Corey Holmes leads imposing wave of Notre Dame up-and-comers
SOUTH BEND — There’s an almost obligatory leap of faith when it comes to Corey Holmes’ sudden burst into relevance this spring and the premise that it won’t quietly fade just as dramatically in the brighter lights, come autumn.
But there’s also a history, and a support system behind that rise and, most importantly, now comes a resilience that drives the burgeoning Notre Dame wide receiver.
The rosters for Saturday’s 87th-annual Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. EDT; Notre Dame Stadium), the spring football wrap-up, are teeming with players like Holmes; players whose promise and surging spring performances are juxtaposed against scant experience, past production or both.
The dueling quarterbacks, senior Malik Zaire and junior DeShone Kizer, constitute the tourist trap. The real buzz is how mirage-like or how real are the Boys of Spring — safeties Drue Tranquill and Devin Studstill, cornerback Shaun Crawford, middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, running back Dexter Williams, among them.
And, of course, Holmes, who would be ND’s starting slot receiver if the season started tomorrow.
The team-best 4.39-second 40-yard dash time he logged during team testing prior to spring practice shoved him out of obscurity still doesn’t hide the fact that come Sept. 4 in Austin, Texas, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior will have carry as many collegiate catches on his résumé into the season opener as will Jacob Matuska — a fourth-string tight end who spent the past three seasons as a backup defensive lineman.
The funny thing is that’s not even the fastest 40 Holmes has logged at ND or even at his high school, national prep football powerhouse Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
“I guess it was just a matter of time before they found out how fast I was,” Holmes said with a smile, speaking of the Irish coaches.
More impressive, relatively speaking, was his 3.85 clocking in the 20-yard shuttle, a time that matches the best time any player at any position put up at the NFL Combine in February at Indianapolis, that by former Boston College free safety Justin Simmons.
Holmes’ 10-foot-9 vault in the standing broad jump would have stood fourth among wide receivers at the NFL’s invitation-only mass audition. And his 41-inch vertical leap would have matched the best among wide receivers in that category, and would have ranked among the top 10 at his position at the combine in the past 11 years.
The cautionary part of all that is that football isn’t track and field.
“There’s track speed and there’s inline, straight-line speed, and then there’s, quite frankly, football speed,” ND coach Brian Kelly said as he wraps up his seventh spring in South Bend. “And I think that’s been the struggle with Corey the first couple of years, is to get that to translate.
“Playing fast and playing with confidence, I think he’s gaining that. He’s gaining the confidence that we’re seeing. (He’s) definitely a different football player. He’s not Will Fuller yet. Although he runs at runs at the same speed, he’s not playing at that same speed.
“I think he’s capable. He’s certainly not there yet, but he’s moving and trending in the right direction.”
Holmes’ background certainly set him up for success at ND.
The most recent STA alum of many to dot the Irish football roster, cornerback Cody Riggs, was also a multiple state champion in track while in high school. Holmes, however, didn’t hone his speed in that sport, other than a short sampling during his freshman year,
At St. Thomas Aquinas, Holmes’ position coach in football was Hall-of-Famer Cris Carter, and the two still keep in regular contact today. When Holmes would go home for the night, another role model was sitting across the dinner table from him — Holmes’ father, David.
David was a defensive back for Syracuse in the late 1980s, and a fourth-round draft choice of the Miami Dolphins in 1989. An injury ended his pro career prematurely and coaxed him into a career in law enforcement. That included a stint with the FBI for the now major in the Broward County (Fla.) Sherriff’s Office.
“I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am without my dad,” Holmes said. “He’s been a great influence on me, growing up. He’s kept me on track.”
Holmes saw cameos in the first two games of his freshman season, then never saw the action for that or the following season. He redshirted as a sophomore in 2015, a move he now embraces but early on resented.
Freshmen such as Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders were being given practice reps he thought he had earned.
“It really humbled me,” he said. “That’s when I had the talks with my dad, who reminded me everything happens for a reason. What I told myself was I can’t worry about other people. I’ve got to worry about myself, worry about how I’m going to better myself as a player.
“So I think once I stopped worrying about other people as much, I think that’s when I finally — and it wasn’t until halfway through the season — really got determined.”
Kelly knew there was a chance he’d get a dramatically transformed player, even before they put the stop watch on him. And once Holmes started to shine, the coaching staff continued to test him, after putting Crawford — emerging himself as the team’s best man-to-man pass defender — on Holmes on a regular basis.
Almost a decade ago, then-head coach Charlie Weis’ roster turned over and the Irish followed up back-to-back appearances at the elite BCS bowl plateau with the losingest season in Notre Dame history, 3-9 in 2007.
Kelly will have one fewer returning starter (9) to start this season in 2016 than Weis had (10) nine seasons ago.
“I’m not afraid to play young guys,” defensive backs coach Todd Lyght offered the other day.
Injuries tested Kelly’s player development model a season ago. Inexperience gets its crack at it in this cycle.
Players like Holmes are the litmus test.
The common theme among many of them — Morgan, Williams, defensive end Jay Hayes — is that when circumstance offered them an opportunity to stagnate, they found a way to transform.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said of his time on the back burner.
“Every individual kid’s going to be a little bit different,” ND associate head coach Mike Denbrock said of Holmes in particular. “I just think his maturing and his ability to kind of be ready for the moment took a little bit longer maybe than some other guys have.
“It’s an exciting time. Some of them have been in the program waiting for their opportunity. Some guys are just showing up, looking for an opportunity. It’s a chance for some guys that maybe the Notre Dame fans of the world don’t know a whole lot about yet, but they’re going to grow to know a lot about as we go.”