Myriad questions remain regarding the 2009 Fighting Irish. And if you're looking to wager on the eventual winning side of various pre-season predictions, you're likely better off playing the role of devil's advocate – challenging any projection or promise coming from the mouths of Notre Dame fans…unless of course the conversation switches to the two guys generally lined up as the bookends of Charlie Weis' offensive formations.
You'll rarely read hyperbole from me regarding the Irish football team (unless we're looking back at the late 80s/early 90s in which case you'll likely see plenty), but Irish wide receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd aren't only the two best football players on campus but rather, at season's end, will be considered the best receiver tandem in the nation.
A look back before we look ahead:
2008 – By the NumbersOperating as a true freshman (Floyd) and sophomore (Tate was a neophyte at the position – a pseudo-freshman if you will – as the playmaker was targeted for just eight passes over the final seven games of his 2007 freshman season), the duo combined for 106 receptions, 1,799 yards, 18 offensive touchdowns (exactly one-half of the team's total), and 74 Irish first downs in a combined 23 games (Floyd missed nearly three full games due to injury).
The two playmakers topped the 100-yard receiving mark nine times and accounted for 34 plays from scrimmage that gained at least 20 yards. Nine of the tandem's 18 scores either tied the game or provided the Irish with a lead.
2008 – The SuperlativesYards-after-the-catch; jump balls; circus catches; red zone dominance; and individual efforts to turn minimal yardage into huge gains were par for the course in 10 of 13 games last season for Tate and Floyd. This despite a quarterback whose play declined significantly in the season's second half. Recounting either's best moment deserves (and will receive) separate columns, but outside of Derrick Mayes, can you recall a better ND receiver in jump ball situations than Tate? Speaking of Mayes, has there been a better natural receiver at such an early stage of his career than Floyd?
In 2008, Tate and Floyd emerged as two up-and-coming players for a one-dimensional offense. In 2009 the two should take a crucial collective step – joining the top tier of college athletes – two players that give the Irish a chance to dominate in at least one aspect of the game every Saturday.
2009 – Assaulting the Record BookPrevious Notre Dame receiving standards were set during eras with a heavy emphasis on the running game (either nationally, or at least in South Bend ). Tom Gatewood's 157 career catches and single-season mark of 77 grabs (set in 1970) were both bested by Jeff Samardzija (the former career mark was topped by Rhema McKnight as well) thanks to Weis' emphasis on the pass. Gatewood gave way to Derrick Mayes in 1995 for the school's career touchdown mark (19)…and both were surpassed by Samardzija and McKnight (and challenged by Maurice Stovall) due to the receivers' collective brilliance as well as the much lower rushing totals provided by the Irish offense.
Though this season's rushing attack should be appreciably better than the last two editions (the two worst in school history), the majority of yards, big plays, and touchdowns should still come courtesy the pass. If both Tate and Floyd stay healthy it's not unreasonable to project the duo will challenge new single-season standards for a tandem of receivers, including total touchdowns (27 set by McKnight and Samardzija in '06); total yards (2,398 by Shark and Stovall in '05); receptions (146 by Shark/Stovall '05); and total 100-yard receiving games (Shark/Stovall with 11 in '05).
2009 – Assaulting the (Rest of the) FieldThe one-on-one fade route, deep ball, and yes, the jump ball have been staples of Weis' offense since the wild home opener vs. Michigan State in '05. Stovall was a master of the box out jump ball that season and the downfield damage inflicted by he and Samardzija in '05 opened an array of routes underneath for five Irish targets on any given play.
Likewise, the constant fan/media lament regarding Weis' offense last season was the apparent reliance on fade routes and "jump balls." But it's reasonable to assume the prevalence of these routes was due to the inexperience of both Tate and Floyd, the team's two reliable outside threats. Though both players were successful on numerous slants, outs, and square-ins, the route variety was not at the level of the Shark/Stovall/McKnight era.
If inexperience/unfamiliarity was indeed the culprit in this perceived offensive flaw, it's reasonable to expect the '09 air attack will more closely resemble that of the ‘05/'06 squads … an all-out assault on every inch of the football field (forthcoming Tate and Floyd Player Assessments will delve into greater detail on the topic).
2009 – Meeting the ChallengeImprovement from both Tate and Floyd could place the pair in rarified air among Irish single-season tandems of the recent past. Stovall/Shark; Walton/Duff; Bettis/Brooks; Williams/Zorich; and Stonebreaker/Pritchett are but a few notable duos that set the standard at their respective positions.
The Tate/Floyd combo has a long way to go to reach that level. But with team excellence by no means guaranteed, Irish fans can nonetheless rest assured that the two guys on the outside are going to be a handful for 13 opponents in 2009.