He's Not the First – Roby TomaToma emerged midway through the season after Michael Floyd and Robby Parris were lost to injury. The freshman was signaled out by former head coach Charlie Weis and by Irish defensive backs for his quickness out of breaks and for "catching everything."
At 5'9" 170, Toma could have benefited from a redshirt season but injuries and convoluted roles among the underclassmen led to just over five minutes of playing time in three separate games during the season's second half.
We Have Questions: How much more natural weight will Toma's frame allow over the next four seasons? Is he a candidate for a punt return role? Can he handle a consistent beating earning his keep between the hash marks? Are his hands as noteworthy or far above other receivers as has been reported? (He dropped one of four passes that hit his hands last year and we witnessed multiple drops in practice, though that was in one segment – anyone can have a bad drill or day). Can his ability to find an opening and make a quick cut after the catch separate him from three other receivers with three seasons of eligibility remaining (John Goodman, Shaquelle Evans, and Deion Walker)?
Hope Springs Eternal: Joe Howard, Mike Miller, Joey Getherall…each had varying degrees of fame, success, and their own contributions to the Notre Dame program. Each wide receiver stood near the 5'7" to 5'9" range and performed well for the Irish over the last three decades (though all might have been faster than Toma). Toma appears to have everything a successful collegiate receiver needs to excel with the exception of ideal size. Of course, there are plenty of 6'4" 220-pound receivers that can't play a lick.
Spring Prediction: I'm optimistic about the spring of 2011 more so than the session that will conclude this April. Toma will be a player, but I believe other Irish players will remain ahead of him in the post-spring and post-August pecking order this season. He's nonetheless intriguing in a potential punt return capacity and chain mover on 3rd and middle-yardage.
Two Down, Three to Go – Deion WalkerAfter two seasons in the program, Walker has more stars signifying his status as a former elite high school star (four) next to his name than he has receptions (one). He has one fewer recruiting star than career games played.
However, Walker also made more spectacular leaping or diving stabs of the football than any receiver not name Tate or Floyd last season…they just happened to occur on Tuesdays.
We Have Questions: Can Walker improve his technique and appreciate the exactness of his position? Can new wide receivers coach Tony Alford impart to Walker his stated coaching mantra: "make it important to you."? I've never heard his name mentioned among the roster's special teams contenders; will that apparent lack of versatility hurt his standing with the new staff?
Hope Springs Eternal: Along with Shaquelle Evans, Deion Walker is the most likely Irish player to benefit from a fresh start. Not because he fits the mold of the Kelly regime or because he failed to emerge under the previous one; but because some players need a clean slate to perform with confidence.
No longer will he be the guy that slowed on a slant route or missed an assignment when called upon, at least not on March 26 when the team puts on the pads for the first time in an effort to catch the eye of the new staff.
Spring Prediction: Talent and downfield playmaking ability will put him in the mix…August will be the proving ground for early 2010 playing time.
Thrown to the Fray – Tai-ler JonesJones produced eye-popping senior numbers (76-1,399 and 18 TD) at Gainesville HS to earn All State honors en route to a state title game finish. At 6'0" 183, the four-star receiver will have a leg up on classmates (listed) below due to January enrollment and the opportunity to grow and compete in the spring.
We Have Questions: Can he find a spot on either Irish return team? Can he crack the three-deep at a receiver spot and in turn, one that would allow for an additional move up the chart at some point in the fall? Is there one necessary skill set that will set him apart from the host of young players competing at the position? Is there a chance he looks as cool in a uniform as his father Andre Jones did for the '88 National Champs?
Hope Springs Eternal: Jones and soon-to-be classmate Austin Collinsworth are from football families. Though every freshman will experience moments of doubt and wide-eyed awe at the upperclassmen, the pair of incoming pass-catchers likely has someidea what awaits them at the next level.
