Notre Dame WR corps moving forward without Daniels

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most conspicuous missing piece of the Notre Dame football offense this spring has been out of sight, but hardly out of mind.

Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said he talks to academically exiled wide receiver DaVaris Daniels at least three or four times a week, if not every day.

“I’d rather DaVaris not make too many decisions on his own,” Denbrock said with a chuckle Monday morning after practice. “So I’ve been very close to that situation … just to make sure he knows we’re thinking about him and we’re keeping an eye on him and what our expectations while he’s away from here are, including what our expectations for him are going to be when he’s going to get back.”

Daniels — dismissed from school for the spring semester, he has admitted, because of falling below the 2.0 GPA threshold last fall — is on track to be reinstated for school and football for the summer semester and needs to have a strong showing in the classroom then to perpetuate his comeback into the fall.

The 6-foot-2, 203-pounder from Vernon Hills, Ill, is, by far, ND’s leading returning receiver, with 49 receptions for 745 yards and 7 TDs. The next closest is junior-to-be Chris Brown (15 receptions, 209 yards, 1 TD). No one else on the 2014 roster had more than 10 catches in 2013.

In a February interview with CBSSports.com’s Jeremy Fowler, Daniels expressed remorse for the poor class attendance and hiding things from his academic advisers that led to his football future with the Irish sliding into escrow. He also admitted to concealing a smattering of chronic injuries and ailments from the coaching and training staffs that he claimed attributed to a late-season fade on the football field.

But is it a sincere wake-up call for the senior, who retains two seasons of college eligibility? Or is Daniels parroting from a script?

“I guess I won’t know the answer to that exactly until he’s really back here and he’s really in the middle of it,” Denbrock said. “(Until) it’s the fourth double-session and he’s still going as hard as he was the first time he set foot back on the field after, good Lord willing, being reinstated.

“I think time will tell. Right now, I think his mind’s in the right place. I think he’s excited about getting back with his teammates, whenever that’s possible to do, and get this thing moving.”

In the meantime, Denbrock and the Irish have moved ahead with seven receivers, each of whom have had a tough time separating from each other. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Freshman Corey Holmes joins the group in June.

“I love the aspect of the competition we have there, because we’ve got some talent across the board,” Denbrock said. “I love the atmosphere it creates in the wide receiver room, as far as from a competitive standpoint, guys trying to get their reps, guys trying to get on the field.

“I’m comfortable with kind of letting that kind of sort itself out. If it’s close and it’s a close call, we’ll play as many of those guys as we feel deserve to play.”

All seven will be on display at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, when the Irish conclude spring drills with the 85th annual Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. EDT). NBC Sports Network has the telecast and WSBT the radio broadcast.

The biggest surprise Saturday might be the weather. After ND fifth-year coach Brian Kelly arrived at his office for the first day of spring football with the mercury hitting minus-8 and the Irish having to practice indoors for most of the spring because of winter-like conditions, Saturday’s forecasted high is 67 degrees.

Sophomore-to-be Corey Robinson, junior-to-be C.J. Prosise and Brown have been garnering most of the first-team reps at receiver through 13 spring practices so far. But sophomores-to be William Fuller and Torii Hunter Jr., as well as converted running back Amir Carlisle, have been pressing.

Two of the most intriguing receivers in the bunch are the two with the least experience — early-enrolled freshman Justin Brent and Hunter, the latter of whom missed all 13 games and more than a half season worth of practices while recovering from a slowly healing broken leg.

“It’s a big world for him right now,” Denbrock said of Brent, a physically imposing 6-2, 204-pounder from Speedway, Ind. “You’ve heard the phrase before — drinking through a fire hose. I mean he is literally drowning at times with information and really overload.”

And yet Denbrock continues to match him up with ND’s best cornerback, junior-to-be KeiVarae Russell, routinely in practice.

“Just continue to challenge him,” Denbrock said, “and there’s no challenge that he’s backed down from, which is a positive sign. Even though he’s confused and unclear about assignments he’s doing all the time, he’s going hard and he’s continuing to compete. He’s going to come along very nicely as we move forward.”

Denbrock likes to use the term “attacking” to describe his and Kelly’s collaboration to evolve the longstanding Kelly-inspired offensive template. And the new framework involves much more than the wide receivers in the passing game.

Senior-to-be Ben Koyack (10 catches, 171 yards, 3 TDs in 2013) is far-and-away the No. 1 option at tight end, a position Kelly has used extensively in his first four seasons at ND. His complements at that position won’t likely completely sort themselves out until well after true freshmen Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua arrive in June.

The new wrinkle appears to be a re-emphasis on throwing to the running backs. Last season was the first since 2004 that at least one Irish running back didn’t amass 20 catches in a season. In fact, they didn’t even hit 10. Departed junior George Atkinson III and Carlisle shared the team lead with seven receptions.

“You saw us at times last year, we wouldn’t even have a running back on the field,” Denbrock said. “We’d have four wide receivers and a tight end at times, so having those guys with the versatility to get them out of the backfield and do some things with them split out, that’s only going to help us.”

And meanwhile, Daniels watches and waits his turn to be a part of it all again.

“He’s got a pretty clear understanding of what my expectation is for him,” Denbrock said.

And so do the receivers, backs and tight ends who are auditioning to stay in the rotation when Daniels returns.

“First thing would be consistently doing it right all the time,” Denbrock said of what he’s looking for. “The second would be consistently making plays when you have the opportunity to make a play. The third would be playing like your hair’s on fire all the time.

“So if they continue to have those three traits and continue to grow their game, they’ll be the guys that are out there. Hopefully, that’s nine or 10 guys instead of three. That makes us a better football team.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame's Justin Brent (11) hauls in a pass as Rashad Kinlaw (26) defends as they go through drills Saturday, March 22,  at the Loftus Sports Center. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