Notre Dame's best catch in years

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Before a baseball game at Cincinnati last season, Notre Dame's Golden Tate was shagging some balls in the outfield. He ran down one long fly and, to the amazement of his coaches, reached out and grabbed it with his bare hand.

"I asked him what that was and he said, 'Just instincts,'" Irish baseball coach Dave Schrage said.

Notre Dame's football coaches got used to seeing those instincts as well. Tate had a breakout year as a sophomore in 2008, catching 58 passes for 1,080 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns. He had 18 receptions of at least 20 yards and 15 that went 30 yards or more.

"That's my specialty, making the big play," he said. "I'm here to catch the ball, and the wide-open pass is one [I'm] supposed to catch. It's fun to jump up and make a catch that no one thinks I can make."

Tate is the headliner in what looks like one of Notre Dame's best receiving corps in a long time. Fellow wideout Michael Floyd is back after recording 719 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman despite missing the last two regular-season games with an injury. He had four 100-yard games.

"They might be the best tandem in the country," quarterback Jimmy Clausen said. "They're two really smart receivers who know what to do against different coverages."

Clausen can also choose to throw to tight end Kyle Rudolph, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound target who continues to improve, or 6-5 junior slot man Duval Kamara, who recently underwent a minor knee scope but is expected back for the opener against Nevada. And those are just the returning starters.

Tate and Floyd remain the two main weapons, and each offers something different. The 6-3, 220-pound Floyd isn't afraid to get physical and use his size to create separation, while the 5-11, 195-pound Tate can simply run by you.

"I would say I'm all right; I'm decent," Floyd said. "He takes the pressure off me and I take the pressure off him with the different ways we run."

As good as the two were last year, they should only get better with experience. Both spent a week this summer at Clausen's California home doing extra pass-catching work, and the hope is that an improved Irish running game will help them avoid double coverages.

"This is only Michael's second year, and for all intents and purposes it's Golden's second year in the offense," said Rob Ianello, who coaches Notre Dame's receivers. "They have more steps to take."

Still, the one who figures to draw the most attention is Tate.

With a name like Golden Tate III, starring at Notre Dame seems like a given. He was a star running back and punter on his high school team in Hendersonville, Tenn., as well as a standout baseball player. Here's how phenomenal an athlete Tate is: After he hurt his thumb his senior season and couldn't play baseball, he switched to track and posted the state's top qualifying times in the 100 and 200 meters. He suffered a hamstring pull near the end of the 100 and couldn't compete in the 200.

Yet, he was anything but a natural when he was switched to receiver as a freshman. Despite solid genes -- his father, Golden II, was a star receiver at Tennessee State and was drafted by the NFL --- the nuances of the position puzzled him.

"I could catch the ball, but they couldn't rely on me to go out there and know what I was doing," Tate said. "I'm still learning things, still making adjustments and transitions. I'm starting to understand defenses more and understand my quarterback."

Tate was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of high school, and he continues to moonlight. He batted .329 with 13 stolen bases as the Irish's starting left fielder this season. Tate said his baseball skills help him to go up and catch a football at its highest point in traffic.

He's got a future in pro baseball if he wants it, Schrage said. Tate will face a decision like the one former receiver Jeff Samardzija, now with the Chicago Cubs, had to make.

"At this moment, I'm still pretty young and I still have two more years," Tate said. "Right now, I'm still tying to figure that out."

Kind of like how defenses will have to figure out ways to cover both him and Floyd this year.

Brian Bennett is ESPN.com's Big East football blogger.