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Notre Dame Football

Freshman Rico Flores, Jr. Ascends to First String on the Notre Dame Depth Chart

October 25, 2023
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Typically, there’s little to glean from the Monday release of the Notre Dame depth chart throughout the fall. Even those doubtful to play on Saturday could still be listed as starters. 

Still, some week-to-week changes are noteworthy. 

On Monday, the Fighting Irish coaching staff made a statement when they elevated freshman wide receiver Rico Flores, Jr. to first-team ahead of sophomore Tobias Merriweather. 

Flores is tied for third on the team with 15 receptions to go along with 178 yards and a touchdown, which came against No. 3 Ohio State.

In recent weeks, he’s emerged as a go-to receiver for quarterback Sam Hartman, who’s targeted the freshman more than any other Irish wideout over the last three games.

With that said, he won’t let his new status as a starter go to his head.

“I just work my tail off,” Flores said. “I never feel like I’m good enough. I always feel like there’s something I could keep getting better at.”

Flores enrolled early at Notre Dame at the midyear as the third-ranked wideout in the 2023 recruiting class. 

On3 even rated him as a three-star prospect because the 6-foot-1 wide receiver lacks an elite physical trait, obviously overlooking his determination.

“A lot of people don’t have that grit or that hunger,” Flores said I came from a lot. I came from a rough part of Sacramento, so I don’t ever want to go back. I have a lot of things that helped me keep this drive and keep this hunger. That’s my personal reason for what I’m doing today.”

He also approaches his craft with curiosity and constantly seeks perfection.

“It tells you a lot about him,” offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said. “He’s eager to learn, always asking, always around the building. And I think it’s put him in a situation where he’s starting to see some stuff and see some success doing it.”

Of course, health has also been a factor. 

Flores started against Duke and Louisville as a technicality. Heading into both contests, the Irish were down to three fully healthy scholarship receivers. 

Monday marks the first time he’s received a top spot on the depth chart. 

Wide receivers often fail to understand the nuances of the position, which prevents them from becoming consistent contributors early in their Notre Dame careers.

“It’s more of a mental game at this level, at this point of the season,” Flores said. “It’s way more than just the physical aspect.”

Those outside the program underrate the importance of wide receivers in the run game, especially when it comes to big plays.

To be fair, it’s way more fun to focus on Audric Estimé as he trucks and outsprints defenders than it is to focus on a wideout stalk block taking place far from the action. 

Even coach Marcus Freeman does this when he can.

“When you’re a fan, you watch the ball,” Freeman said. “When you’re game planning, you watch specifics. Offense, defense, what are you trying to do? When I’m with my kids, I try to just watch the ball and watch the game.”

The Irish ranked 33rd out of 133 FBS teams, with 42 rushes of 10 yards or more. 

Sure, such production wouldn’t be possible without one of the nation’s most physically imposing offensive lines, but it’s nearly impossible to execute chunk plays on the ground without perimeter blocking.

“What was the breakdown from that going to the house or going going deep?” left tackle Joe Alt said. “Obviously, it starts with the offensive line, we gotta get our jobs done, but then it's when those wide receivers dig out those safeties and dig out some of those linebackers and those nickels fitting.”

Jeremiyah Love likely gains seven or eight yards on the run above, regardless of Flores’ contribution. The freshman running back makes a nice cut at the line of scrimmage, and Alt pancakes a defender. 

By knocking Navy quarterback Dashaun Peele out of the play, Flores frees up space in the second level so Love can pick up an extra dozen yards or so for the biggest run play of the game.

Flores has consistently made plays like this all year, which is why he’s played at least 16 snaps in each of Notre Dame’s eight games, a feat rarely accomplished by freshman receivers in South Bend due to the demands of the position.

“It shows what Notre Dame is,” Flores said. “It’s hard, but are you willing to choose hard? It all reverts back to the Golden Standard. I feel like those guys that are working and being at the top right now, they’re holding themselves (accountable) and choosing hard, including myself. 

“I feel like anybody could choose hard if you’re willing to do it.”

He may be an official starter this weekend, but his importance to success in the passing game should diminish against Pitt now that Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse are back to full health.

Oddly, that could make Flores more effective in the passing game. Notre Dame had to use him as a deep three over the last three games with little success. Hartman is 0 for 7 on throws to Flores that traveled 20 yards or more during that span. 

Now, the role of deep-threat boundary receiver can go to Thomas and Greathouse, allowing Flores to find openings underneath and over the middle, where he’s caught 9 of his 15 receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown.

Still, now that he’s a starter, his expectations for himself will only increase beyond what he’s already accomplished eight games into his Irish tenure.

“I hold myself to high standards, which the coaching staff does, too,” Flores said. “Having that on my back, I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, but it’s just like, ‘OK, you’re a guy. So you have to be treated like a guy.’”

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