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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
The Observer

Cahill: Wide receivers are growing up fast

Wide receiver Rico Flores Jr (17) runs the ball down the field with tight end Holden Staes (13) during the game between Notre Dame and Clemson at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4.

Even assuming Notre Dame wins their final game against Stanford, the season has been disappointing for a talented Irish squad that could not put it together when it mattered most. With that perspective, it would be easy to overlook Saturday’s explosion against Wake Forest as too little too late. While that may be true in the context of the 2023 season, the way everything came together offensively Saturday should give Irish fans hope for next year. This hope largely lies in the wide receiver corps, a young group that has struggled for most of the season, but found something on Saturday.

There will be serious question marks surrounding the Irish offense next season. How will the line fare without offensive linemen Joe Alt and Zeke Correll? Will junior running back Audric Estimé return? Most importantly, who will play quarterback? Sophomore Steve Angeli looks like the most likely option and has played well in small sample sizes. Freshman Kenny Minchey and true freshman CJ Carr will make up the rest of the room. There also remains the possibility of bringing in another graduate transfer. However, regardless of who takes the helm, the offense will need more production from the wide receivers. 

Against Wake Forest, Notre Dame’s true freshman wideouts, Rico Flores Jr., Jaden Greathouse and Jordan Faison, combined for 15 catches, 217 yards and 2 touchdowns. Flores became the first Irish receiver to hit 100 yards in a game since the Fiesta Bowl. That was 24 games ago. When Sam Hartman transferred to Notre Dame, he was not expecting the receiver corps he had to work with against his former team. Injuries to juniors Jayden Thomas and Mitchell Evans forced the freshmen to go from role players to primary options in the passing game.

That is an extremely tall task that has not always been met, and understandably so. Saturday’s game was an indication that these freshmen may be ready to step up. The talent in this group was clearly on display as they dominated the Wake Forest secondary all game. Marcus Freeman has made it evident that he wants to build his team in the trenches. While I believe in this approach, this team needs to go over the top far more often next season. In the current age of college football, that’s how offense is played. If the receivers hit the level they flashed on Saturday more consistently, the potential of this Irish offense next season skyrockets. 

There have been flashes that this breakout game was on the horizon. “It's just a testimony to just continue to battle, continue to prepare, continue to work,” Freeman said when asked about the wide receivers coming through. He attributes the improvement to the work of offensive coordinator Gerad Parker and wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey, pushing for a “constant chase of improvement.”

“If you do that and you get these opportunities that we had today, you got to be ready to take advantage of them,” Freeman added.

That’s exactly what the receivers did. The mentality of the coaching staff and their persistence through the low points of the season has played a massive role in the development of these young players. When asked about how it felt to be such a big part of the future, Flores said, “We can't give into that yet. We still got to keep laying these bricks down game by game, practice by practice, and keep going at it every week.”

That emphasis on a consistent drive to improve even following such a successful moment shows the bright future this group has. They aren’t satisfied with the season and neither is the coaching staff. It’s easy to look at this team on paper and the opportunity they had this season and become impatient. Impatient with the players. Impatient with the coaching staff. Impatient with Freeman. I want to push back on that sentiment.

There have undeniably been mistakes this season that the players and coaches will have to learn from. However, Freeman has overcome a lot of adversity thus far in his tenure. Bouncing back from inexcusable losses against Marshall and Stanford last year to defeat Clemson resoundingly at home. This year, overcoming heartbreaking losses to Ohio State and Louisville to completely dominate their oldest rival, giving the student body another opportunity to storm the field. He is building a culture built on character and resilience. When those traits are combined with the elite talent and athleticism that this wide receiver group possesses, there’s real reason for optimism.

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