By: Kyle Gibson

The Fighting Irish football team is quickly closing in on the start of Fall camp which will kick off on August 6th down at Culver Academy once again. We don’t know if Brian Kelly or any of his staff will be making grand entrances on horseback again but we do know there are a lot of open positions to settle before meeting the Longhorns down in Texas in just over a month. Before camp gets started we’re taking a look at each position in our Reload series. Check them out here: O-Line/D-Line, Linebackers.

Next up are the Wide Receivers.

Lost: Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle, Corey Robinson

Heading into the 2016 season no unit has to replace more production than the WR corps. Every starter is gone and you won’t find many remaining receivers that have game experience, let alone receptions.  Outside of Torii Hunter Jr who was last year’s 3rd leading receiver, there are only two WRs on roster that have reeled in a pass. That would be Equanimeous St. Brown and CJ Sanders who have one catch a piece. LB James Onwualu is actually the second most experienced WR and even has more starts at receiver than Hunter from before he switched sides of the ball after his Freshman year. That’s pretty frightening and needless to say this group is a bit of a mystery in terms of what to expect. There’s no question that Torii Hunter is ready to step into the main spotlight and take over as the number one receiver but who’s going to join him as a starter?

The two previously mentioned names are ahead of the pack since they have game experience despite making almost no contributions to the receiving game so far. St. Brown was stuck behind Will Fuller which kept him on the sidelines for the most part, logging minutes in only 7 contests last season but there’s no denying his potential. He may not have been given much of a shot to make an impact but it says a lot about the rising Sophomore that he made his way into the two deep as a true Freshman and the only thing keeping him off the field was one of the nation’s best WRs. The son of a former Mr. Universe, St. Brown has the physical traits to make him a real threat to opposing secondaries. Standing at 6’4 with track speed he needs only to prove his ball skills for us to get very excited about the damage he could do. Brian Kelly has been raving about “EQ” since his arrival and after being held back during the Spring due to injury, there are going to be a lot of eyes on him in Fall camp.

CJ Sanders was also dealing with an injury during the Spring which puts a lot of emphasis on his Fall as well if he’s even fully recovered. We know Sanders well because of his duties as a return man last season in which he became only the third player in Irish history to return both a punt and kick-off for a touchdown. It’s that speed and change of direction ability that has had fans excited about Sanders since seeing his high school highlights but that electric game changing potential is coupled with a dangerous concern. On multiple occasions Sanders mishandled the ball which resulted in no return at all or even worse, a turn-over. You have to catch the ball before you can run with it and that might be his biggest hurdle other than his health as he fights to earn a starting gig at WR. Fielding kicks and catching passes are obviously completely different but we know from practice that he struggles at times making clean catches when running routes. His small size and shifty legs make him the most dangerous option on roster to play in the slot and to produce yards after the catch. If he’s worked on improving his hands this Summer and there’s a lot less dropped passes in camp then he’s a shoo-in to take over Amir Carlisle’s starting role but if not there’s going to be a truckload of wasted natural ability sitting on the sideline. Granted a try at RB may be in the cards if that’s the case or maybe just a lot of sweep plays when he’s in the game.

If Sanders struggles either getting fully healthy or developing that necessary consistency as a pass catcher then eyes are likely going to turn towards Junior Corey Holmes who redshirted last season. Flying very low under the radar his first two years, most fans didn’t know Holmes’ name until hearing about the freakish test numbers he put up during some combine style drills at the start of the Spring. Holmes ran a 4.39 40yd with a 41” vertical, for reference Will Fuller ran a 4.32 with a 33.5” vertical. Standing at just 6’ with those types of numbers could make him very dangerous in the slot and if he’s able to translate that top end speed onto the field in pads like Fuller then he may very well get a lot of looks lining up wide to try and beat corners deep. He’ll be a versatile option that could play any WR position. Where he gets the most time will depend on how the rest of this group is performing. Like with all receivers, the battle is consistency and if he proves himself as a reliable target then he’s going to get a lot of time on the field and possibly even a starting role depending on how Sanders is looking.

