SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame faced a similar question in 2014 it faces now: Who’s going to catch the ball?
Two years ago, Notre Dame entered the season having lost 70 percent of its receptions, 74 percent of its receiving yards and 78 percent of its receiving touchdowns from the 2013 season. The answer to the question turned out to be a guy who only had six catches as a freshman the previous year — Will Fuller.
Notre Dame might or might not have another breakout candidate like Fuller on its roster this year. But there’s a constant between 2014 and 2016: wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock.
The Irish are without Fuller (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 touchdowns), who became a first-round pick of the Houston Texans after turning pro earlier this year, along with Chris Brown (48 catches, 597 yards, four touchdowns), Amir Carlisle (32 catches, 355 yards, one touchdown) and Corey Robinson (16 catches, 200 yards, one touchdown) at the receiver position.
Add in the losses of running back C.J. Prosise (26 catches, 308 yards, one touchdown) and tight ends Alize Jones (13 catches, 190 yards) and Chase Hounshell (one catch, six yards), and Notre Dame has to replace 82 percent of its 2015 receptions, 87 percent of its receiving yards and 84 percent of its receiving touchdowns this fall.
“It’s like starting over,” Denbrock said. “Last year was kind of a little bit of a year off for me, quite frankly. I mean, I had guys that had heard me say the same things for three years and had kind of got used to being out there in the fray and doing it. Now it kind of regenerates itself and we start all over again, which for me is kind of exciting.
“I love the challenge, I love the dynamic of the group. I love their attention to trying to do things the right way, we’re just a little bit inexperienced and we’re learning how to do things the right way.”
Denbrock is in his fifth year coaching Notre Dame’s wide receivers (he spent 2010 and 2011 as the Irish tight ends coach and helped develop Tyler Eifert there, too) and has overseen that regeneration of a receiving corps after the losses of three go-to options in Michael Floyd, T.J. Jones and Fuller. And while an offense requires all its units — quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen — working together to succeed, it’s worth noting Notre Dame’s passing S&P+ rankings since Denbrock took over the Irish receivers:
Even if you might view some of those rankings as a bit bullish — like 2012’s, which seems high for a year in which Notre Dame deployed a conservative run-first offense — they’re solid evidence of Denbrock’s success in developing reliable pass-catchers.
“He's someone that doesn’t take anything less than what you can give,” redshirt junior receiver and captain Torii Hunter Jr. said. “He expects you to give 100 percent all the time. He just wants you to max out your potential, whatever it may be. And I’m grateful for the type of coach that he is because he never lets us get away with half-done.”
Of course, it helps that Notre Dame has recruited exceedingly well at the receiver position over the last few years. Jones, DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson, Fuller, Hunter, Corey Holmes, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, C.J. Sanders, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley were all Rivals four-star recruits, while three-star recruit Chris Brown developed into a rock-solid player and fellow three-star prospect Kevin Stepherson impressed during spring and preseason camp (he's expected to play against Texas despite his arrest earlier this month).
While coach Brian Kelly said he’s “concerned” and that all those inexperienced receivers — St. Brown, Sanders, Boykin, Holmes, Claypool, McKinley, Stepherson and ex-walk-on Chris Finke — are “suspects,” he has an immense amount of trust in Denbrock. The two have coached together for 16 non-consecutive seasons, with Denbrock serving as both an offensive and defensive coordinator, a tight ends coach, a wide receivers coach and an associate head coach. Denbrock, too, has coached offensive line and linebackers at various stops in his 30-year coaching career.
“He knows the offense and the system and he knows what I look for and what I'm trying to do, and so it's a great relationship because I don't have to micromanage him,” Kelly said. “All I have to do is kind of say, this is the direction I would like to go, and he's off and running.
“So any time you have that, and a longstanding relationship with somebody that knows exactly where you want to go, it allows to you do so many other things and it allows me to help coach some of the players at a level, a grass roots level that sometimes the head coach doesn't get a chance to do.”
There’s been some inconsistency with players during practice in August, but that’s to be expected with such a green group.
“He’s on us hard,” St. Brown said. “He knows he has to be harder than ever because we have a young group of receivers.”
But why should 2016, even with all the uncertainty surrounding that position, be any different? There’s that saying that you should never bet against a streak. And Denbrock is on a pretty good streak.
“I just think you gotta be very consistent and very demanding with what you ask them to do and not let their youthfulness be an excuse for not playing at the level they should play at,” Denbrock said. “They get it, they understand it, and they’re growing.”