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Searching for the go-to guy

Andrew Soukup | Friday, September 12, 2003

One year and one week ago Sunday, Arnaz Battle stood motionless on the line of scrimmage. Twenty-six seconds earlier, Michigan State wide receiver Charles Rogers had plucked a pass from the clouds to give the Spartans a 17-14 lead over the Irish with two minutes to play.

Now Battle exploded off the line, just to the left of backup quarterback Pat Dillingham. The senior receiver noticed a blitz coming at the quarterback and adjusted his route to cut across the middle of the field. Dillingham fired a bullet to Battle, who cradled the ball, made one move, and found himself sprinting 60 yards down the Notre Dame sideline unmolested as his teammates erupted.

As Battle trotted back to an exuberant Irish sideline, his touchdown having given the Irish a 21-17 victory, head coach Tyrone Willingham sought out the budding receiver.

“I never gave up on you,” the coach told his receiver. “I knew you’d step up when it was time.”

The Irish had found a playmaker.

As the season wore on, Battle evolved from a receiver who had only caught five passes the year before to the team’s reception leader in an otherwise stagnant Irish offense. Battle was the only Irish player to catch a pass at No. 18 Air Force. Battle was the guy who hauled in a 65-yard touchdown on Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage against No. 11 Florida State. Battle was the guy who caught 10 passes on New Year’s Day.

And when Battle graduated last spring, the Irish lost their go-to guy.

They’re still searching for his replacement.

What is a playmaker?

Webster’s doesn’t have an entry for “playmaker”, and for good reason. Everybody knows one when they see one, but nobody can describe one.

But players and coaches agree on this much – when the game is on the line, a playmaker wants to be in control, to have the opportunity to literally carry the team in his hands.

“It can be anyone on your football team,” Willingham said. “It can even be a lineman, someone who says, ‘Coach, when it’s time, run over me, I’ll get it done.'”

More often then not, however, a team’s go-to guy lines up far to the outside of the team’s tackles. That’s because when a team needs to move the ball quickly, it often turns to the air game.

“You have to want the ball in those situations,” Willingham said. “You hear that a lot about basketball players, how they want to take the shot at the end of the ball game. You have to want the ball in those type of situations, you want guys who want to get open as receivers.”

Last season, Battle was Notre Dame’s most reliable offensive weapon. He seldom dropped a pass, ran routes relatively crisply and drew defenses away from Notre Dame’s other receivers.

Battle’s natural playmaking ability alleviated some of the pressure from an Irish offense still struggling to learn offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick’s pro-style attack. As the season grew on, coaches routinely called Battle’s number.

“[Arnaz] was very athletic and had great speed,” Diedrick said. “You could always put him in a role where he was gonna end up making a big play. I won’t say we had nobody else to choose from, but he just kinda evolved into the playmaker from the very beginning.”

That brings up another aspect of a playmaker: a coach can give a player the title of captain, but he can’t label a player a go-to guy. That intangible quality surfaces only in games, not in practices.

After all, it took Battle almost four games to emerge as Notre Dame’s deadliest weapon. That’s part of the reason why the Irish are still looking for a new bona-fide playmaker this year.

“Practice is not quite the same, it doesn’t give you the same kind of reality as a game,” Willingham said. “As we play the games, we can identify the guys who are the go-to guys.

“And hopefully, we’ll have more than one.”

Finding a playmaker

Battle’s number was called so frequently last season because the rest of the Irish offense was busy trying to catch up. This year, Diedrick thinks the Irish have a multitude of options in clutch time.

There’s senior Omar Jenkins, who Irish coaches laud for his consistent play game after game and who gets upset if he doesn’t make a big play in a game. There’s sophomore Maurice Stovall, who, at 6-foot-5, is one of Notre Dame’s tallest receivers and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. There’s sophomore Rhema McKnight, whose athleticism and playmaking ability has his coaches excited. And that’s just the tip of Notre Dame’s iceberg.

Jared Clark has emerged as a pass-catching threat at tight end. Ryan Grant and Julius Jones literally carried the Irish to their comeback victory against Washington State with 134 fourth-quarter rushing yards. And freshmen Chinedum Ndukwe and Jeff Samardzija saw limited playing time a week ago.

“That’s what’s so great right now, you have seven to eight guys competing to be that guy that Arnaz was last year,” quarterback Carlyle Holiday said. “They all have the same attitudes and the same mentality – score touchdowns and do whatever it takes to help the team win.”

At times last season, Diedrick said Battle seemed to be one of the few players to shoulder the offensive burden for the Irish and demand to be given the football in clutch situations. This time around, the offensive coordinator said he’s seen more players demonstrate the intangible qualities required of a playmaker, thus giving the Irish offense more weapons.

And Holiday said this year’s receiver corps is closer than last year’s – with Battle the only receiver to graduate – and knows they share the responsibility to make big plays.

“Your system within itself should be able to spread the ball around. A year ago, we weren’t able to do that. This year, we have the ability to spread the ball around more,” Diedrick said. “But it’s nice to have that stand-up go-to guy when in that situation.”

A slow emergence

The very nature of the playmaker role almost demands that a receiver emerge as the team’s go-to guy. While the Irish running game may emerge as the backbone of the offense, when the Irish need a big play, more often than not they will throw to Jenkins, Stovall and McKnight.

Like Battle last year, Diedrick said Notre Dame’s playmakers will emerge after they gain confidence from making big plays. And some have already made contributions.

Look at Jenkins. The man who Irish coaches label “Mr. Consistency” caught four passes for 166 yards to lead a comeback against Navy last year, including a 67-yard game-winning touchdown catch with just over two minutes to play.

Look at Stovall. His grab against the Spartans last season transformed him from a little-known freshman to Sports Illustrated’s poster boy for Irish success.

Look at McKnight. With the Irish facing second-and-goal on the Cougar 11 Saturday, Holiday fired a strike to McKnight, who was running a slant route. The Irish receiver grabbed the ball, fighting through a tackle before lunging toward the end zone for his first touchdown.

“Just seeing Rhema, he caught that touchdown pass and he was hyped up for the rest of the game,” Holiday said. “When you see a guy like that catch a touchdown pass, it makes you want to give him the ball.”

In order to ensure the Irish receivers gain confidence, Holiday and Diedrick both said they plan to stretch the field against Michigan. Although the Irish attempted a handful of long passes against the Cougars, the longest pass Saturday only went for 29 yards – and that came when Jenkins caught the ball on a screen and scampered his way upfield.

But if the Irish stretch the field, Holiday remains confident the Irish will find their playmaker.

“With the guys we have, you can just throw the ball up and they’ll go up and get it,” the Irish quarterback said. “It just shows the kind of competitors out there and you know they’ll do what it takes to win.

“They’re playmakers, all of them.”