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The X-Factor: DaVaris Daniels

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, September 18, 2013

There are no doubts about DaVaris Daniels’ ability.

His speed, talent and power are a matter of the public record, on display across the web and, intermittently, for live viewing on football Saturdays. What the public is left to wonder, then, is when the player seen jumping off the screen in highlight videos will come to play every down.

The Irish junior receiver is coming off a career game, turning heads and dropping jaws, but also begging the question: Can he be as consistent as he is exciting?

“That’s been my main focus, even this offseason, coming into this season,” Daniels said. “Just trying to stay consistent. And we’ve still got a long season ahead of us so I’m working at that every day.”

Entering 2013 as the clear No. 2 receiver behind senior tri-captain TJ Jones, Daniels has become the ultimate X-factor for the Irish offense. Jones is a well-defined entity with 33 starts under his belt, as is senior quarterback Tommy Rees, who has ascended into the top six in program history in both passing yards and passing touchdowns in his 21 starts. Notre Dame’s running game showcases a bevy of talent, and while the production thus far has been moderate, the position has been, at worst, consistent. As for Daniels, consistency is the dimension of his game most in need of significant improvement, Irish coach Brian Kelly said.

“Well, he’s two quarters of the way,” Kelly said of Daniels’ development. “He needs to be four quarters of the way. He can obviously impact a football game. We want him to impact it four quarters, and he’s capable of doing that.”

Descriptors like ‘high ceiling’ cling to Daniels, but mostly as a way to denote the sentiment that he is still standing with his feet on the ground, yet to reach his full potential. And perhaps that is the most remarkable thing about the wide-out. Daniels is leading the team with 299 yards receiving and four touchdowns through three games, well on pace to shatter his career highs in all categories, and yet the areas in which he can stand to improve remain a major part of the conversation surrounding him.

“You know, to be that great player, you’ve got to have it all going for you in everything that you do, and he’s growing up and he’s getting better,” Kelly said. “But there’s definitely more there for him to grow into.

“It just requires, you know, that mental approach, which is coming, you know. And you can see it. I mean, you can see it in practice. You can see it in the way he’s maturing off the field. He’s doing all the little things.”

Although an upperclassman, Daniels is still relatively young in terms of field experience. After not seeing game action as a freshman, Daniels caught 31 balls, racked up 490 reception yards and made three starts in 11 games in 2012. Although he did not find the end zone in his sophomore season, Daniels averaged a team-leading 15.8 yards per reception.

After missing the final two games of the 2012 regular season with a broken collarbone, Daniels returned for Notre Dame’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the national championship, compiling 115 yards on six receptions.

“You know, having the game that he did against one of the top defenses in the nation on one of the biggest stages you can have it in college football, I think it definitely helped his confidence and gave him kind of that push leading into the offseason to work that much harder heading into this season,” Jones said.

Just a quarter of the way through Notre Dame’s regular season, Daniels has already made 2013 a breakout campaign for himself. Just 1:26 into Notre Dame’s season-opening win over Temple, Daniels ran a post route and snatched a 32-yard pass from Rees out of the air to secure his first career touchdown. On Notre Dame’s very next possession just 3:15 later, Daniels hauled in a twin 32-yard touchdown pass from Rees. Daniels’ quick start to his junior season signaled the arrival of an added dimension to the Irish offense, Kelly said.

“Well, certainly it gives us another big-play receiver,” he said. “I think TJ has shown his ability to be that guy, as well now you have Daniels that can certainly get down the field and make big plays. It definitely stretches the field for us. Certainly our ability now to vertically push the ball enhances what we want to do now with both of those guys.”

The quick start did not make Daniels complacent, however, as the receiver readily acknowledged he has areas of his game he would like to develop.

“My route running, things like that,” Daniels said. “Just trying to have an overall complete craft is something that I kind of focused in on this offseason. So I’m just trying to keep getting better and better at that and see what happens.”

Daniels said some of the increased focus on refining his routes has already paid dividends this year, most recently by freeing him for the first of his two touchdown receptions against Purdue on Saturday. Still, Daniels said his success thus far represents a step in the right direction rather than an arrival at the finished product.

“I think I’m getting there,” the Vernon Hills, Ill., native said. “I’m still working, I still gotta work every day. There’s a lot of things I can improve on. You know, I came a long way, but I’ve still got a ways to go.”

“He’s developed a lot,” Jones added. “From last year to this is night and day. But the sky’s the limit for him. As long as he keeps pushing, working hard, stays dedicated – who knows how far he’ll go, how great he’ll be.”

Daniels offered the most significant glimpse yet of how great he can be with his second touchdown reception against the Boilermakers. In the fourth quarter of a tie game, Daniels snagged a pass from Rees on the sideline and battled off Boilermakers senior cornerback Ricardo Allen, finishing his 82-yard score with a powerful stiff arm.

“That’s the physicalness that we need to play with … and he displayed it,” Jones said. “He basically pushed [Allen] to the ground and scored a touchdown in a clutch situation.”

As impressive as the touchdown was from a physical perspective, the circumstances surrounding the play were equally significant. With the catch and run, Daniels showed himself to be a player capable of answering the call in a big situation.

“[A consistent player is] somebody that you know is going to make a play when a play needs to be made,” Daniels said. “And somebody that’s going to do it over and over again. And that’s the type of person I want to be and am practicing to become.

“That’s all practice. That’s all mindset. You know, going into games, you have to have that mindset that, ‘I’m going to be that guy.’ And that’s what it comes down to.”

If the opening three contests of the 2013 season are any indication, Daniels will have plenty more opportunities to prove he can consistently deliver in high-pressure situations. Jones said Daniels is on the right track to turn into that player he wants to be.

“You know, once you make that first clutch play … you’re more comfortable with yourself, you’re more comfortable with your game,” Jones said. “He’s developed as a person and an athlete and kind of gets to see the results of what he put in the work for all these months off.”

The physical tools have been there. The focus and the consistent will to perform in key moments are getting there, by all accounts. If everything comes together for Daniels, he could turn his blistering start into a standout season. How high the Irish offense will reach this season relies, in large part, on where their X-factor is able to take them. Although he is not looking at his role in such broad terms, Daniels’ commitment to consistency could be just what Notre Dame needs this year.

“You want to come off the field at the end of the season saying, you know, ‘I did everything I could,'” he said. “The end result is going to be the end result, no matter what. So the only thing that you can really do is focus on today and try to get better and do the things that you know you can do on a consistent basis.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu