Coaches rave Samardzija just has 'it'

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Somewhere on the Indiana Toll Road, inside a car bound for Chicago's Wrigley Field, Notre Dame baseball coach Paul Mainieri turned to the man next to him and made a prediction.

The subject was Jeff Samardzija, a junior wide receiver for the Fighting Irish who doubles as a pitcher on the school's baseball team. In two seasons, Samardzija had only 24 receptions, none of which had resulted in a touchdown.

"I would be shocked if Samardzija doesn't catch 50 balls in the fall," Mainieri said emphatically.

"Why do you say that?" asked Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis.

"Because he's got it," Mainieri said. "I don't know how you define 'it,' but some guys just have it. He's going to find a way to make a major contribution this fall."

They continued on to the Cubs game, Mainieri confident of his declaration, Weis not quite convinced. Training camp was weeks away, and Notre Dame was bringing back four players, including leading receiver Rhema McKnight, who caught more passes than Samardzija last season.

Turns out Mainieri was spot-on.

Through four games, Samardzija, whose role increased with McKnight's knee injury, has caught six touchdowns, four more than any other Notre Dame player, and leads the team with 346 receiving yards. The long-haired wideout with the spell-checker-stumping surname already has 21 receptions, well on pace to the 50 Mainieri forecasted.

"I'm probably the least surprised person at this university to see what he's doing in football," Mainieri said. "In all honesty, I'm surprised it took this long. Obviously I'm not the football coach, but I am a coach and I know what an athlete is. I know what a winning athlete is.

"He was a guy who was born to be a winner."

After witnessing Samardzija go 8-1 on the mound last year, Mainieri knew the lanky right-hander prospered under pressure. But the spotlight didn't find Samardzija until this season, when he's become one of quarterback Brady Quinn's favorite targets.

Weis has rationed his praise for Samardzija, noting he never designs a play for one wide receiver. When opposing defenses roll their coverage against Notre Dame, Weis said, a receiver is usually left open. This season, that receiver has been Samardzija.

But the offensive script leaves room for improvisation, and that's where Samardzija flourishes.

"Some people have a gift," Weis said. "I'd like to sit here and take responsibility for that. ... He does a great job of positioning his body where he's the only one who really has a chance of making the play."

That much was clear last Saturday against Washington. In the third quarter, Quinn lofted a pass downfield to Samardzija, who, in a flashback to his prep days as a first-team all-state center fielder, tracked the ball and stretched his 6-foot-5 frame to make the grab.

"I wish I could put that on tape and explain it, but sometimes you just kind of go with it," said Samardzija. "I was on top of the DB, so it makes it a little easier when he's out of the picture and you can make a play on the ball."

Most receivers are body catchers, but Samardzija often relies on his exceptional hands, which he's developed in baseball.

"It's just kind of something that's natural, makes sense," said Samardzija, a freshman All-American in baseball. "I always thought it would be a little advantage."

Added Mainieri: "He's the best defensive pitcher we have. It's like watching Greg Maddux field his position."

Samardzija's boundless personality has benefited Notre Dame, historically one of college football's most tightly wound programs. With the long hair, a quirky taste in music and a catchy nickname -- "Shark," given by former Irish baseball player Chris Niesel for his resemblance to a character from the movie "Shark Tales" -- Samardzija is one of the team's most colorful players.

"Whether it's a serious situation or a not-so-serious situation, he's always someone who can take the edge off," RB Darius Walker said. "He's a great person to be around."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.