Notre Dame receivers are starting to show the Chansi Stuckey Effect
SOUTH BEND — Heading into the fourth quarter last week at Syracuse, a once-comfortable lead having been sliced to seven points, Notre Dame’s entire offense, starters and reserves, huddled near the sideline during an extended break.
Marcus Freeman listened from the periphery as his assistant coaches took turns emphasizing key points that would help the Irish stabilize and ultimately win going away. At the center of the huddle, speaking calmly but forcefully, was first-year wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey.
Reminded of that scene ahead of Saturday’s game against Stuckey’s alma mater, fourth-ranked Clemson, Freeman smiled.
“He might say a couple words to the team this week on what it’s like to be at Clemson — maybe,” Freeman said Monday. “We’ll see what I have in my back pocket.”
Stuckey’s co-workers have teased him a bit this week about his first chance to compete against Dabo Swinney, his former position coach, boss and mentor. It was Swinney, the two-time national championship coach (2016 and 2018), who convinced Stuckey to go into the profession after seven years away from the game.
Stuckey, 39, spent two seasons on the Tigers’ coaching staff, 2019 as a graduate assistant and 2020 as an offensive analyst, before a one-year stopover coaching Baylor’s wideouts.
“This week is a big one for him,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said. “It matters to him. We were just joking around with him about it.”
Already a game changer on the recruiting trail, where the Irish have secured commitments from a trio of four-star receivers in the Class of 2023, Stuckey continues to re-shape the narrative about a long-maligned position room for the Irish.
Production remains modest, in part due to season-ending injuries to starting quarterback Tyler Buchner and senior captain Avery Davis, but there have been notable breakthrough moments in recent weeks.
Jayden Thomas, a redshirt freshman, hauled in a one-handed touchdown catch in Las Vegas to spark the Oct. 8 win over BYU. That highlight play flowed directly from the #CatchRequired mentality and the one-handed drills Stuckey instituted upon his arrival.
Thomas added a 3-yard touchdown catch last week at Syracuse, where his improved route precision also drew a key pass interference penalty on the Orange to set up another score.
Tobias Merriweather, the four-star freshman, made his first career catch (a 41-yard touchdown) on Oct. 15 in the loss to Stanford. He has played 41 combined offensive snaps the past two games after being limited to just 17 through the first half of the season.
And Deion Colzie, the sophomore who suffered a PCL sprain of his left knee in training camp, made three catches for 44 yards in the Oct. 29 win over the Orange. That reception total, which included a juggling third-down conversion that set up a game-sealing touchdown, was one shy of Colzie’s career output to that point.
If you’re looking for an early measure of the Stuckey Effect, this past month has been highly encouraging.
“You see the improvement technically in some of the guys,” Rees said. “You see Deion Colzie. There’s the improvement with JT. You see the leaps Tobias has made here over the last couple of weeks, where he’s playing more snaps than he has, from a mental standpoint.”
Rees agreed with a suggestion the mental side is just as important as the physical.
“Tobias made the big play a few weeks ago, could’ve had another, and now he’s at the point where he’s out there to run the offense,” Rees said. “That’s what he’s able to do. (We’ll) continue to find ways to use his ability in the pass game.”
Stuckey, who played five seasons in the NFL (2007-11), seems able to strike the desired balance between demanding technical proficiency while building confidence in a largely unproven group.
“He’s done a great job,” Rees said. “He’s got a lot of energy. There’s a lot of technical improvements being had, which is kudos to him. We’re pleased with all he’s done for those guys, and I think that room is going to get better and better.”
Clemson's NFL pipeline
Even with Texas prep standouts Braylon James and Jaden Greathouse on the horizon, along with Folsom, Calif., product Rico Flores, Notre Dame is still looking to add receiving talent to this year’s class ahead of the Dec 21 early signing date.
Kaleb Smith, a three-star receiver who is committed to Texas Tech, is reportedly on an overflow list of attendees for Saturday night’s showdown.
Even so, the Irish have miles to go before they can match the wideout pipeline Clemson has constructed under Swinney.
When Stuckey went to the New York Jets in the seventh round a decade and a half ago, he was one of half a dozen Clemson receivers to be drafted in a 25-year stretch from 1985-2009. Just two of those, Doug Thomas (1991) and Rod Gardner (2001), were taken in the first two rounds.
Over the past 13 drafts, Swinney’s program has sent 12 wide receivers through the NFL draft, including three first-rounders and four more taken in Rounds 2-4.
Stuckey, whose coaching tenure overlapped with 2020 draftee Tee Higgins and 2021 picks Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, is in the early stages of igniting what the Irish hope will be a similar talent surge.
“I love coach Stuck and the energy he brings,” Freeman said. “The work ethic, the mentality that he brings to that room and this program, has been tremendous.”
Even if at times the ex-receiver in him threatens to boil over on the sideline.
“He’s an energetic guy,” Freeman said, shaking his head. “There’s been times I’ve had to tell him to calm down. He’s running up and down the sidelines. I’m like, ‘Hey, you get out of the way. You can’t get a penalty.’ “
That intensity is part of the Stuckey Effect, too.
“You know what I love about coach Stuck is he almost takes it personally,” Freeman said. “The play of his room is a reflection of him. The same challenges you present to that group, those individuals in that room, you can see their position coach takes the lead and he views it as a challenge on himself.”'
Work as its own reward
The result is a group, with senior Braden Lenzy and sophomore Lorenzo Styles showing the way along with former walk-on Matt Salerno, intent on stacking daily improvement and shaking off slights and setbacks.
“Those dudes work tirelessly,” Freeman said. “That is probably one of the most unselfish (groups), and it’s crazy because you think about wideouts, you think about, ‘Man, those are selfish dudes.’ But the more time I spend in their room, I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be unselfish’ because you can be perfect – be perfect – and never get a reward for it.
“People are going to say, ‘Where was he at?’ He ran every route, he blocked, he did exactly what he was supposed to do. He’s not in the stat sheet. Nobody talks about him. So, you have to be unselfish in that room to know that you can go as hard as you can and get zero rewards out of it.”
The work, they have learned, must be its own reward. Stuckey, the philosopher-coach, keeps them focused on the process.
“In life, a lot of times we don’t find out who we are until we’re thrust into a position to do something we hadn’t planned,” Stuckey said in August. “I tell my guys it’s about what we do in this room. It’s about our belief in our room. We’re not in the business of proving people wrong. We’re in the business of proving ourselves right.”
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.