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Widely received

Pat Leonard | Friday, November 11, 2005

When Notre Dame proclaimed its ‘Return to Glory’ three seasons ago, Maurice Stovall – a freshman – involuntarily became the face of the campaign.

Sports Illustrated threw a photo of Stovall’s touchdown catch against Michigan State on its front cover. Everyone in the country could identify the tall wide receiver from Philadelphia.

The hype around the program grew. The profile of Stovall grew even larger – he had been a first-team USA Today All-American in high school. And then, with no warning and only a silly SI curse to blame, the Irish and Stovall both sank off the national radar.

For three seasons, Stovall was a prominent player in an unproductive offense, catching just six total touchdowns. He swears the cover photo had nothing to do with his performance.

“It didn’t put any pressure on me at all,” Stovall said. “You can’t allow stuff like that to affect you.”

No matter now. In his senior season, Stovall has morphed into a tough, lean receiver who can pose mismatches and exploit defensive backs with his 6-foot-5 frame. And don’t let the sudden production fool you. Stovall insists the player he is now has been in South Bend all along.

“I don’t think you can just have everything really thrown into one season,” Stovall said. “It’s basically a build up of maturity from your freshman year. And … because of the changing of our program, [you’re] given more opportunity to showcase your skills and your talents and be able to do that consistently on a basis with the type of offense that we have.”

Maybe that explains why Stovall is on pace to catch more passes this season (63) than he did in his first three seasons combined (61). Maybe it explains why he’s caught the same amount of touchdowns through eight games (six) that he did from 2002 to 2004.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with football.

Through the grapevine

“Mo” is old school. His teammates tell him, and he knows it.

The description doesn’t fit his personality, though, as much as it fits his musical tastes. But then maybe again it does describe Stovall’s personality since, as running back Darius Walker puts it, “Off the field and even on the field, Mo is a singer.”

Stovall constantly keeps a tune, and not only in his head. The senior receiver takes his vocals and his smooth attitude from the shower to the locker room to the practice field, ranging in musical tastes from Barry White to Marvin Gaye to the Temptations and beyond.

“He’ll throw on … all sorts of things from back in the day,” Walker said.

It’s this laid-back attitude, combined with a resilient work ethic, that makes Stovall a well-liked and respected member of the Irish squad.

Since playing at Archbishop Carroll in Philadelphia, Stovall said he has always brought the same attitude to football and to life – he has fun and works hard.

“Every time we see him, he’s singing,” Walker said. “Every time we’re at practice, he’s singing. And it really helps to sort of create a calm atmosphere for us. It’s not so serious all the time.

“It’s really good to be able to let go a little bit and to play around a little bit in the huddle. Even sometimes in the games he’ll joke around.”

But once the huddle has broken this season, Stovall has reversed roles, wiping the smiles one-by-one off opposing defenders’ faces.

The senior receiver has 42 catches in eight games for 666 total yards, an average of 15.9 yards per catch, second only to Jeff Samardzija (17.2). Stovall’s 83.2 yards per game average also establishes him as an immediate threat to upcoming opponents.

But catching more passes was only half the battle. Stovall climbed back not only into a regular rhythm – he always played significant minutes – but into a complete receiver.

A firm stance

Samardzija broke two records in Notre Dame’s win against Tennessee last Saturday. Strong safety Tom Zbikowski scored two return touchdowns. But Irish coach Charlie Weis had only one favorite individual performance after reviewing the game tape.

“The guy I was pleased with the most was actually Maurice Stovall,” Weis said at his Sunday press conference. “He only had a couple catches on the game and one for a touchdown, but he made several critical blocks in this game and ended up leading us to having production. Sometimes we single out stat guys rather than things that happen in a game that help us win.”

At two turning points in the win over the Volunteers, Stovall made key blocks to free up big plays for Notre Dame.

Stovall made the final block that sprung tight end Anthony Fasano for Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the contest. He also helped pave the way for Samardzija on a 73-yard completion down to the Tennessee 2-yard line.

And Walker said Stovall’s role in those plays must not go unnoticed.

“The receiver’s block is … not only important for me, but it’s important for the other receivers as they’re running their routes,” Walker said. “In order for a play to work and in order for it to be a big play, I think the receivers have to get the blocks.

“Whenever you see me running down the sideline or [tight end Anthony] Fasano running down the sideline, that means one of the receivers made their block.”

Stovall’s example on the field has caused players like Walker to view him as a leader. And the production – be it catching passes or planting defenders on their backs – could have NFL scouts licking their chops for a proven 6-foot-5 threat.

Stovall, though, said his focus remains at Notre Dame – for now.

“I think about [the NFL] sometimes but not a lot,” he said. “I’m just basically trying to enjoy the rest of my college season with my teammates, this great facility here, this campus and then we’ll take it from there.”

A lighter option

Stovall’s sudden resurgence has provoked numerous conjectures on its origin. Some, as Stovall suggested, credit Weis’ prolific offense. Some credit quarterback Brady Quinn. But Stovall is sick of hearing how his weight affects his play following the well-documented story of Weis telling Stovall to drop a few pounds at the beginning of spring practice.

“My weight loss has been a factor in my change of play, but that’s not everything,” Stovall said. “That’s not it. I think a lot of people think that the reason I’m doing so well is just because of my weight. It’s not that at all. It’s a buildup of things mentally, physically and emotionally.”

He has proven that he, as an experienced senior, can use those emotions to benefit himself and the Irish on the field.

“When you see a player like that, it really rubs off on everybody else,” Walker said.

But some of the emotion sneaks out in the form of song, and Walker is not as quick to throw praise Stovall’s way.

“He thinks he’s a good singer. He’s an alright singer in my opinion, but he really thinks he’s a good singer,” the running back said. “You know how those guys are when they really think they can do something? They sort of overdo it.”

But after shrugging off early career setbacks, Stovall now easily dispatches of any criticism.

“No, I don’t think I’m a good singer,” Stovall said, a wink all but implied. “My teammates do.”