Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 26, 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 20 of 55 SEPT. 26, 2016 21 T he quarterback is the same and the coaches are the same, but in many ways the 2016 Notre Dame pass game looks quite different. Ever since head coach Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend prior to the 2010 season, the Irish offensive staff has done a very good job building its pass game around the talents of its receivers. Notre Dame's pass offense looked a lot different in 2010 and 2011 when the two best pass catchers were W (boundary) receiver Michael Floyd (2008‑11) and tight end Tyler Eif‑ ert (2009‑12), compared to what it looked like in 2014 and 2015 when X (field) receiver Will Fuller was the top threat. Fuller has now joined Floyd and Eifert in the NFL, with all three play‑ ers getting picked in the first round. Notre Dame's top threats now are sophomore W receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Z (slot) receiver C.J. Sanders. Senior X re‑ ceiver Torii Hunter Jr. is expected to play a big role in the pass game, but he missed the Nevada game after suffering a concussion in the opener against Texas. St. Brown and Sanders combined for 24 catches, 261 yards and four touchdowns through the first two games. Notre Dame's W and Z re‑ ceivers combined for just eight touchdowns all of last season, and the Irish sophomores are on pace to produce significantly more recep‑ tions and yards than what Notre Dame received there last season. With the change in personnel, the Irish offense has once again adapted from what fans saw during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. MORE FOCUS IN THE BOUNDARY St. Brown replaces Chris Brown and Corey Robinson at the W posi‑ tion — which is the receiver that lines up to the boundary, or short side of the field. When Floyd was Notre Dame's top target, he spent much of his time in the boundary. In 2012, when Tyler Eifert won the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end, he also spent much of his time lining up in the boundary. With Fuller dominating at X the last two seasons, the boundary posi‑ tion became more of a complemen‑ tary position. The W position is now a prime position in the pass game, with St. Brown being targeted 19 times already in two games. That in‑ cludes two receptions he made that totaled 54 yards but were negated by an offensive penalty. On the first play of the 2016 season, junior quarterback DeShone Kizer threw a fade route to St. Brown on a play that was designed to take a downfield shot to the sophomore, who was making his first career start. That pass fell incomplete, but St. Brown finished off that drive by hauling in a fade route for a touch‑ down. St. Brown has been used with greater frequency on crossing routes and in breaking routes than were Brown and Robinson, who were used more on quick perimeter throws and out‑breaking routes. In 13 games last season, the W po‑ sition accounted for just nine recep‑ tions (162 yards) on in routes and three receptions (75 yards) on cross‑ ing routes. St. Brown already has two receptions (64 yards) on in routes and three receptions (72 yards) on cross‑ ing routes. St. Brown has proven to be an ef‑ fective after‑the‑catch runner, some‑ thing Brown and Robinson were not. Calling more in routes and crossing routes puts St. Brown in position to make more of these types of plays. IMPACT FROM THE SLOT Notre Dame has received good production from the Z position the last two seasons, and Sanders is on pace to put up similar numbers. The difference with Sanders manning the position is the type of routes that are working in the slot, and his ability to reach the end zone. The Irish offense had just three touchdown receptions from the Z position last season and eight total the last two years. Sanders already had two scores in two games. Sanders showed as a freshman kick returner that he is a dynamic player with the ball in his hands. Now that he has taken over the slot position, Notre Dame's staff has designed sev‑ eral ways for him to quickly get the football. All eight of his catches have come within six yards of the line of scrimmage. Like the W position, the focus on the Z has changed with Sanders as the starter. Last season, Notre Dame threw just one tunnel screen all sea‑ son. Sanders has already caught three tunnel screens, including one that went for a 25‑yard touchdown in the opener against Texas. With Sanders and St. Brown in the lineup, Notre Dame has two dynamic and athletic players at positions that did not provide much production in 2015. If those two can get on the same page with Hunter Jr., the Irish pass attack could become one of the nation's best. ✦ The Shift In Wide Receiver Focus CHALK TALK BRYAN DRISKELL Bryan Driskell has been a football analyst for Blue & Gold Illustrated since April 2015. He can be reached at Sophomore W (boundary) receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was targeted a team-high 19 times in the first two games of 2016, a departure from last year when X (field) receiver Will Fuller was Notre Dame's go-to guy. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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