Notre Dame passing game will rely on hand-to-hand combat against Michigan State

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Hand-to-hand combat is part of the challenge.

It won’t take long for Michigan State defenders to bring the battle to Notre Dame receivers.

Snap the football, let the war begin.

That’s just fine with Corey Holmes. The speedy 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior has waited too long to let a little mano-y-mano get in his way.

“It’s all a mindset,” Holmes said of countering the defensive tactic. “It’s a matter of you beating the man in front of you. All of (the Irish receivers) are capable of beating anyone in man coverage. It’s a matter of who wants it more.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly is quite cognizant of the test that awaits his receivers. That aggressive style of defense is who Spartan coach Mark Dantonio is.

He has some advice for dealing with it.

“Run! Run! Just keep runnin’!” Kelly said, thinking back to the last meeting in 2013. “Look, if you look back then we had (Daniel Smith) running at one receiver. He was part tight end, part wide receiver. We had (current linebacker) James Onwualu as the other wide receiver, and I think we were scaring them to death with TJ Jones. TJ is a good player. (DaVaris) Daniels played a little bit. And Corey (Robinson) was a freshman, right?

“We’re in a better position (now). If they want to press us, we just need to run; run our routes, do what we do, and we’ll make enough plays.”

It’s even a factor Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer will have to take under consideration. It could impact the timing of a play.

“When you play against press coverage, there is an intimidation factor that quarterbacks don’t like to go toward them,” said Kizer. “But those guys are out on the island. We have an opportunity with receivers that we recruit to kind of expose that island. They’re not getting a lot of inside help from linebackers who are (in the) box and safeties who want to play low. It’s all about hitting the guy in front of them.”

“We have the talent all the way across the board to attack that one-on-one coverage when we need to. It’s also a time and a place for the ball that you want to throw out there. We have an opportunity to throw the ball to the slide receivers who are getting zoned off all day long. But if you can just attack the outside at the right times, you’re going to be able to make the plays that you need to make and move the ball down the field.

“Once again, we have the receivers who are playing at a high level right now, who have seen press coverage all off-season and in camp against some of our guys who have been successful against press coverage. We’ve got to make sure we get the ball out there when the time comes.”

“We have a way to get off the line of scrimmage against anybody,” Kelly said. “We work hard on it every single day. If you can’t get off the line of scrimmage, you can’t throw the football. I’m not concerned with releases with our wide receivers. We’re going to get off the ball. What we have to do is we have to throw the ball and we have to catch it. We’re going to have to make some catches against man-to-man coverages and we’re going to have to be accurate throwing it.”

Great opportunity

That’s where Holmes comes in. One of the fastest of the Irish, the native of Pembroke Pines, Fla., waited two years and a game before he got his first reception — a 15-yarder against Nevada last week.

After a freshman year of limited involvement, and then redshirting last year, Holmes was the next man in when Torii Hunter, Jr., went down with a concussion against Texas.

“Corey Holmes ran a great route on third-and-15 and we got him the ball to the wide field,” Kelly said. “That, to me, was the first time that (quarterback) DeShone (Kizer) said, ‘All right, I’m going to let this rip to the wide field,’ like he did with Will Fuller without any hesitation. It had to be a great throw away from the defender to pick that up.”

That play illustrates the development of confidence between Kizer and a young receiver, in this case, Holmes. With Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle gone from last year, the Irish passing game is pretty much starting over.

“Corey and I came in on a recruiting visit at the same time and hit it off right away,” Kizer said. “He’s everything I expected him to be as a player. He’s faster than anyone can be, he runs magnificent routes, and now he’s finally getting an opportunity to show it.

“When you step in with guys like Torii Hunter and Will Fuller in front of you, it’s hard to maintain the confidence needed to catch balls in big situations. But he’s kept his eyes on the prize and is playing good ball.

“I’ve missed him on a couple free-access balls in the past game, and that kind of refers back to those opportunities where I could take what the defense gave me to the front side rather than go back side and throw the perfect ball against maybe a slightly double-covered guy. Corey was able to create the separation needed to throw those free access balls.

“That goes to show how focused he was and how success-driven he is to be able to continue to develop himself behind two great front-side receivers.”

“Stay focused and do what I’m capable of doing, that’s the most important thing for me now,” said Holmes, who should get some passes thrown his way against the Spartans, even though Hunter will return. “Consistency is important. If I can stay consistent, that’s a step in the right direction.

“It was emphasized to me to be running full speed all the time. (The problem) was more pushing myself from play to play. It was convincing myself I wasn’t tired.

“I’d go full-speed two plays in a row; three plays in a row. Come that fifth play I was kind of slowing down. I’m much better now. I more mentally there, telling myself I’m not tired; push forward.”

Developing a relationship with his quarterback is essential for Holmes’ next step to happen.

“Knowing (Kizer’s) tendencies helps,” he said. “Being in the right place at the right time is important (to building confidence). They know you’re going to be in a certain spot, it all works to our advantage.”

“(Holmes) definitely (has) grown as a player, and he’s definitely more confident this year than he has been previously in these last couple years,” Hunter said. “Yeah, his confidence is probably the biggest thing, because he’s a good athlete, and he can make plays. So getting that confidence is kind of taking you out of the pressure of whatever it may be that kind of hinders your game. But he’s gaining that confidence to be able to go out there and play.”

Deferred gratification

Tough to gain confidence without opportunity. He played in just two games as a freshman, then sat out his sophomore year. Constant calls to his father David, a fourth-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins as a defensive back from Syracuse, kept Holmes focused.

“I looked at (redshirting as a sophomore) as an opportunity to get better and improve my craft,” Holmes said. “Last year was a chance to be mentally stronger; physically stronger; focus more on the weight room.

“I learned from guys like Will Fuller, Amir Carlisle. It was tough, but it got me to where I am now.

“I just figured there was a plan for me. I stuck with it and got better. I trusted the process.

“I learned to treat practice like a game. My dad told me: ‘Keep your head up and keep working every day. Treat practice seriously. It’s what’s going to get you on the field.’”

That deferred gratification seems to have paid off. He’s on track to be a shining light among the newcomers at receiver, even though he’s been around a while.

“In the classroom I’m considered an old guy,” Holmes said laughing. “On the field, I like to consider myself a young guy. I’m right there with the freshmen trying to get this experience.

“I’m hungry, though. I’m ready to make plays.”

Even if it takes a battle before each play begins.

Corey Holmes is a leading candidate to replace senior Torii Hunter Jr. in Notre Dame's starting lineup Saturday against Nevada if Hunter's concussion symptoms linger. (Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)