Speaking of consistency, one of the biggest surprises of Spring was Freshman early enrollee Kevin Stepherson. With all of the injuries nagging this group, Stepherson was able to get a ton of quality reps and he did more than make the most of it. To use an overused but accurate term, he’s just a natural at WR and defensive players listed he and Torii Hunter as the toughest to cover during practice. He’s listed at 6’ but he plays like he’s taller with good arm extension and looks to have a future playing on the perimeter. With a Fall camp that’s equal to or better than his Spring Stepherson will certainly find a lot of playing time this season, likely rotating in behind St. Brown or Hunter.

Now that we’ve covered all of the speedier options (everyone mentioned so far ran a 4.5 40yd or better) it’s time for a bigger more physical style of WR in rising Sophomore Miles Boykin. Listed at a tad under 6’4, 230lbs his size reminds you some of Michael Floyd. Learning to use that size like Floyd did is going to be the key in how productive he can be. He’s not fast enough to outrun coverage but he’s big enough to dominate most corners. He just has to use his size and strength to create separation and box out defenders. If he can develop that physical and aggressive style of play then he could be a very good weapon. Boykin redshirted last season but he received a lot of praise from coaches and fellow players. He’s got good hands and many feel that if he pulls it all together and develops that confidence to use his size then he will play a big role. He fractured a finger in the Spring so he’s yet another WR that will look to showcase his ability in the Fall.

New to the crew since this Spring is Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool both of whom were much higher rated than Stepherson and arrive with better size than their fellow Freshman. Stepherson’s stellar spring made us forget that McKinley was supposed to be the Freshman WR we talked about this year and if he had enrolled early maybe he would be the one we’re buzzing about but we might be talking about both of them after Fall camp. McKinley was a consensus high level four star recruit and one of the top WRs in California with recognitions, honors, and impressive offers aplenty. At 6’3, 205lbs he’ll draw some comparisons to Floyd as well but unlike Boykin he’s got the quickness necessary to even think about coming close to Floyd’s level of production. He already plays strong and physical which makes him a yards after the catch specialist. But not only does he play physical as a receiving target, he blocks too. There may not be any better trait to exhibit to your coaches as a young WR than the willingness and ability to get in there and block for your teammates. He just has to get out there and prove himself on the college level.

Chase Claypool is impressive physically but isn’t as polished at WR as McKinley. His 6’5, 220lb size and athleticism helped him earn a 4-star rating but playing in Canada and not dedicating himself to football until finishing high school didn’t earn him a lot of confidence as a future star WR. Labeling him a project player may be a bit beneath him considering his physical tools and athletic ability but he may be a project just because the staff needs to figure out what position will best utilize his size and abilities. The depth at WR makes it a good starting place but many feel he’d be better off at numerous other positions. Tight End obviously comes to mind first, but playing on the other side of the ball is a strong possibility as well. Everyone including Brian Kelly raves about his raw talent but he’s raw as a player too and even the head coach eluded to the fact that he could play anywhere. At this point, the coaching staff doesn’t seem to know where he fits best so it might be a few weeks before we know whether or not he’s seriously in the mix at WR this year.

Overall this group is just too much of a wait and see situation to make any real prognostications. Last season this was a unit led by veterans we were very familiar with. This season it’s filled to the brim with unknowns and untesteds. Will the chemistry that was built by last year’s leaders carry over to this group? Can Torii Hunter take the reigns not only as the main man on the field but in the locker room as well? There are a lot of questions and a lot of youth with only two upperclassmen in the entire group. But there’s also a ton of potential with a wide array of skill sets. It’s only natural to be a bit nervous in a situation like this but receivers have a habit of surprising us. No one saw TJ Jones coming after Michael Floyd or Fuller after Jones. The Irish have had good luck with WRs stepping up each year and Brian Kelly has done a good job adapting his offense to its strengths. With a strong offensive line and a loaded backfield of not only talented and proven RBs but versatile QBs as well, this offense should be able to shift gears when necessary as this receiving corps comes into its own. Needless to say everyone will be learning a few new names at WR this season, but that isn’t always a bad thing and could be very exciting.