Wide receivers thrust in the spotlight
By KATIE McVOY
Associate Sports Editor
Following the announcement that Tyrone Willingham would lead the Irish, Notre Dame wide receivers found themselves in the spotlight — a group that had been focused in the past on blocking, taking an occasional pass to mix things up and, in general, promoting the option-oriented offense.
But on Tuesday at practice, it was obvious that things had changed.
With Willingham's new offensive scheme, the wide receivers will find themselves back on the receiving end of two things – national attention and the pass. And although it may seem like a big change for the team as a whole and the receivers in particular, they're ready.
"I was a receiver when I came here, so my mentality is make a play, that's it," said flanker Omar Jenkins. "Running, blocking, I mean, I'm still going to have to block so changing my mentality wasn't difficult because it's still playing ball."
That kind of mentality, one that puts the focus on being ready now, is just the kind of mentality wide receivers coach Trent Miles is looking for. He understands that his team is going to be spending the next three weeks learning, but that doesn't mean they cannot be accomplished right now.
"I'm going to demand that they be good right now," Miles said. "If they're not, at least they're working towards it and they know what to expect from me. I'm never going to give them a way out, never going to give them an excuse. If they don't have a good practice, I don't expect them to settle for that, to just put it off as if `I'm only learning.' Let's go out there and expect to be good right now."
An experienced coach with inexperienced teams, Miles had a similar challenge at Stanford. His group last year had as its most experienced player a 13-catch veteran. The Irish, with their limited game-time experience, present the same kind of challenge, and Miles thinks he has the kind of group that can meet that challenge.
"I feel very good about what we've gotten out of them, and I think we communicate well together, and I feel very good about the fact that they're good and they're a good group of men."
Returning wide receivers Jenkins, Arnaz Battle, Ronnie Rodamer, Carlos Campbell and Matt Shelton had limited game experience in passing situations last season. Notre Dame's offense was one that used the run — quarterback Carlyle Holiday was a leading rusher. Now the receivers have some new things to focus on.
"We want to learn the offense, get everything down and just get in shape," said Rodamer. But Miles was more specific in his goals.
"I'm a fundamentals and techniques coach, so basically I'm going to spend a lot of time teaching them techniques and fundamentals," Miles said. "I coach scheme. Don't get me wrong, we're going to spend a lot of time on our scheme, but for the most part, right now I have to teach them techniques, fundamentals and scheme."
Part of that scheme will be creating explosive plays. Long passes and long runs will become part of the Notre Dame offense, and although some natural talent helps, that offense will be trained to make it habit.
"We always teach what we call `finish,'" Mile said. "There are certain people that play football that are just naturally explosive but you can also be the kind of guy that learns how to be that way by your work ethic. They're hard workers, and we always preach finishing down the field, running after the catch, just catching the ball and stopping and always making a move."
With the returning players having limited experience in the offensive style Miles is coaching and with two incoming freshmen who were recruited as wide receivers, the position is wide open. Miles thinks that is a good thing.
"We have the mentality that if something happens to one guy and some other guy goes in there, we don't expect it to fall off; we expect the level to stay the same," Miles said. "So we don't expect any kind of drop, and it doesn't matter who's the quarterback or who's receiving. They're all expected to do it."
And three days into practice is too early to pinpoint anyone as the go-to guy.
"Too early, too early," Miles said. "I think they're all trying hard; they're all every now and again making mistakes."
Regardless of who will be stepping out onto that field in the fall, the wide receivers are glad to be back in the action.
"How can I not be happy about that?" Jenkins said.
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, April 10, 2002