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April 19, 2012

Daniels shifts into next stage


What about DaVaris Daniels?

Has DaVaris Daniels made a move up the depth chart?

How soon before you think DaVaris Daniels can get in the mix?

Rarely does a media session with Brian Kelly transpire without someone from the media asking the question that seems to be on the forefront of most Notre Dame football followers' minds.

Why so much curiosity with Daniels? Several reasons: a) Michael Floyd, Notre Dame's all-time leading receiver, is gone; b) Notre Dame needs wideout playmakers; and c) Daniels generally is considered the most physically gifted wideout on the roster.

Daniels excelled in final week of spring drills.

Wednesday, at his final spring interview prior to Saturday's annual Blue-Gold Game, Kelly finally provided the answer that inquiring minds have been seeking.

"DaVaris Daniels really stepped up his play and became a guy (this spring) that we can feel comfortable now saying that he's going to help us win games next year," Kelly said. "That's a really important thing."

Important? Crucial. Critical. Necessary.

Without Floyd, the Irish lost their only legitimate deep threat from the 2011 season, and even Floyd had just two receptions of 40 yards or more last year. Notre Dame is in desperate need of someone who can stretch the field vertically to lengthen the field and spread out the defense while loosening up the territory underneath the safeties.

Daniels has that ability, and now that he's healthy, it's really beginning to show itself.

"Being healthy, more than anything, and he got confidence," said Kelly of what prompted the light turning on for the 6-foot-2, 190-pound sophomore from Vernon Hills, Ill., who is the son of 14-year NFL defensive end Phillip Daniels. "He made a couple of plays. Once you make a couple of plays, he knows."

No one feels better about DaVaris Daniels than Daniels himself. His confidence has shot up this spring.

"It's really big," said Daniels of the confidence he's gained this spring running at the X, Z and W receivers positions. "Last year, I didn't really have a chance to get comfortable. But this year I'm feeling a lot more comfortable and everything is just rolling.

"(That confidence) is a combination of a lot of things. Learning defenses, knowing the right routes, knowing the coverage and what plays work on that specific coverage, where the QB is going to be looking…Everything kind of ties in."

Daniels said the transition from untested freshman to I'm-starting-to-get-it sophomore came off the field following Notre Dame's post-season trip to Orlando.

"For me, it happened after the bowl game last year," said Daniels, who preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman last fall. "Just talking to the coaches and knowing what they expected of me this spring. They just put that motivation into my head and it's helped."

Kelly's positive words helped most of all.

"When you have a head coach that believes in you, you can't help but believe in yourself," said Daniels, who caught a modest 23 passes for 513 yards and five touchdowns as a senior at Vernon Hills High School in 2010.

"When you have people like that supporting you, it definitely helps."

As if often the case, it was just a matter of a bit more experience and, above all, health that propelled Daniels to a state of pass-receiving consciousness this spring.

"I got sidelined with a leg injury early in the spring," Daniels said. "I'm just getting back into it lately. But overall, since I've been in there, I'd say it's been going pretty well. My confidence is much (greater) than what it was last year."

There is still much work to be done, starting with his first appearance in Notre Dame Stadium in front of a live audience Saturday.

"The spring game will be interesting," said Daniels, who is competing with TJ Jones for playing time at the X, but also has dabbled in the two other wideout positions. "I'm excited to show what I can do. It's exciting for all the freshmen. This is our first time to show everybody what we can do."

For all freshman receivers, defensive coverages on the collegiate level are a labyrinth that often throws the most talented of the young wideouts into a period of doubt and indecision.

"The next step is route running," Daniels said. "I've got the speed and the moves off the line…It's just within the route, the route-running part, that I need to get better."

Listed at 190 pounds, Daniels still looks like he could use some bulk to help him withstand the punishment of the game. But Daniels believes he's progressing on pace in that area as well.

"I could probably put on a little more weight before the season, but right now I'm at a good spot," Daniels said.

Slapping on pounds doesn't come quite as easily to Daniels as it does for his father, who recorded 62 sacks and 514 tackles during his decade-and-a-half career with the Redskins, Bears and Seahawks.

"You would think that I wouldn't have any trouble with that if you looked at him," smiled the younger Daniels. "But for me, I've always had an issue with gaining weight. Coach (Paul) Longo and our staff have been doing a good job with us in the weight room, and it's coming pretty naturally now."

For Kelly, there's no mystery as to why Daniels is coming on strong.

"All he's heard is all this potential, all this potential," Kelly said. "Then he makes a couple of plays and that's the igniter. Once that got ignited, he made a ton of plays.

"So we know it's there. Now we've got to get it from him, and we feel really good about going into the summer as it relates to Daniels."

So does Daniels.

"I think that I'll come along," Daniels said. "The more experience I get, the better I'll get. The Blue-Gold Game will help me get to that point. It will be nice to be in front of (Notre Dame) people for the first time."

Nice to see him, too.


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