Little things help Daniels see big picture

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Two months ago, DaVaris Daniels had an idea to help develop chemistry. He invited a handful of teammates, and a former teammate, over to his house in Vernon Hills, Ill., a little more than two hours northwest of Notre Dame. They spent a weekend working out at his alma mater, Vernon Hills, and at nearby Lake Forest, Tommy Rees' high school.

Fellow wideouts Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise were there. So, too, were running backs Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III. And they had suspended quarterback Everett Golson throwing them balls, since those connections might very well resume next season.

"Just build chemistry, keep it," Daniels said. "Last year we had a pretty tight team, so that was kind of my main thing, was just to keep everybody close and keep what we had last season and continue into this season."

This was one way Daniels, Notre Dame's leading receiver, matured into the type of offensive linchpin the Irish were seeking after saying goodbye to first-round picks Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert in consecutive years. Others on the checklist included fine-tuning route-running, becoming a better blocker and bringing a consistent work ethic to the field every single day.

Early returns have been positive, with Daniels hauling in two fourth-quarter touchdown passes on consecutive plays last week in a tight win at Purdue. He has 17 receptions this season for team bests of 299 yards and four touchdowns, or four more than he scored during last year's redshirt freshman campaign, his first year of college action. That season concluded with a national title-game rout courtesy of Alabama and its top-ranked defense, though it also served as something of a coming-out party for the 6-foot-1½, 203-pound receiver.

Daniels had six catches for a game-high 115 yards against the Crimson Tide. But whatever that did for his confidence paled in comparison to the humiliation of a 42-14 defeat.

So he went back to work. Being able to run a 4.5 40 and leap upward of 40 inches was one thing; harnessing those gifts into production was still quite another.

There were the summer workouts with teammates back home. There was rooming with Rees during camp, the nightly picking of his starting quarterback's brain about where to be on certain routes and how to make their timing more crisp. He learned how to use his hands better off the snap, making life harder for the corners matched up with him daily in practice.

All of this in the name of fulfilling all of that untapped potential.

"He's two-quarters of the way," coach Brian Kelly said. "He needs to be four-quarters of the way."

He is aware. KeiVarae Russell recalls Daniels telling him a year ago about his desire to become one of Notre Dame's greatest receivers ever.

"I was like, 'I don't doubt you. I think you will,' " the sophomore cornerback said. "So far it's shown. You can see it's totally different from last year. Last year he didn't even have one touchdown. He played a great role last year but didn't have one single touchdown. He has four in three games. You can see the difference. That shows."

His quarterback, having gone to high school just 10 miles away, knew the kind of athlete he was getting when Daniels came aboard two years ago.

"I remember playing him in a summer league basketball game the summer going into my senior year," Rees said. "We actually won, but he had, like, a tip-slam over a guy, and it was just kind of, 'Not many guys could be out here doing that.' "

In the past two years, Daniels' father, former NFL defensive lineman Phillip Daniels, had seen a mindset that belied that athleticism. Playing in a wing-T offense in high school and adjusting to a redshirt year in college slowed the learning curve some.

Now, Phillip says, DaVaris simply isn't thinking so much anymore. Mastering the basics of the craft has turned one of the nation's top prep receivers into a guy who could very well be on his way to becoming one of the nation's elite college wideouts.

"He had to learn little things as a receiver," Phillip Daniels said. "I think because he's learning all that stuff, and learning the plays and how to play the position, it's slowing down for him. It's not running through his mind at 100 miles per hour, and he can play football."