The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Receivers impress in spring

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Jeff Samardzija leaped between two defenders in the front corner of the end zone to snag a lofted touchdown pass Monday afternoon. Each defensive player and coach seemed to hold his breath as Samardzija took a hit and fell to the ground. They anticipated an incompletion due to the close coverage and ensuing collison.But the ball didn’t move.Jeff Samardzija has been practicing on the first-team offense alongside juniors Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall. Samardzija also plays baseball for the Irish, but he and other young receivers are a big reason the wide receiving corps could turn the sputtering pro-style offense of last season into a productive unit.”All of the younger guys have impressed me with their individual skills,” McKnight said. “Chase [Anastasio] is speedy, [Jeff] Samardzija can get more downfield and make plays there. Hopefully, we can continue improving.”Last season, Samardzija (6-foot-5, 208 pounds) caught seven passes for 53 yards for 7.6 yards per catch. He and classmate Chinedum Ndukwe, who now plays safety, were the only two freshmen receivers to see playing time.Anastasio red-shirted his freshman year in 2003 but has seen significant action in the spring and practiced today as the premier threat on the second-team offense.Quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Pat Dillingham threw the ball often during offensive series Monday afternoon.Receivers and tight ends got touches, and running backs mostly saw the ball on screen passes coming out of the backfield. Still, players insist the offense is not leaning towards a stronger focus on the passing attack as spring practice winds down.”We’re trying to become a more balanced team,” McKnight said. “Some games we had to run more and other games like against Purdue you saw us lean more towards the pass. But we want to be balanced on offense so then we can try to catch teams off-balance on defense.”While there could be questions about the running game with the departure of workhorse Julius Jones, the wide receiving corps will be key to the success of the pro-style offense in Quinn’s second year as a starting quarterback.The numbers from last season tell a story of an almost balanced Irish offense: 2,149 yards passing and1,887 yards rushing. But the numbers only seem balanced because the offense only did one or the other – pass or run – in many games. Against Pittsburgh, Notre Dame rushed for 352 yards and threw for 33 yards. Just two weeks before, however, the Irish had thrown the ball over 60 times for 297 yards and rushed for 49 yards against Purdue.Stovall caught nine passes for 171 yards versus the Boilermakers, including a career-high 85 yards touchdown grab. He and McKnight will be the featured receivers next season.McKnight, 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, caught 47 passes to lead the Irish receivers last season. He amounted 600 yards and three touchdowns for an average of 12.8 yards per catch.Stovall, a 6-foot-5, 224-pound wideout, caught 22 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 19.1 yards per catch.McKnight and Stovall will be just juniors next season, but they are veterans among a young receiving corps.”So far, the offense has matured a lot [this spring],” Stovall said. “[We have] a lot more confidence, and we’re getting a good feel for each other.”The Irish had last season to get a feel for each other on offense, as well. Critics questioned the hands of the receivers after games like the home loss against Michigan State, but Stovall and McKnight look to lead by example starting in the spring.”I think the receivers are more physical and running better routes,” Stovall said. “We are improving as a whole.”