syracuse 5-yard line. Grimes ran a slow route, used awful technique, and the ball almost got intercepted. The Irish settled for a field goal and we all know they ended up losing the game 24-23. A touchdown in that situation puts the game away. Running a good route doesn't ensure a touchdown for the Irish, but it sure would have increased their chances. The loss wasn't on Grimes by any means, but it is an example of his inconsistent play. A poor route also cost him a chance to move the chains for the Irish on a key 2nd half drive against North Carolina. In fact he ran the same poor route on back to back plays.
What hurt Grimes late in the year was not only the injuries he had to tough through, but he was also put in a bad spot. When Floyd went down with the knee injury against Navy, the Irish coaches were forced to rearrange their WR unit. Instead of simply inserting Duval Kamara and/or Robby Parris into Floyd's spot, the Irish coaches inexplicably decided to move Grimes into Floyd's spot and put Kamara and Parris in the slot. Grimes struggled quite a bit on the outside and just didn't have the talent or size to make plays on the perimeter. On a play where Floyd or Kamara has a chance to make a catch, or at least knock the ball down, Grimes gives a good effort but his 5'9 body prevented him from making a play on the ball and it resulted in a USC interception relatively early in the game. Grimes just couldn't get open consistently from the outside and that played a part in his inconsistency.
Despite having an up-and-down senior season, there is no doubt that David Grimes career at Notre Dame was an absolute success. Grimes came into Notre Dame as a three-star afterthought. He was overshadowed by the much more highly regarded D.J. Hord. But it was Grimes who ended up becoming a player at Notre Dame. He was a three-year starter and a team captain. Grimes finished his Notre Dame career with 90 receptions for 900 yards and 7 touchdowns. Combine that with the leadership and toughness he showed during his final two seasons, and I can say without hesitation that David Grimes was able to maximize his ability and produce far beyond what I ever thought he was capable of accomplishing as a football player. I consider that an absolute success.
After a relatively successful freshman campaign, I had high hopes for Duval Kamara.
In my opinion there is no arguing that Kamara is a very talented young football player. The problem is that up to this point in his career, Kamara has not been able to turn that talent into consistent production. Kamara reportedly came to fall camp out of shape and was forced to wear a jersey with the No. 60 until he met the required weight limits. This shows me that Kamara still has much to learn on what it takes to be a good college football player, which he has the talent to become.
While his statistics regressed, I don't believe that Kamara regressed as a player. To me, when I watched him play, he showed me he was exactly the same player he was in 2007. He didn't progress at all. That lies first and foremost on his shoulders, but also some of the blame must be put on his position coach, who failed to help Kamara better his skills, which was a theme with several of the returning receivers.
There were times where we saw flashes of the potential Kamara has with his touchdown reception against Michigan as well as some of the tough catches he made against North Carolina. By the end of the season, Kamara had developed into an effective blocker as well. That is the one thing that I loved about Kamara's otherwise disappointing sophomore season. Despite his early struggles (dropped passes, poor routes, increasingly less playing time and passes thrown his way), Kamara never seemed to pout. He continued to play hard, improved as a blocker throughout the season, and in the one game where he was called upon to make plays (North Carolina), he did. Kamara also made some tough runs on screen passes and quick passes late in the season. So there is still plenty of hope with Kamara moving forward.
In order to become the player he is capable of, Kamara must learn from his 2008 mistakes. Far too often this season, Kamara tried to catch the ball with his body instead of using his hands. This is not just a technique issue, this also shows a lack of confidence in his own abilities. These body catches resulted in drops, one at least resulted in an interception. Kamara must learn to use his hands much better and also has to learn to explode up to the football. We saw during the 2008 season that he still jumps and fades away from the football and the defender. Kamara also showed little understanding of how to run a route and how to attack a defense. Unless he improves in all these areas, he'll always be known as a player with a lot of potential, but never be known as a player with a lot of production. I'm in the minority here, but I truly believe that if Duval Kamara maxes out, he has just as much ability as any receiver on this football team.
