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Preseason Practice Update - August 8

Aug. 8, 2016

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By Michael Bertsch and Leigh Torbin

Over the past couple of years, Notre Dame has recruited several tall, athletic playmaking wide receivers. The fruits of the Irish coaches labor traversing main streets and backroads from Broward County to British Columbia will prove to be a critical component to the 2016 team’s success.

Who, you ask, is Notre Dame’s active leader in career starts at wide receiver? That would be James Onwualu with four ââ’¬” yes, the same James Onwualu who is about to embark on his third successive season starting at linebacker. Suffice to say, there will be a few first-time starters for the Irish come September.

“There’s a bunch of talent there – it’s just as green as the grass,” associate head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock said after Monday’s practice to Fighting Irish Media’s Jack Nolan. “We’ve got to find a way to bring those guys along as quickly as we possibly can. They’re doing a good job. They just have to do a better job understanding the compete level that it takes to be successful at this level. Doing it on the scout team or at the high school level is one thing but when you get against the big boys, your compete level’s got to rise.”

The current receiving corps collectively has one career start ââ’¬” senior Torii Hunter Jr. started last year’s season opener against Texas in the slot alongside Will Fuller and Chris Brown. Fuller wears a Houston Texans uniform today ââ’¬” a first round selection of the defending A.F.C. South champions. Brown is on the roster of the Dallas Cowboys. So, while both will most likely be in the Lone Star State when the Irish and Longhorns face off Sept. 4 in Austin, and might even be at the game, they will not be in and Irish uniform.

Hunter stands as the unquestioned leader of this group. The senior can draw from a wealth of experiences gleaned not only for his time learning from Fuller, Brown, current Arizona Cardinal Amir Carlisle and others last year, but from a lifetime learning the ways of a team by osmosis from his professional baseball all-star father, Torii Sr.

The positional leadership runs downhill from there to a pair of sophomores who saw some action at wide receiver last fall but truly showed their potential through their special teams play ââ’¬” C.J. Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown. The elusive open-field moves the Irish hope to see from Sanders as a slot receiver in 2016 were evidenced in 2015 as he became just the third player in Notre Dame history to return both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same season. St. Brown saw action on several special teams units, making his biggest contribution in the win over USC when the Anaheim native blocked a punt that the Irish recovered for a TD.

“Playing special teams gave me an edge because I know what to expect now,” Sanders said. “As a freshman, I focused on punt and kick return which helped as far as the speed of the game and I got experience in the slot behind Amir and Torii. Now I feel like I’m up to speed, ready to make plays and be a leader for the team.”

Those heavily-recruited freshmen and sophomores who did not play in 2015 will be just as hard to keep off of the field as they are to physically miss. Sophomore Miles Boykin (6′ 3-5/8″, 222 pounds) and freshman Chase Claypool (6′ 4″, 220) in particular are imposing figures difficult to miss through three days on Culver Academies’ Oliver Field.

January enrolled freshman Kevin Stepherson has continued his strong spring practice results through three days of fall camp. Junior speedster Corey Holmes is a player many have eyes on. Freshmen Deon McIntosh and Javon McKinley are vying for playing time on the heels for stellar prep careers. Meticulous observers of practice have also likely caught a tantalizing glimpse of blazing sophomore walk-on Chris Finke at some point.

The long-term prognosis for the Notre Dame receiving corps is marvelous and benefitting from a team-first concept driven home by the few among the group who have suited up for the Irish.

“Out here as a group, everyone’s trying to get better and we need to help each other out as a unit,” St. Brown said. “It’s all about the team.”

If the magnanimous Equanimeous (6′ 4″, 205 pounds himself) properly develops along with his teammates, the success of the young but potentially formidable Irish receiving corps could equate to success for the entire 2016 team.

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Michael Bertsch, director of football media relations at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2006. An Akron, Ohio, native, he graduated from Walsh University (Ohio) in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and also received his master’s degree in health and physical education with an emphasis in sports administration from Marshall University in 2001.

Leigh Torbin, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013. He serves as the football publicity team’s top lieutenant and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame’s lacrosse teams. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.