SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey didn’t want to compare sophomore-to-be Tobias Merriweather to one of the greatest wide receivers in football history, but then he basically did.
“I don’t do comparisons, but Randy Moss, the ball was in the air, it’s like he got faster,” Stuckey said Wednesday following Notre Dame spring practice No. 13. “And Tobias, the ball is in the air, the guy is right next to him, it’s like he hits another gear and just runs away from guys. That’s a very unique skillset to have. You can never outthrow him and he makes plays down the field.”
Merriweather showed his deep-threat ability on his lone catch of his freshman season in mid-October. Stanford left safety Kendall Williamson in one-on-one coverage on Merriweather in the slot, and he burned him on a post route for a 41-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Drew Pyne. Merriweather made the most of his biggest opportunity in the sixth game of the season.
CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO INSIDE ND SPORTS ON YOUTUBE
Unfortunately for Merriweather, his midseason momentum was halted by severe concussion symptoms that put him on bed rest for more than a week. The symptoms flared up following the Clemson game, the ninth of the season, but the hit that caused the concussion occurred in a practice.
“It was probably the worst concussion I’ve gotten,” Merriweather said. “I was on bed rest for like a week and a half. I got in a mode where I didn’t want to be around the team. It was hard to go through that, because I wanted to be on the field. I wanted to be playing. Then I’d come back in meetings.
“I guess I did learn from it and got to see other guys play and be their fans, especially like the Navy game when they’re all going crazy.”
Merriweather made the flight with the team to the Navy game in Baltimore, which he said hurt his head a bit, but he was only there for moral support of his teammates and to keep his own morale high. He missed the final two games of the regular season as well before returning for the Gator Bowl victory over South Carolina.
“For any athlete or any person who wants to play as a competitor, being out is frustrating,” Merriweather said. “Especially when you know you’re about to get the call. You’re about to be playing a lot more than you have been. That’s what you’ve been working for all season, all offseason. Then it gets thrown away at the last moment. It’s frustrating.
“That’s what God had in store for me. Whatever happened, happened and you have to roll with it.”
By the time Merriweather made his splash with a touchdown catch against Stanford, he started to pick up the nuances of Notre Dame’s offense. All the studying was paying off for him.
“It just helped my confidence,” Merriweather said of the catch. “At that point I was like, ‘Damn, I want to be on the field. I want to be playing. I want to be making plays.’ That was kind of like, ‘OK, I didn’t work for no reason.’”
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Merriweather continued to improve his understanding of Notre Dame’s offense in the offseason in order to put himself in position for a starting role rather than make brief cameos. Though Rivals ranked him as the No. 22 wide receiver and No. 135 overall in the 2022 class, he was a raw prospect coming out of Camas (Wash.) Union, where he played in a relatively basic, run-heavy offense.
When Notre Dame wanted to get Merriweather into the game last season, then-offensive coordinator Tommy Rees created plays that had specific roles for the freshman to limit the knowledge he needed to grasp. As a more experienced player, Merriweather has a better understanding of what new offensive coordinator Gerad Parker and Stuckey want from him.
“That’s what I work for. That’s what we all work for,” Merriweather said of an increased role. “Having tags [on plays] is nice when you don’t know the offense that well and you’re still learning. But nobody wants to come in for one play and that be all and go back to the sideline. To be in for every play, every down, having earned that right to be in on every down is important.”
SUBSCRIBE TO INSIDE ND SPORTS TO STAY IN THE KNOW ON NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS
The time Merriweather spent sidelined only made him “hungrier” to prove himself this spring.
“I had to come back, get it back and make sure they know I should be starting, I should be on the field,” Merriweather said. “I deserve it. I earned it.”
Stuckey can sense the difference between the version of Merriweather who finished last season and the version he’s seeing on the practice field this month.
“Maturity goes a long way. He understands what it takes to be great. Still a ways to go but understanding what it takes. How good other guys are, and what we expect from him.
“The expectation is for him to be a great receiver and be one of the guys that goes down in history—a lot of this game is mental. He’s turned the corner mentally and he loves being challenged. I challenge him in a different way that I might challenge Deion [Colzie] or JT [Jayden Thomas] or Chris Tyree. And I think that with every challenge he’s responded.
“Confidence comes with success, and he had some success early on. And then it’s ‘OK, I think I can do this.’ So it’s always challenging to take it to another level and always staying humble.”
Merriweather’s friends help him stay humble by sharing with him the criticism they’ve seen or heard about him. Even though many Notre Dame fans suggested last season that Merriweather should be playing more, Merriweather knows there are always doubters.
“There are a lot of people who have a lot to say,” Merriweather said. “Whatever it is — media. In my own world I kind of doubt myself, so I can give myself a little more push. I like to prove myself wrong a lot.”
The buzz around Notre Dame’s offense this spring is that the Irish are interested in stretching the field with a vertical passing game more than last season. That should be good news for Merriweather given the way Stuckey described his ability to separate from defenders.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Merriweather said. “Every receiver’s dream is that beautiful ball slowing down, midair, you see it spiraling at you. Just catch it — touchdown. Or you’re running away from people. That’s what playing receiver is about. You love the big plays.
“But also I just like how Sam [Hartman] and Tyler [Buchner] have been dicing it up down low. I like to play at all three levels. It’s all been fun playing at all three levels and getting better.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION ON THE INSIDER LOUNGE MESSAGE BOARD
Merriweather’s mastery of the entire route tree can make him a really difficult cover for opposing secondaries.
“He can sink his hips too,” Stuckey said. “That’s the beauty of him being 6-3, 6-4. I can run deep but I also can sink my hips and run a stop or a stab or a slant or an option route. He can run the full route tree, and he believes that and he knows the work it takes to be great — right now. But still a long way to go. Just keep challenging him.”
The physicality of the game challenged Merriweather last season. He learned he wasn’t strong enough to withstand a good jam from a college cornerback pressing him. There wasn’t a perfect enough technique for him to overcome that.
The current, stronger version of Merriweather believes he can better counter that physical coverage. Stuckey might not be there yet, but the vision he has for Merriweather’s future couldn’t be much more promising.
“The physical part will come,” Stuckey said. “What I look at and I know what separates guys at the next level is the mentality. He has matured so much in a year. You can just tell the focus is different.
“He’s confident, making plays down the field. He understands his body better. We give him the freedom to have savviness in his routes. That’s what he does well. He’s such a creative route runner and he has so much speed.”
• Talk with Notre Dame fans on The Insider Lounge.
• Subscribe to the Inside ND Sports podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Podbean or Pocket Casts.
• Subscribe to the Inside ND Sports channel on YouTube.
• Like us on Facebook: Inside ND Sports
• Follow us on Instagram: @insideNDsports