When the 2008 season started, wide receiver was probably the biggest question mark that Notre Dame had amongst its skill positions. But when the jury came back, the wide receiver corps made more plays than just about anybody.
The wideouts will be counted on to make even more plays and head into the 2009 season with one of the top receiving duos in the country in junior-to-be Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, who set all of the Notre Dame records for freshman pass-catchers last season.
Floyd exceeded very high expectations, but is already putting his stellar rookie season behind him.
"This year is a new year for me and I just start over," he said.
The Minnesota native, who missed the last two-plus games of the regular season with a knee injury, has worked hard in the offseason to make improvements on the field and off the field.
"Just getting stronger and faster," Floyd said of his offseason goals. "I was kind of disappointed in missing a couple of games."
Wide receivers coach Rob Ianello has seen Floyd gain a better understanding of the offense in the classroom.
"When you can know the correction almost before I'm about to make it, at least part of that correction, then I think we're making progress and you're making progress in your game," Ianello said.
Tate, who is starting in left field and hitting leadoff for the Irish baseball team, has only been able to attend four of Notre Dame's 12 spring practices so far, but he will be available for the Blue-Gold Game.
"He's Mr. Monday," Ianello said of Tate, who can make every Monday practice since it is his off day for baseball.
Head coach Charlie Weis has seen some rust from Tate on the gridiron, but not much.
"He is a little off in his route-running but he‘s still a dynamic speed guy," Weis said. "He‘s catching the ball great. He's getting open, but I think the one thing he would admit is that he is lacking a little stamina right now."
Ianello has wasted none of the time that he's had with last year's top receiver, using Tate's limited one-on-one periods to work on in routes that will be especially effective against Cover Two. Ianello believes that, like Floyd, Tate has yet to approach his potential.
"He still has plenty of jump left in him," Ianello said of Tate.
CHARTING DEPTH: The Irish have plenty of talent behind their top two with a trio of experienced upperclassmen and a pair of sophomores-to-be that are ready to make an impact after sitting out last season.
"Like I've always said, you build your depth from the bottom up," Ianello said. "We're starting to build some depth, build some competition and right now I think it's very positive."
For seniors George West and Robby Parris, 2009 will be their final chance to make a meaningful impact and while junior-to-be Duval Kamara has two years of eligibility left, he is fighting to stay in the rotation after being passed by Tate and Floyd.
"Did he get set back or did some other guys play well?" Ianello asked rhetorically of Kamara. "I don't know and I'm not really worried about putting my finger on that as opposed to do what we have to do now to improve to be a high-level player.
"He's got things in his fundamental game - his route-running, just everyday play - that he's got to work on to be a guy that can be counted on all of the time, just like we all are trying to be counted on. He knows exactly what that is and he's working at that."
Kamara, who had all of the freshman receiving records before Floyd arrived, no longer has to deal with the pressure of trying to be the go-to-guy.
"He's moved to try to compete to be in the slot," Ianello said. "Having a big body in the slot would be a positive thing for us if it worked out for him."
"I'm just trying to get in that top three behind Golden and Mike, maybe even in front. There's no reason I couldn't I've just got to keep working hard," said Goodman, who has the confidence to feel unstoppable.
Walker has similar aspirations.
"I'm setting my sights for the top," he said. "I want to be the go-to-guy and that's my job, to push whoever is at that position to want to stay there."
Tate has enough respect for the youngsters to feel uncomfortable about the security of his spot while he is playing baseball.
"I'm not taking it for granted," he said. "I'm coming out working hard and trying to get better."
Everybody agrees that the competition is a good thing.
"I think anytime you have guys competing and guys trying to get better and multiple guys trying to get better, I think it keeps an edge on everybody and it's working toward improvement," Ianello said. "You know that you have somebody coming behind you so you need to step up and improve."
The competition is definitely healthy.
"I'd say as a group, the receivers are as close as anybody else on the team. We're always hanging out together, we screw around together and we also know when it's time to work," Parris said. "We're all good friends so it makes it easier during practice."
The receivers look out for each other too, especially the youngsters.
"John Goodman and Deion didn't really play last year, so just helping them out with stuff they need to know is something that I'm doing right now," Floyd said.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR: Weis made it clear that Parris needed to have a strong spring in order to avoid being passed by even more underclassmen and ending his career in the background.
Parris has impressed.
"Everyone comes in here expecting to be a four-year starter, and when it doesn't play out that way, there are only two ways you see players react," Weis said. "Guys that accept their role and go through the motions, and guys who do all they can waiting their turn. When that moment comes, what do you do with it?
"Robby needed to have a good camp with all the flux we've had at receiver, and he has."
While the race is on for the third wide receiver position, if Jimmy Clausen and the passing game continue to grow, it may be more important to get in that top four.
INJURIES, ETC.: Floyd, Kamara and Walker have all missed time with nagging leg injuries. Floyd and Kamara have returned to close to full speed and Weis did not sound too concerned about Walker's injury.
Meanwhile, West and classmate Barry Gallup Jr. have not dressed in full pads all spring. West has gone through all of the practices, but Gallup has not participated in any.