Notre Dame true freshmen Davonte Neal, Justin Ferguson, and Chris Brown know well the exploits of graduated star Michael Floyd. They know they won't replace his record-smashing production, probably not even his standout first season that included 48 catches for more than 700 yards and seven touchdowns. But to a man, and in congress with their veteran tutors, the trio believes the 2012 receivers can meet that lofty standard.
"They're going to need all of us," said Ferguson of the incoming trio. "So collectively, yes, definitely. Chris is a speed guy, he'll go up and get the ball. Davonte is a smaller speed guy, a slot guy, and myself I'm more physical. Together we can get the job done."
The "smaller speed guy" Neal has a unique take on replacing the Irish legend.
"Michael Floyd was drafted by the (Arizona) Cardinals. I got in touch with him and we chatted over the phone," said Neal. "He basically gave me tips as to what I could do transitioning to the next level. Things that are going to be different, things that are going to change. Things that need to be worked on and I thank him for helping me out.
"You have questions about Notre Dame and academics. He told me I can handle it because he could handle it."
Brown spoke openly about his strength and focused area of improvement; both were areas in which Floyd was well-versed during his time in South Bend. "I've improved my blocking skills and going over the middle," he said. "Defensive backs on this level will be a lot more physical so I have to get in there and do my part for the run game.
"I do want to make sure i'm a complete receiver, coming over the middle, catching underneath routes. "
Reminded of a recent legacy of Irish pass catchers that included Jeff Samardzija, Golden Tate, and Floyd, Brown, noted, "Its hard to replicate those guys, but as a unit, we can come together and do good things. There's no replacing that production, but we can come together and fill it."
First StepsNone of the trio is close to a finished product, but each believes there's a strength to fall back on should they be thrust into early action. Not surprisingly, Brown's was his penchant for getting behind the secondary. "Maybe something deep, I feel like I can try to go get something," he offered.
Already a sturdy 6'2" and cheeseburger away from 200 pounds, Ferguson appears ready for contact, regardless of the level jump that awaits. "Being a physical receiver," he said before reiterating. "Physicality, I'm going to go out and do my part."
The freshman target likely to hit the field first is Neal, the team's apparent No. 2 option in the slot behind senior Robby Toma.
"I've been with Robby Toma and he's been coaching me up on the footwork and steps we need to take and things like that," Neal offered. "He's a big help, not only is he my mentor on the field, he's also my roommate. We go through the playbook together at night. He helps me with the game and in life, telling me what the school year is going to be like. What to do, what not to do."
The 2012 season is Toma's fourth in the slot, and though Neal appreciates the chance to learn one position at the outset of his career, he didn't have a preference entering summer drills or training camp.
"Whether it was on offense or defense, I know that Coach Kelly had a plan for me the whole time, and wherever he put me, i was going to try to make plays," said Neal. "I just feel comfortable on the field. I love being on the field and playing football."
Never one to shy from contact, the compact, quick-footed Neal admitted he joins Ferguson in a penchant for the physical.
"Knowing you have that helmet and shoulder pad to protect you, that's all you need," he said of a high school career that included an all-star effort at cornerback. "With that (helmet) you can do anything. I was taught at a young age, just stick your head in there, it's only going to hurt for a little bit."
It might hurt a touch longer at the collegiate level, but Neal, a four-year starter in high school, won't mind.
"I love i. Its competition all over. You can't tell first, second, third team, because everyone competes. That's what Notre Dame football is about: competing.
"I love it (competition) it makes me a better player...It puts fight in my heart to know what it feels like to win or lose, and winning feels a lot better than losing."
Barring injury to the first unit receivers, Neal and his classmates won't start the season opener vs. Navy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing for a trio of playmakers used to being the whole show for their previous squads.
"When you have playmakers surrounding you like Cierre Wood and Robby Toma, and Goody, (John Goodman) on the outside, T.J. (Jones) on the outside… And you have quarterbacks that can make plays, receivers, and running backs, and not to mention the line is tremendous. It's great (not to be the only go-to-guy.)
"Coach Kelly knows what to do with the football and we have a lot of playmakers to take a three-yard catch and take it 30-40 yards. I'm just an asset."
One of three new assets for program looking to replace one of its best ever.