NOTRE DAME, Ind. – There is no other position that has felt the sting of spring transfers more than wide receiver. With the departure of Davonte’ Neal and Justin Ferguson, Notre Dame assistant coach Mike Denbrock is still left with quality receivers, but the depth has been severely altered.
For Denbrock, however, he sees this as a chance for others to step up and fill the void left by Neal and Ferguson.
“We’re trying to find a way to incorporate everybody that we have available to us,” Denbrock said after practice yesterday. “We’re going to put them in different places and give some other guys some opportunities. Anytime you’re short numbers-wise you have to find them somewhere. We’re not going to shorten practice or take fewer reps, so we have to find bodies to do it.”
“We’re using running backs, tight ends - anybody we can get our hands on to try to continue to get the work that the quarterbacks need,” he continued. “It really frees up some guys for some opportunities to do some jobs that they don’t normally do. We’ll see if they can handle their new responsibilities and do a little something with it.”
The slot receiver seems to be the role most in question with many projecting Neal as the starter in 2013. Now that he’s out of the picture Denbrock predicts the work of many may make up for the production of one.
“I think it’s incredibly important to have a guy there that has the versatility to do several things,” Denbrock explained about the slot position. “He has to be physical enough to block an alley defender who could be an outside linebacker, but also be able to do some things with quickness once he gets the ball in his hands.”
“You’re going to see us as you did a year ago use a number of different guys in a number of different spots including slot,” he continued. “We’re going to tailor what we do with what the guys are good at and judge it that way as we go. We’re still really evaluating all that stuff right now. I’d say the job’s open for anybody who proves that they’ve got the ability to go in there and do something positive for our offense.”
One player who the Irish coaches feel can do many positive things for the offense is freshman CJ Prosise. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder was a safety last season and was going to work both sides of the ball until Neal’s transfer may have forced him into an “offense only” performer.
“We’re working every day with him (Prosise) at receiver,” Denbrock stated. “He has really been a bright spot - the last few practices in particular. As he gets more and more comfortable with what we’re asking him to do, there’s a guy who has all the tools to be something pretty good.”
“Whether he stays on offense fulltime will be Coach Kelly’s decision,” he continued. “We’ll sit down and talk about it, but I’d love to have him as an offensive player. I think he brings a lot to the table and he can help us.”
Prosise’s move to receiver wasn’t a haphazard decision ether, as Denbrock points out the continual process of knowing your personnel and team needs is vital for a successful season.
“It’s a product of continuing to evaluate the guys in your program,” Denbrock said of Prosise’s move to offense. “If you have a need at a certain position you can’t be afraid to try to put guys in spots where the team becomes a little bit stronger - that’s really what started it.”
In 2012 senior TJ Jones did more than make the team a little stronger with his play at receiver, but this season he finds his responsibilities increasing outside of his talents as a pass catcher.
“I challenged TJ (Jones) to step outside his comfort zone a little bit,” Denbrock explained of the senior receiver’s role as a leader. “He has certainly earned the respect of his teammates to the point where he can get out in front of them when he needs to and maybe say something. It doesn’t have to be an everyday thing, but I told him when he feels something needs to be said to say it.”
“When we’re stretching in our stretch lines he’s facing the team now,” he continued. “His role has changed as he’s matured and grown. He’s continued his growth as far as his approach to the game and how he comes to work every day - he’s been fantastic.”
Joining Jones as a veteran leader is Daniel Smith, who gained notoriety last season as a blocker more so than a receiver. But Denbrock feels Smith has the ability to go beyond being just a weapon used in the running game.
“I think Danny (Smith) understands there’s a level to his game that still needs to be achieved as far as his route running and some other things,” Denbrock stated. “But you talk about a guy with fantastic athletic ability and ball skills - Danny Smith registers right up there with anybody we have.”
One of the more unknown veterans with good ball skills and Smith’s penchant for blocking is Luke Massa. Denbrock believes the 6-foot-4, 234-pounder’s size will be an asset in more than one way moving forward.
“Luke (Massa) can do a number of different things for us,” Denbrock said. “He’s a big-bodied guy who can get body position as a big receiver and help us in the run game as a blocker. He can also sit himself down in some zones and catch the football - he has a nice set of hands.”
Freshman Chris Brown didn’t have too many opportunities in 2012 to show his hands, but his speed and game changing ability was apparent. As the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder enters his first spring practice opportunity, Denbrock likes the progress he sees.
“Chris Brown obviously showed some flashes a year ago,” Denbrock explained. “He has the speed to get downfield that maybe we haven’t had in the last year or so and he needs all the work he can get. It’s a great opportunity for him when you don’t have the numbers to step into roles and earn his way as he goes.”
“He needs to gain an overall knowledge and comfort level with what we’re doing,” he continued. “It comes with time - some guys develop a little bit faster than others. I’ve been very, very pleased with where he’s at this spring and he showing a higher maturity level with not only the way he goes about practice, but his overall knowledge of our offense. He’s growing into the type of receiver we need him to be.”
The early enrollees have gained high praise from their new position coach as well, with one drawing comparison to a specific skill of an all-time Notre Dame great.
“Corey Robinson’s catch radius reminds me a lot of Tyler Eifert’s,” Denbrock stated. “Even if the ball is somewhere in the perimeter he’ll find a way to catch it - he has great ball skills. He has good knowledge of the game of football, even though he’s from a small school in Texas and he’s basketball oriented family-wise. He’s done a really nice job for us.”
The other early enrollee who Denbrock sees playing multiple receiver roles is James Onwualu. He just needs to remind himself that Onwualu could be participating in other events at this time in his life.
“James Onwualu is a tough guy,” Denbrock said. “He’s physical, loves the game, plays with tremendous passion and has a good skill set. He’s been a pleasant surprise. When you sit down and watch practice film you think, ‘He’s supposed to be getting dressed for the prom,’ and here he is out there competing.”
"James is playing inside and outside for us,” he continued. “Maybe we’d like to let him learn one spot, but especially in the spring - when it’s not quite as critical if they make a mistake – we’re trying to get him a knowledge base across the whole offense.”