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Irish Invade Sparta: Is It Time To Worry About the Notre Dame Receivers?

In a couple days the Notre Dame football team will be traveling up north to East Lansing to face the Michigan State Spartans in the first road test of the season for the Irish.

Besides being the first road game of the Brian Kelly era, this match up pits two former Cincinnati coaches against each other as Kelly followed current Spartan coach Mark Dantonio as the leader of the Bearcats back in 2007.

A night game at Spartan Stadium on national television should bring us another physical battle between these two rivals which is almost guaranteed to entertain and delight.

For the third straight week Notre Dame will be coming into a game with a perceived advantage with their passing game against a relatively unproven and inexperienced secondary. The Irish will surely air the ball out and move down the field via Dayne Crist’s arm and a pair of All-American receiving targets.

Coming into this season with a new spread offense and Brian Kelly’s penchant for throwing the rock all over the place, fans were expecting very little, if any drop off in passing offense from 2009. There might be a learning curve for the new offense and new starting quarterback, but the talent was in place to do some serious damage.

But after two games I’m wondering to myself, should we be concerned about the Notre Dame receivers?

Yes it’s very early in the season, we haven’t seen the offense truly open up and there’s still plenty of time for improvement, yet the receivers have been the most mysterious and confusing unit on the team so far this year.

Coming into 2010 there was a lot of talk about how Notre Dame had one of the best receiving corps in the country and I certainly sounded that trumpet on more than one occasion during the off-season.

After two games I’d like to reevaluate this stance a little bit.

Allow me to take a look at five different topics as I seek to clear up this situation.

1. Kyle Rudolph

With this 6’6" junior catching balls the passing game gets a boost like you wouldn’t believe. But Rudolph isn’t a receiver, he’s a tight end.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Rudolph is going to be the main target for Dayne Crist in 2010 and it’s probably a good bet to wager that No. 9 will go over 1,000 yards receiving and lead the team in most receiving categories.

When Rudolph is on the field the offense has another dynamic that is very rare at the college level and I can’t stress how important of a role he plays on this Irish team.

Still, I want to focus on the receivers only and try to detach ourselves from what Rudolph brings to the table, because after all, this might be his last season in South Bend.

2. The Transfer of Shaq Evans

Despite the pleas of the Irish fan base upon hearing of Evans’ transfer a month ago ("we’re fine without him," "our depth is amazing at that position," "Brian Kelly knows how to develop receivers") I think the loss of this young Californian is a lot bigger of a deal than most people want to admit.

You could make the argument that Evans didn’t even make the two-deep this year and that his transfer (and threat of it last year) meant that he probably wasn’t a big piece to the puzzle anyway.

But that ignores the fact that Evans was still only a true sophomore with three years of eligibility left and that the "future" of an emerging strong and productive receiving corps relied heavily upon him stepping up and filling the shoes of Michael Floyd and possibly turning into a number one receiver at some point.

Some have argued that the hole left by Evans has been filled by freshman TJ Jones and that Jones is better anyway. But again, the future was predicated upon players like Jones AND Evans teaming up together to lead the receivers.

Maybe Evans never ends up making it at the college level and the point will be moot, but I still think he’s very talented, has a bright future and will be missed by this football team.

3. Michael Floyd

There’s been a whole lot of head scratching with Floyd’s performance so far this season. For the first time in his career he’s gone consecutive games without catching a touchdown pass and has not looked very dominant outside of his tremendous improvement in blocking.

There’s been a lot of factors in the slow start for Floyd (by his standards) including a new system, a new quarterback and his talents now being the primary focus of a defense without Golden Tate lining up on the other side of the field.

Which begs the question, is Michael Floyd ever going to surpass the season Golden Tate had in 2009? Or put differently, is Floyd better than Tate?

Floyd is the proto-typical NFL wideout with an elite combination of size, speed and skill but right now I’d still take Tate at the college level.

Like I said, it’s been a big adjustment for Floyd this year (something Tate never had to deal with) but there’s still a lot to be desired with No. 3 and his overall game. I completely agreed with Brian Kelly’s assessment a few weeks ago that Floyd looked unimpressive at times last year and needed to step up his game.

He needs to fight off double teams, make more people miss in the open field and consistently dominate and over-power opponents who have no business trying to cover him.

The good news is that Kelly’s praise for Floyd is a sign that the junior receiver is on his way to improving and being a leader on the team both on and off the field. Plus, his start so far this season (10 catches, 148 yards) isn’t that bad.

He’s one big game away from asserting himself as possibly the best receiver in the country.

4. Theo Riddick

When Brian Kelly announced that sophomore running back Theo Riddick would be moving to wide receiver the decision initially made a lot of sense. There was a log-jam at running back, Cierre Wood was coming on strong and Riddick’s playmaking ability demanded that he get a lot of playing time.

Fast forward to today and Riddick has struggled mightily in his new role despite drawing constant praise from the coaching staff and starting at the slot receiver position since the first game.

It’s no secret that Riddick needs to get going in order to take the passing offense from good to great. It’s still much too early to really worry that moving Riddick was a failed experiment, but at some point he has to make an impact if there are not to be a lot of questions being asked.

Should Riddick move back to running back next year?

Should he not be starting?

5. Where’s the Depth?

One of the big differences with Brian Kelly’s coaching philosophies from the previous regime is the desire to utilize the entire two-deep at multiple positions. That meant that given the amount of receivers on scholarship there was a good chance we would see a lot of new faces in the passing game in 2010.

So far there has been zero utilization of the depth chart.

Senior Duval Kamara who was penciled in as a starter up until fall camp lost his spot to freshman TJ Jones and has caught one ball while playing very sparingly.

Deion Walker, Robby Toma and John Goodman haven’t even stepped on the field yet.

So going back to my original question, should we be worried about the receivers?

What’s this unit going to look like next year if Floyd and Rudolph leave for the NFL?

There’s still a lot of promise with these players and I would expect Notre Dame to continue to have a very effective corps of receivers, but I’m not so sure the future is as bright as was once assumed.

A starting lineup of Jones, Riddick and Goodman is a nice group, but not up to the level the Irish have trotted out onto the field in years past.

Three things will have to happen to avoid any major drop-off:

1. Floyd and/or Rudolph stay for senior year

2. Riddick develops into serious threat

3. Young/inexperienced receivers make an impact

The first is as obvious as possibly can be. The second is an important issue to watch as this year develops. If Riddick catches 50 balls in 2010 and makes plays on reverses, then we’re talking about some serious progress.

This year Deion Walker, Roby Toma and John Goodman need to make solid contributions while anything from Bennett Jackson, Daniel Smith or Austin Collinsworth could be considered a bonus. Along with Riddick and Jones, these are the players that are the future at wide receiver (throw in George Atkinson III too).

If Michael Floyd or Kyle Rudolph leave early the cupboard isn’t bare, only untested and that is slightly worrisome. The future would be well served if more than three receivers were catching balls in the near future.

Then again, we might see Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick and the rest of the bunch break out in a big way in the next few weeks.