Over the next 11 days, Irish Eyes will offer its Pre-Camp Unit Rankings for the team's 11 major position units (Defensive Backs; Defensive Linemen; Field Goal Unit; Kick/Punt Coverage; Kick/Punt Return; Linebackers; Offensive Linemen; Running Backs; Quarterbacks; Tight Ends; and Wide Receivers).
These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season. Instead of the usual countdown format, we've decided to begin on a positive note.
Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: The team's No. 1 overall position group.
Pre-season National Acclaim: No. 1 ranked WR unit in the nation by Phil Steele's College Preview. Steele ranked Golden Tate as the nation's No. 6 (draft eligible) receiver and Duval Kamara as its 22nd (sophomore Michael Floyd is not draft eligible). Additionally, the Sporting News listed Tate as a third team All-America candidate while Lindy's ranked Tate as its No. 15 receiver and Floyd as its No. 20, helping the Irish receiving corps earn the magazine's No. 4 unit ranking. Finally, Athlon Sports ranked the Irish receivers as the No. 2 group nationwide.
Probable Starters: In this case, "probable" is inaccurate. Barring injury or the second coming of Tim Brown on campus, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd will start in tandem for the Irish for the next two seasons.
Spot Starter: Duval Kamara as the team's 3rd receiver. A role that garner's ample playing time and occasional starting assignments in Coach Weis' passing attack.
Proven Depth: Kamara boasts 14 starts, including nine in 2008. Senior Robby Parris started four games in 2007 while classmate George West started seven contests in '07. Parris emerged as the team's No. 4 WR after spring practice while West fell behind sophomores John Goodman and Deion Walker after working on a limited basis for much of the spring session due to injury. West accumulated just over four minutes of playing time (from scrimmage) last season, catching one pass for six yards (with an additional 35 special teams appearances). He caught 21 passes as a sophomore in '07. Due to injury and the emergence of younger stars, Parris' saw his '08 reception total drop significantly as well, catching just six balls after finishing third on the Irish in total receptions in '07 with 29.
Potential Breakout Players: Sophomores John Goodman and Deion Walker. Both were withheld from game action last season and both could push for the fourth receiver role this year (the role showcases one of the main camp battles to watch in August as Goodman and Walker have the talent to unseat Parris). Freshman Shaquelle Evans, with his innate ability to earn yards after the catch, could pose an August/September challenge for a spot in the rotation as well.
Additional Depth: Freshman Roby Toma. Quick, coordinated, and a possible steal as a slot receiver recruit…for 2011. At approximately 5'9" 160 pounds, the undersized Toma will likely be withheld from game action this season.
Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: Exactly where they're slotted now, No. 1.
Lowest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 3 (explanation in our next two position previews).
Strengths: It starts at the top with what I believe will be the nation's No. 1 receiving duo in 2009, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. The tandem has the luxury of feeding off each other each week and their presence opens up the passing game for the team's third and fourth receivers as well as TE Kyle Rudolph. Tate ranks among the nation's best with the ball in the air and is underrated (and underutilized) in the slant game. Floyd could rank among the school's greatest pass catchers by the end of his junior season. He rivals Tate catching the ball at its highest point and should dominate the opposition as a chain-mover inside the hash marks this season. Both are accomplished red zone players and a threat to score from anywhere on the field…a rarity, especially in tandem, in college football.
Kamara is the unit's X-factor, a player that could rank anywhere from the nation's most imposing No. 3 receiver to a tail-end of the (six-man) rotation presence at season's end. Parris possesses a wide range of production potential as well. The senior has produced two games in excess of 90 yards receiving (vs. Purdue and Boston College in '07) and, if healthy, has a chance to provide a savvy 6'3" presence for Clausen in key third-down situations.
Depth is not a problem, with Kamara and the senior duo (Parris/West) possessing an aggregate 25 starts, as well as an intriguing potential in a trio of receivers (Goodman/Walker/Evans) with 12-13 seasons of experience awaiting them. The latter trio could earn the fourth, fifth, and six spots in the game day rotation if they can show an early grasp of the offense and consistent hands in fall camp.
Duval Kamara is a solid, potentially tremendous downfield blocker and has shown the desire to succeed near the line of scrimmage (blocking for the Irish running game) as well. But none of the remaining Irish receivers has proven to be an effective downfield or in-line blocker to date. West, who won't see much action from scrimmage, has shown the tendency to mix it up as a blocker much more so than has Tate, while both Goodman and Walker will throw their first college blocks this season. It appears Floyd could develop the skill (downfield) with his frame and willingness to improve every aspect of his craft. Tate's main weakness as a player, in my estimation, has been his obvious indifference as a downfield blocker and hesitance to seal defenders (even when part of his assignment) outside the tackle box.
I'm aware of the theory that the Irish receivers' routes lack polish. It's a relevant opinion to mention, I just happen to disagree with the assertion heading into 2009, as I believe it was largely an issue of inexperience (Tate and Floyd combined for zero career starts entering last season. Tate, additionally, was targeted for just 11 passes as a freshman in 2007) rather than coaching and player development (regarding the duo).
Kamara, of whom much is expected in '09, must work on his concentration from game-to-game as he's far too talented to display inconsistent hands, competitive desire, and, at least against Michigan State, lazy route awareness (a scenario that admittedly lends credence to those who believe the Irish receivers run sloppy routes).
Parris' has little margin for error (or additional nagging injury) as he endured a non-descript junior season after showing promise as a sophomore in '07.
Year-End Prediction and Ranking: This is the team's most valuable unit entering fall camp and could enter January as a record-setting group. While it's unrealistic to assume each of the group's three potential first-year stars (Walker/Goodman/Evans) will develop into weekly threats, and that both Kamara and Parris will overcome disappointing 2008 seasons, it's equally unreasonable to think this group won't find one major contributor to augment Tate and Floyd. A reliable third receiver transforms this unit (along with the presence of TE Kyle Rudolph) from very good/dangerous to a sure spot among the nation's best. The further emergence of a fourth option would make the Irish passing game unstoppable in '09.
I believe the Irish receiving corps will rank as the team's best unit throughout the season and among the best in the nation at season's end.