Noie: Irish wide receiver room might be thin, but it remains full of confidence
Surely there are assorted motivational slogans and sayings surfing the hallways and meetings rooms and locker room of the Guglielmino Athletic Complex as No. 5 Notre Dame rolls toward the start of the 2022 college football season.
Slogans and sayings designed to embrace adversity and all it entails. To push the Irish through all the tough stuff. To fight and compete when they don’t believe they have any fight or compete left. To keep the program chasing its first national championship since 1988.
You know, to overcome those odds, great or small. To win over all.
That’s one of them, something that drives the Irish on the football field, in the classroom, in the weight room, in the film room. In life.
Sounds nice, but what happens when hard chooses you?
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That’s what happened to one Irish position group — wide receivers — late in Friday’s practice when sixth-year wide receiver and likely team captain Avery Davis snared a jet sweep and looked to turn it up the field. Davis went to plant his right leg in the FieldTurf of the LaBar Practice Fields and likely felt something pop.
Last November, down the block inside Notre Dame Stadium, Davis felt something pop in his left leg. The result then was a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The result now learned late Friday was a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Notre Dame lost a player from a position group that it couldn’t afford to lose. Not now. Not in November. Davis was the group’s spiritual and emotional heart, a likely repeat captain, a guy who would have himself game-ready come Sept. 3 at No. 2 Ohio State while also pulling everyone else along to sustain a certain standard.
His season — and likely college career — is over before it ever started. Hard? Dealing with that is way beyond hard for a position group limping toward the season’s start line.
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We’re still 17 days away from everything going green, and the Irish have only seven (relatively) healthy scholarship receivers with a combined 90 career catches. Seven. On a good day, a minimum of 10 might suffice. One of those seven, veteran Joe Wilkins, Jr., returned to practice only Monday after recovering from two serious injuries – a broken foot and a knee (medial collateral ligament) – suffered inside of six months.
These wide receivers know hard too well.
“We don’t want the easy route for anything,” said first-year wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey. “Whatever comes our way, we deal with it and keep moving forward.”
Moving forward the only way they know how – by still doing everything needed and expected from the group. Catch the ball. Stay on their blocks. Make plays. Make a difference. Play to a standard long set at the position by guys like Derrick Mayes, a recent visitor to practice.
That goes for anyone healthy enough to contribute. If it’s Wilkins getting back in the rotation, it’s Wilkins. If it’s graduate student Braden Lenzy taking what has arguably been his best/most complete preseason camp and having his best/most complete regular season, it’s Lenzy.
If it’s fast-tracking ultra-talented freshman Tobias Merriweather, it’s Merriweather. If it’s turning over even more of the playbook to former walk-on Matt Salerno — all the guy does is run the right route and make catches — it's Salerno. If it’s asking walk-ons Henry Cook and Conor Ratigan to do more, time to do that as well.
“In life, we don’t find out who we are until we’re thrust into a position to do something that we haven’t planned,” Stuckey said. “That’s what’s happening now. You see guys starting to emerge, personality-wise, leadership-wise, raise their level of play.
“It’s been a beautiful sight to see.”
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To coach these guys up, to keep the room believing that they have enough to help the Irish win at least 10 games for a sixth straight season, to stay positive while swimming in a sea of negative, Stuckey draws on his own experiences as a former player, a coach, a father, a person. From suffering a broken foot in his college career at Clemson, to getting drafted lower than expected (seventh round), to seeing his NFL dream end after four seasons, to transitioning to a life as a college assistant coach, then becoming a father, then losing his father, Stuckey’s seen a lot.
“You name it,” he said. “All kinds of hard stuff. We talk about hard, but the grace of God at the same time, you reveal in those types of things. Other people hear it like, ‘He’s going through it, I’ll be all right.’
“Happiness can be taken, but joy is given. That’s a choice.”
Notre Dame receivers choose joy. Choose hard. Even with a healthy Davis, there was cautious optimism that the group might do enough receiver stuff to keep this offense humming. Now, the outlook from the outside is, let’s just say skeptical. On a good day.
Maybe offensive coordinator Tommy Rees slides a tight end out more to play wide receiver. Maybe he leans even harder into Michael Mayer as a critical piece to the game plan. Maybe Chris Tyree becomes even more of a runner/pass-catcher combo guy. Maybe former wide receiver Xavier Watts turns in his defensive playbook from his safety spot for one on offense.
Outside of the wide receivers’ room, even with Stuckey’s optimism, there are so many maybes and too few certainties.
“We really don’t have a lot of receivers like everyone says,” said sophomore Lorenzo Styles, one of those who has to grow up and grow up now. “But the leadership, everyone motivates everyone. Everyone holds everyone accountable.
“We’re all raising the standard together.”
Fine, but where’s it all headed? Is there someone from the group who can step forward and give the offense consistent production? Again, even with Davis that was a quiet question mark. Now, it’s a loud one.
How might all this look come Sept. 3 and points forward?
“That is for everyone else to find out,” Styles said. “I just know that our guys, we believe in our group. We believe in our position group. We believe in our coach.
“We’re just workers. We’re going to keep working, so that’s all you guys have to know. We’re just working.”