Aug. 23, 2004
by Bo Rottenborn In a conversation with Notre Dame receivers coach Trent Miles about the keys for his unit in 2004, one word keeps popping up: consistency. “As a group, our number one goal is to strive for consistency,” Miles says. “We are working on the ability to go out and make big plays for the offense and do it consistently, both in catching the football and also blocking.” Perhaps it is understandable that Miles is focused on consistency, considering he works with a group that has collective experience arguably greater than any other position on this year’s Fighting Irish. Playing young receivers has been a recent trend for the Irish – of the eight freshmen who have earned monograms over the past two seasons, four of them did so as receivers – which could begin paying dividends in 2004 if they show the maturity expected. “We made great strides in the spring, and I’m looking forward to this group being one of the deeper ones at Notre Dame in a long time,” Miles says. “It is a group that has experience – there are guys who have been starters – and also some young guys that are going to contribute early. It is a very physical and aggressive group that plays with consistency.” Six of the seven Irish receivers that caught passes in 2003 are back, but gone is Omar Jenkins, who had 80 receptions – including 36 a year ago – for 1,088 yards during his career. “Omar’s loss will be reflected greatly in off-the-field areas, like in the locker room and the meeting room,” Miles says. “I feel we’ve got some guys that are going to do a good job filling in for him, but any time you lose a guy with that kind of character and leadership, you’re searching for it in different places.” A year ago, Rhema McKnight became the first sophomore since Raghib Ismail in 1989 to lead the Irish in receiving. After playing in every game but one as a freshman in 2002 and then becoming a starter a season ago, catching 47 passes for 600 yards and three touchdowns, 2004 has the potential to be a breakout year for McKnight. “We’re expecting big things out of Rhema,” Miles says. “He has big play potential and great hands. He’s probably one of the toughest physical receivers in the nation. He’s got a lot of game experience and the ability to lead. Rhema sets the tempo for the group, and we’re looking for him to come out and be one of the best receivers in the nation.” Another junior, Maurice Stovall, also already has two years of time as a regular under his belt. In his first two campaigns, Stovall caught 40 passes for 733 yards and six touchdowns, including an 85-yarder against Purdue in 2003 that stands as the third-longest touchdown catch in the 117-year history of Notre Dame football.
Junior Maurice Stovall hopes to emerge as a consistent threat in the Irish attack for 2004.
“We look for a great year from Maurice,” Miles says. “I think he has become more focused and has matured physically and mentally. I think people will start seeing the type of receiver they envisioned when he got here.” Fifth-year senior Carlyle Holiday is by far the most experienced player in the receiver corps, having started 26 games at quarterback before being moved in the middle of last season. He caught a pair of passes while playing sparingly at wideout in 2003, but could make an increased impact this season. “I think you’re going to see Carlyle improve every week and get better as he becomes more comfortable with the position,” Miles says. “He’s done a really good job adapting to being a wide receiver since we moved him.” Jeff Samardzija was one of six freshmen to earn a monogram for the Irish in 2003, playing in every game and catching seven passes. Miles anticipates Samardzija playing a greater role this season. “You’re going to see a lot of Jeff Samardzija,” Miles says. “You won’t find a tougher, sure-handed guy that is just a great football player.” Senior Matt Shelton and sophomore Chase Anastasio also figure to contribute for the Irish in 2004. “We’re looking for Matt to be a deep threat,” Miles says. “He has improved in his time at Notre Dame and has earned his way into the rotation. Chase has a lot of speed and big play ability. He can close your cushion in a hurry and beat you deep.” “We feel really good about the group,” Miles adds. “We’re looking forward to all of them contributing and everyone understanding their roles and what they have to do to help the football team. And it starts with being consistent.” Smardzija Excels On Both The Gridiron And The Diamond After being an immediate contributor for the Irish at receiver in 2003, Jeff Samardzija traded in his helmet for a baseball cap and turned in an outstanding season pitching for Notre Dame’s baseball team this past spring. As a top long reliever and occasional starter, Samardzija was 5-3 with a 2.95 earned-run average that ranked second in the BIG EAST Conference, while allowing opponents to hit just .209 against him. At one point, he put together a 22-inning scoreless streak. “Jeff is a competitor, so any time you give him the ball and put him on the mound, he wants to compete,” Irish receivers coach Trent Miles says. “He always keeps his competitive drive going.” While being a force on the mound, Samardzija still took part in football spring practice, twice playing in a scrimmage and flying that night to join the baseball team only to start the next day.
Sophomore Jeff Samardzija is also a reliable pitcher for the Irish baseball team.
“In the spring, after football practice, he would change clothes and head to baseball practice, or after a football scrimmage, he would get on a plane and goes to meet the baseball team,” Miles says. “In order to do that, you have to really have tremendous desire. Jeff is the epitome of a competitor, and he will be competing quite a bit for us on the football field this year.” At the conclusion of the 2004 campaign, which saw the Irish set a school record for victories with a 51-12 record, Samardzija earned freshman All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball magazine.