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FOOTBALL: Receivers impress coaches

Kate Gales | Wednesday, April 20, 2005

This could be the year when it all comes together for the Irish passing game.

A talented receiving corps that last fall struggled amid high expectations enters the season with new resolve and new coaches but with the same natural talent that brought them to Notre Dame in the first place.

“It isn’t like these guys don’t have the ability here,” head coach Charlie Weis said. “And I didn’t bring them in here – they were already here.”

Led by rising seniors Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall, a team that includes Jeff Samardzija, Matt Shelton and Chase Anastasio will enter the season with a third-year starting quarterback and expectations higher than ever.

“There’s maturity across the whole board, across the whole team, offense and defense,” McKnight said. In his junior season, McKnight caught 42 passes for 610 yards and three touchdowns.

With the rest of the team, the receivers have settled in for tough workouts and no easy answers.

“The work ethic is good, the want-to is there, they ask good questions, they’re good students of the game off the field and then it carries over to the field,” receivers coach Rob Ianello said. “We have to make strides … it’s all about improvement.”

Spring practice has allowed a highly criticized group of receivers to focus on learning a new offensive system and build relationships with a new coaching staff.

“I think spring practice is going really well,” Stovall said. “We’ve made a lot of improvements, learning the offense and getting used to our new coaches and coaching staff and the whole football program and the new practice game.”

The biggest challenge of the year has been for veteran receivers to learn a complicated new offense. Stovall said the offense was not necessarily more complicated than other systems.

“The level of complication is the same, it’s just that it’s a whole new program,” he said. “Any time you go from one offense to another, you’re going to have a lot of difficulties getting used to it, as far as just running the plays, reading coverages and getting used to the new terminology.”

Learning a new scheme has been a team effort, from Weis to Ianello to the receivers.

“Obviously from a mental standpoint, we’ve made strides as a whole group because it’s a whole new system,” Ianello said. “It’s a new system for me, it’s a new system for them. It’s a whole new system.”

As a group, I’m really pleased with where we are. We’re learning what to do. Now the next step is learning how to do it. First of all, you’ve got to know where you’ve got to be on this, where you’ve got to be on that [and] that’s progressing very nicely.”

Team leaders are positive about the effect the new coaching staff is having, despite the difficulty of a transition period.

“Coach Weis, he finds ways to make it easier for us,” McKnight said. “I’d like to commend him actually, because most people wouldn’t be able to pick up on it, but he finds his way to get into our heads that it’s not that difficult.”

Ianello came to the Irish from the University of Wisconsin, where he coached the tight ends for the past two years. He spent nine years as the recruiting coordinator and six of those years also served as the wide receivers coach.

“[Ianello] is doing a good job with us, we have to get used to his style of coaching,” Stovall said. “I think the biggest difficulty is just learning the new offense and the new program and dealing with exams and everything. You just have to learn to balance those things out.”

Although the offense is a product of Weis, Ianello’s practice methods have been a new experience for some receivers.

“We run through different wide receiver drills than we have in our past,” Stovall said. “They’re helpful, you just have to get used to them. He’s a great guy, nice coach, nice personality and I’m glad to have him here.”

After spring practices, however, McKnight is looking forward to taking the field in front of their first big audience for the Blue-Gold Game this Saturday.

“Especially the last game leaving a bad taste in our mouth, we’re just excited to get out there one more time especially with students, your biggest fans, and just go out and have fun against your teammates again,” he said.