All Hands on Deck: Notre Dame’s Receivers
Mary Green | Thursday, October 30, 2014
Ask the Irish receivers to describe themselves, and you’ll hear a variety of answers.
But ask how they are on game day, and a single response resounds.
Even in their answers, senior Amir Carlisle, juniors Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise and sophomores Will Fuller and Corey Robinson displayed a united concentration and attention to detail that shows on the field on Saturdays.
That’s what has, in part, propelled Notre Dame to the No. 25 passing offense in the country.
But if you just looked at last year’s numbers, it would have been difficult to imagine this particular young and inexperience group becoming so good.
Last year, only one of those five players — Brown — was in double digits in receptions, and he barely surpassed that mark with 15.
Robinson had nine. Prosise had seven. Fuller had six. Carlisle — who was a running back until the most recent spring practices — had seven as well.
The unit was forced to form a new identity in the offseason because of both the expected and unexpected departures of its top two receivers from 2013.
T.J. Jones — who accounted for 70 receptions and 85.2 yards per game last season — graduated from the University and headed to Detroit to begin his stint in the NFL a few months after.
There went 33 percent of Notre Dame’s receiving game.
Then DaVaris Daniels — who notched 49 receptions and 57.3 yards per game in 2013— was held out of practice and competition shortly before the season began due to the University’s academic investigation.
Another 22 percent gone.
Instead of worrying about the uphill battle that awaited it, the quintet focused in on the task ahead, beginning with the season opener against Rice.
“It was one of those things where we leaned on each other,” Brown said. “We just expected big things from each other, regardless of who was there.”
In practice and games, the leadership void took care of itself as well.
“We have Breezy [Brown], and we have C.J., who really stepped into that leadership roles once those guys left,” Robinson said.
Fuller said Brown and Prosise taking on those new roles were especially important to him and Robinson, the group’s two youngest players.
“They’re still older than us, so the younger guys still had their leaders, so we had somebody to look up to,” Fuller said.
Even though he had made the transition from running back to receiver just a few months before, Fuller and Robinson added they also included Carlisle in the group of players they looked up to.
Carlisle joked that his leadership extended beyond the field.
“For me personally, I kind of set the swag of the room,” he said. “I try to teach the guys how to dress, how to dance.”
If there were one person who should not have been surprised by the receivers’ success across the board this year, it was Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“I think it will be a very competitive situation,” Kelly predicted after the Blue-Gold Game on April 12 of how the receivers would fight for playing time. “I think they are going to push each other, and we’re going to be the beneficiary. Notre Dame’s offense is beginning to be the beneficiary.”
Through the first seven games of the season, the Irish offense has no doubt been the beneficiary of the strengthened receivers.
All five players have already surpassed Brown’s group-leading 15 receptions in 2013.
Fuller leads the crew with 43 catches for 83.3 yards per game and eight touchdowns.
Robinson’s next with 27 grabs, 51.3 yards and four scores.
Brown, Prosise and Carlisle — who missed one game with an MCL sprain — round out the group with 18, 17 and 16 receptions on the year, respectively, and they each average more than 30 yards per game — a mark no one besides Jones, Daniels and former Irish tight end Troy Niklas met last year.
Carlisle said the group’s success stems from outside of practice, games and football as a whole.
“For me, we’re a really tight-knit group off the field,” he said. “I really think we brought that unity on the field. We really hold each other to high standards each and every day in practice. If a guy messes up on a route, someone brings him aside and coaches him up. I feel like the high standards that we hold ourselves to really show and exemplify themselves on game day.”
When it came time to fill the void left by departures, the players said they pushed each other but did not let it turn into a competition that threatened their camaraderie.
“That’s one of the cool things about our team,” Robinson said. “It’s not really like a competition, like I want to get out there, so I’m going to jeopardize your success. If someone doesn’t understand a route or a play, we’re going to help him out because we care about each other and we care about each one of us doing well.”
Carlisle echoed that care for one another helped him in position change.
“For me personally, being new to the wide receiver group, C.J. really brought me under his wing and really taught me everything because I really had no clue what I was doing,” he said. “Each and every day, he was there to tell how to run this route, what to do on this play, so I think that shows how this group of guys, we want the best for each and every one of us.”
Even though the Irish have beaten six opponents and nearly upset the nation’s No. 2 team, they still push each other while looking out for each other.
“We challenge each other to get better every day, now, in spring and in camp,” Brown said. “We’re just trying to continue to get better.”
While the receivers help each other improve individually and as a group, they have also been aided by the progress of senior quarterback Everett Golson, who frequently lets the ball fly and trusts his teammates to make the catch.
“He puts it where you can catch it,” Brown said. “He gives you a chance to make a play. That’s all you can ask for.”
With Golson under center, the Irish have made some impressive plays indeed. Fuller’s 75-yard touchdown reception against Rice on Aug. 30 set the tone for Notre Dame’s powerful offense that relies on a multitude of options instead of a single go-to player.
Carlisle, Brown, Prosise, Fuller and Robinson all have the strength to fight for first downs, and the potential to be deep threats. All five have each hauled in catches of at least 20 yards.
“I think we have a really deep group, from top to bottom,” Carlisle said. “It doesn’t matter who you put out on the field — each and every guy in the group can make plays. I think that really shows on game days, that we’re really deep and we’re just hard-working guys.”
The quintet recognizes how difficult a job opposing defenses have in matching up with them.
“They’ve got to be ready every single play, no matter who’s out there,” Brown said.
“We’re so deep, anything can happen on any play, so if you’re a defense, it must be pretty tough,” Robinson added.
The scary part is, this group should only get stronger next season after another year of practice and fine-tuning the details of their game.
Carlisle is the lone senior, but he has one more year of eligibility left after missing the 2012 season with an ankle injury, and he said he plans to return to Notre Dame.
“We can hit you from many different angles,” Carlisle said. “It’ll be exciting. It’s exciting just finishing off this season. Going into next season as well, I’m looking forward to it. It’s a really deep group, and we’re going to be a much more mature group next year, too.”
The crew will also add another member, as they hope sophomore Torii Hunter Jr. will be fully healthy after an injury-plagued first two seasons with the Irish.
Hunter Jr. flashed his potential with a 13-yard touchdown grab for his first collegiate reception on Sept. 27.
“He’s gonna ball out,” Robinson said of Hunter. “We can’t wait for him to get back to 100 percent because I’m telling you — you saw a little preview of it during — what game was that?”
“Syracuse,” the rest of the group chimed in, helping each other out like always.
“He can ball, so we’re excited for him to go out and show his stuff,” Robinson said.
Much like Hunter, it can be hard to judge how good this group can really be, with so many options and so much time to get even better than they are now.
“We’re a really young group, but I think we’re doing pretty well through the season right now,” Fuller said. “We’re young, but we have a lot of potential, and if we keep it up, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”