Robby Parris is another player whose production dropped off significantly during the 2008 season. Unlike Duval Kamara, Parris' lack of production had little to do with him. When he was given time, Parris showed good toughness as a blocker (which was an improvement over 2007) and showed the same athletic skills that allowed him to catch 29 passes for 361 yards as a sophomore. What changed for Parris is that he simply got beat out by more athletic players. What I'd like to see the Irish coaches do is find a way to get Parris involved in the offense more. I realize that Tate and Floyd are highly productive, but players like Parris also have a skill set that in the right situation can help this offense out quite a bit. They need to find spots and situations where Parris is able to use his route running ability, hands, and size to make plays. This only helps the offense and it takes pressure off of Tate and Floyd. During this season, if Tate and Floyd weren't producing, no one was. It's up to the coaches to be able to get the right mix with all the wideouts in order to get more players involved, so if one player is off, gets hurt, or struggles, another is more than ready to emerge.
The present group of wideouts was very exciting for Notre Dame. Michael Floyd and Golden Tate were a fun pair of receivers to watch during the 2008 season. Both of their futures are quite bright. I also believe that sophomore Duval Kamara also has a bright future for the Irish, despite a sophomore slump. Just with those players alone, there is much excitement and hope for the future of the Irish offense.
But fortunately for Notre Dame and its fan base, it doesn't stop there. Deion Walker and John Goodman both red-shirted during the 2008 season. Despite immense talent, both players really needed a year to get bigger, stronger, learn the wide receiver position, and learn the Irish system. Unlike Michael Floyd, neither Walker or Goodman were pure receivers in college. Goodman played quarterback almost exclusively as a senior in high school, and Walker also played the position quite a bit. Both players also came from smaller schools and didn't have the ready-made skill set that Floyd possessed. But both players also have a ton of athletic ability and were heavily recruited and highly regarded, especially Walker. Walker and Goodman are very similar athletically. Both players have good height (around 6'3), both have outstanding foot quickness, both have excellent speed, and both also show very good hands. Walker also has tremendous body control and ball skills to make plays on bad throws and jump balls. Goodman has a bit more after-the-catch playmaking ability. Both are excellent prospects.
While covering the 2008 Army All-American game, I had a chance to watch John Goodman perform beside many of the nation's best. Goodman not only held his own, but some who were at the game, including myself, felt that after Floyd, DeAndre Brown, and Dan Buckner, no receiver at the event was better than Goodman. Considering highly regarded players such as DeVier Posey (Ohio State), Brice Butler (USC), and Jameel Owens (Oklahoma) were also at the event, that is quite a statement. It would not surprise me if both Walker and Goodman end up as starters and highly productive players in their careers. Both players need to continue to develop and stay patient, as their time will certainly come.
The Irish have another commitment from one of the nation's top receivers in Inglewood, CA standout Shaquelle Evans. Evans is another four-star standout who has decided to join the Irish fold. If he signs his letter-of-intent with Notre Dame, he will bring a unique skill set to the mix. Evans has a bit of all the skill sets the previous incoming class had. He has some of the strength that Floyd shows, he shows similar speed and quickness that Walker and Goodman possess, and he has very good hands when he uses them properly. But Evans shows much better route running ability as a high school player than either Walker or Goodman possess. Like Walker and Goodman, Evans will have to work hard, be patient, and be ready when his time comes, which it will.
Nyshier Oliver also is a current Notre Dame commit whose future might be at wide receiver. Unlike Evans, Oliver's skill set is drastically different than the players on the previous group of signees. Oliver is much closer to Golden Tate when it comes to his athletic skill set. Oliver has much less experience as a receiver than Tate had, but he has a similar size and skill set. Oliver is a versatile player who I can envision returning kicks, lining up at receiver, and getting handoffs out of the backfield.
Needless to say, the future of the Notre Dame receiving core is very, very bright. The current producers, combined with the potential of the remaining players, gives Notre Dame the talent to match any team in the country. It is up to the individual players to put in the work, adjust their attitudes where needed, to refine their skills, and for the coaches to develop these young men. If those things happen I don't think you'll see a more talented or deeper receiving unit in the country.