Spring Prediction: Jones has an advantage over incoming freshmen Collinsworth, Jackson, and Smith due to his early enrollment, but the three (relatively) young players above him (Evans, Walker, Toma) have a decided edge in terms of football maturity and understanding what it takes to compete at the program over a 17-year old freshman. The spring semester and practice session will serve as a building block rather than proving ground for the young receiver.
Bloodlines – Austin CollinsworthThe versatile athlete played running back, wide receiver, and defensive back on the way to the Paul Hornung Award as the top football player among Kentucky preps. Helped Highlands high school secure three consecutive class 5A State titles.
We Have Questions: Where will the 6'1" 195-pound athlete find his first role? Can he beat out more than two of five competitors (two sophomores and three fellow incoming freshmen) by the time we revisit the squad at this point next season? As the son of former Cincinnati Bengals star receiver Cris Collinsworth, how acute is his understanding of the nuances of the passing game?
Hope Springs Eternal: While prospects can be downgraded prior to the ascension at any level for a relative lack of speed, I'll take quickness and instincts as a player's top attributes any time. Collinsworth possesses both. Though he'll certainly be tried at multiple positions under Kelly, I like the freshman as a future underneath receiver, working the zones of a defense and earning consistent yards after the catch for Dayne Crist and his successor.
Summer Camp Prediction: A step ahead of both Daniel Smith and Bennett Jackson (below) by the time the bullets go live, but a freshman wide receiver would have to turn heads on a daily basis at the LaBar Practice Complex to earn an early-season role for this offense next season.
Special Role? – Bennett JacksonAt 6'0" 170 pounds, Jackson is listed as a 4.4 speed merchant and the nation's 51st ranked WR prospect by Scout.com.
We Have Questions: How quickly can Jackson challenge for a role as the team's punt returner? Could he supplant Theo Riddick, a player likely headed for a larger role from scrimmage, as a kick returner option next fall? Though he appears elusive, can he break tackles at the college level? The slot receiver role isn't only about quickness; can Jackson consistently catch the ball in traffic and earn a spot from scrimmage as his career progresses?
Hope Springs Eternal: Jackson appears to set up defenders well, which will help negate the fact that his opponents will, for the first time, match his level of athleticism. That innate skill will prove more valuable than a tick or two on the stopwatch, something that has consistently raised the level of expectations of receiver recruits nationwide.
Summer Camp Prediction: Notre Dame has been average in the kick return game since the graduation of Vontez Duff in 2003. Jackson certainly has a chance to compete there and with a host of players (Goodman, Evans, Toma; fellow freshmen Lo Wood and Spencer Boyd?) for the punt return role.
Of course, it's likely he's more than two summers away from cracking the rotation in the passing game.
Local Boy Makes Good – Daniel SmithCaught 60 passes for better than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns to earn first team All State honors last fall. The four-year starter from nearby Clay High School is familiar with the campus and local passion for the school.
We Have Questions: How big can Smith get entering school at 6'4" 215? And since those measurements fit Coach Kelly's "Big Skill" requirements, will Smith audition for other roles in an effort to find the field as a freshman or sophomore? Can Smith refine his routes enough to compete for a role next spring? Can he follow in the career footsteps of ex-Irish star and oversized wide receiver Maurice Stovall, and develop into a target that uses his body (and stiff arm after the catch) to control smaller defensive backs?
Hope Springs Eternal: It's been awhile since the South Bend area produced a skill position star for its home town team (Anthony Johnson was likely the last, starring at fullback for the Irish from 1986-1989). Smith's greatest obstacle will be the adjustment from the middling (football) talent level of the South Bend area to that of what awaits him over the next 2-3 years on campus.
Summer Camp Prediction: A few highlights due to his size, athleticism, and willingness to go up and get the ball at its highest point. But Smith, along with the rest of the quartet of incoming receivers, will likely have the opportunity to grow for five years in the Notre Dame Football program.
Notes: Potential slot receiver Theo Riddick was previewed with the team's running backs. Likely 5th-year senior Barry Gallup, Jr., designated as a WR last season, will be covered in our Kick Return Unit preview.