– Irish head coach Charlie Weis, regarding the adjustment and early impact of freshman LB Manti Te'o
The collective necks Coach Weis alluded to above belonged to a relatively young and still-developing group of Irish linebackers. But it might also apply to the deep, established, and previously preserved pecking-order at wide receiver this fall.
The dawn of the Weis era signaled an abrupt end to many long-standing receiving records at the University (not to mention the addition of a few sobering rushing statistics, but those might not be relevant here).
Since Weis' first season in 2005, Irish wide receivers have set single-season and career records for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns as well as single-game marks for receptions (14) and touchdowns (5) – Jim Seymour's 276-yard single-game mark set in 1966 vs. Purdue has yet to be challenged.
Moreover, two freshmen, Duval Kamara in 2007 and Michael Floyd in 2008, both eclipsed previous first-year standards at the position, with Floyd now owning class records for receptions, touchdowns, and yards receiving.
Freshman wide receiver Shaquelle Evans won't break Michael Floyd's records this season (nor should any incoming freshman over the next three seasons with the Irish suddenly stacked at the wide receiver position), but word of his quick assimilation to the position and possible move up the depth chart has fans, media, and his head coach wondering about the possibilities this fall.
"First of all he runs pretty polished routes and he's got good speed," said Weis of Evans prior to Freshmen Media Day. "His hands are solid, and once again with him, depending on how the whole wide receiver situation plays out…we all know that Michael (Floyd) and Golden (Tate) are going to be on the field a bunch – they're not going to be out there every play – but they're going to on the field a bunch.
"(So) does he end up as a backup to Golden because he has a similar type of speed? Or do you put him opposite of Golden, giving us speed on both sides and actually put him out there, rotate him in with that three-wide group where if somebody wants to roll (coverage) to one side they have to worry about speed on the other side."
That's not exactly the industry-standard "we'll see if he can ‘get on the bus,'" rhetoric affiliated with most freshmen making early camp noise.
Because of the team's no-doubt, first-unit tandem in the junior Tate and the sophomore Floyd (106 receptions, 18 total touchdowns, 1,799 yards receiving last season), Evans' likely statistical contributions should be outweighed by the ancillary impact could bring to the field.
In fact, he's looking to join a handful of recent freshmen wideouts to make waves in a given season's early depth chart, and subsequently earn his first-year stripes as a valuable third or fourth wide receiver option:
- Lake Dawson – 1990: The freshman from Federal Way, Washington was singled out by his coach, Hall of Famer Lou Holtz, for making one spectacular catch after another in fall camp. Dawson was further lauded for his approach and hustle as a player advanced at his age in terms of the assimilation to the rigors of the position at the collegiate level.
Dawson made a Week One impact under the lights vs. No. 4 Michigan with a 3rd-and-15, 45-yard third quarter reception (off the hands of flanker Rocket Ismail) at a time when ND trailed the Wolverines 24-14. (The top-ranked Irish prevailed, 28-24).
Dawson finished with just six receptions on the season (for a run-oriented offense) while Ismail, junior Tony Smith, and junior Adrian Jarrell performed most of the heavy lifting on the outside.
- Derrick Mayes – 1992: Mayes' first three career receptions were good for touchdowns (38 yards at Michigan State and two scores from 31-and-69-yards out at Pittsburgh). The future record-setter finished with 10 catches for 272 yards and those three touchdowns for a 10-1-1 Irish team that boasted the nation's third-ranked offense (and third-ranked rushing attack).
- Maurice Stovall – 2002: Stovall's frame and athleticism made him a natural for early playing time on an offense that featured former option-quarterback Arnaz Battle as its top wideout (Battle, of course, developed into a weapon for the Irish and remains a viable starter at the position for the San Francisco 49ers) and veteran Omar Jenkins as its second option.
Stovall first announced his presence to the college-football world with a late-September Sports Illustrated cover shot – courtesy of a first-half touchdown catch at Michigan State. (The SI cover included the now-infamous boast "What a Difference a Coach Makes" as Tyrone Willingham made an early mark on the program following the five-year Bob Davie era).
Stovall finished with 18 receptions for 312 yards and three touchdowns in his debut season, largely as the team's third receiving option.
Miles to GoBut before anointing any freshman as an instant impact option, it's important to note the myriad adjustments the individual faces during the biggest adjustment period of his life. In Evans' case, the 18-year-old is a mere 2,100 miles away from home and family.
"It's been going well," said Evans of his move from Southern California to Northern Indiana. "When I first got here I was a little homesick but as time went on I started meeting people; meeting guys on the team and the older guys and it got easier for me."
Another aspect of college life – not one you and I probably faced, but one essential to the evolution of a wide receiver – the act of breaking free from press coverage, has likewise come naturally to the precocious freshman.
"It's harder to get off the line vs. (college) DBs. They're quicker, they're more active and you have to find different ways to beat them. At the high school level it was much easier but now I've adjusted pretty well."
According to Michael Floyd, a member of the 2009 squad's Leadership Committee, Evans' ability to get off the line is what separates him from other young receivers.
"…Shaq is taller than Roby (fellow freshman wideout Roby Toma); he has speed, but what I like about him is he can get off press (coverage) really well.
"But like any freshman and like when I came in here, it's a totally different thing from high school so there are a lot of things to work on but we all get each other right."
Evans', like most of the 18-player freshmen class, admitted that the mental aspect of the college game was at least as taxing as any necessary physical adjustment or tweak of individual technique.
"I was scared when I was first getting ready to come out here," explained Evans. "I was worried about learning the offense but as I became confident I picked it up pretty quickly; quicker than expected.
"I was afraid I wouldn't be able to learn (the offense) so I wanted to get a head start," continued Evans when asked about the game film he solicited and received from Irish assistants Rob Ianello and Brian Polian. "They sent me some stuff and it helped me... it gave me a foundation so it was easier when I got out here."
Finding – and Understanding – the Right CombinationLike most of the receivers IrishEyes spoke with during training camp, Evans has moved around quite a bit in the multiple formations of Weis' offense. The cross-training is an attempt not only to slot each individual correctly, but to find the best grouping of players for particular formations as well.
"(The coaches) are working everyone around – giving everyone a chance to find out where we fit in the best. I've been doing the best I can everywhere they put me."
"(The hardest adjustment has been) route combinations. It's (the call in the huddle) one word and you have to remember what (responsibility) you have on those combinations. The formations are pretty easy for me but the combinations are (tougher)."
Will Evans make a crucial early-season play similar to that of Lake Dawson in the 1990 opener? Or catch a significant September touchdown as did Maurice Stovall during the wild-ride of ‘02? Can he become a big play threat in a limited role as was Derrick Mayes for the powerful '92 squad; or even forge his way to a weekly contribution such as his teammate Duval Kamara in '07?
Rather than projecting numbers on a player yet to take a college snap, we'd do well to remember that patience is a virtue, and that Evans, thanks to a well-stocked receiver unit, has time to grow into his role as a playmaker at this level. And that Evans' endeavors removed from the football field are as important as his purported contributions during the dog days of August camp.
"Getting to know my freshmen class; getting tight with them and learning from the older players," answered Evans when asked about what he's enjoyed most about Notre Dame thus far.
"Also finding out that I could pass a college class; I came here scared of the classes and I passed both (calculus and a writing class)."
Actually with that good news in tow maybe a touchdown or two should be Evans' focus for the coming weeks. After all, differential equations likely offer greater resistance for an 18-year old than anything waiting in the Wolf Pack or Wolverines secondary.