Daniels ready to be the man for Notre Dame -- and his family

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – In the days and hours before last season’s national title game, a 15-year NFL veteran and proud dad couldn’t stop reminding Notre Dame receiver DaVaris Daniels of something.

“This is the kind of game that will put you on the map,” Phillip Daniels repeated. “Let people know who you are.”

Six catches and 115 yards later, Daniels doesn’t need iPhone GPS to find himself centrally located in coach Brian Kelly’s plans. From a 42-14 loss to Alabama that probably made coaches want to burn the game film, Daniels was worth watching. Kelly called the Notre Dame junior a “legitimate BCS wide receiver” after a practice last week.

Phillip has always known that, but excuse him if he keeps reminding his son that the spotlight belongs to him now – and not dad.

Daniels admired his dad’s career but didn’t always bask in the NFL glamour depicted by others. Sometimes, he saw a four-bedroom house with no parents in it. He saw rooms that had to be cleaned. Siblings Damara, Dakiya and DaKendrick were too young to shoulder the burden while Phillip was playing for Washington from 2004-10 and his mom, Leslie, made trips from Chicago to D.C. in the fall and winter months.

Though an older cousin was available to help out with dinner plans and other necessities, DaVaris was the boss of the house back in suburban Chicago.

“Something probably most 14-year-olds didn’t have to do,” said Daniels of the experience.

Phillip was ready to move the family to D.C. almost a decade ago when the Redskins first called, but the family decided it was best to stay in Chicago, where the 6-foot-5, 302-pound Phillip had been playing on the Bears' defensive line. 

Daniels was about to enter high school, and the family – Daniels included – didn’t want to start over. The family didn’t know his career in Washington would last seven seasons.

But that meant dad watched a handful of Daniels’ Vernon Hills High School games live. On Saturday nights, Phillip was hunched over his laptop in a hotel room watching a replay of his son’s game that the high school coaching staff sent him. Daniels was a hybrid QB/WR/RB out of Vernon Hills, the country’s 64th-ranked player according to 247Sports.com.

Leslie booked extra flights to ensure she didn’t miss either of her boys’ games. Daniels knew why dad wasn’t around. But that doesn’t make it easy, in part because the two are so close.

“I think I do have a different feel about (the NFL) because he was taken away,” Daniels said. “When you’re a little kid, football seems like a sport. You don’t understand the business side of it.”

Daniels remembers crying a few days after his dad told him he was retiring in 2011. Despite the time away because of the NFL, watching him on Sundays was all Daniels knew.

But the father-son talks that followed, whether over the phone or in the family’s green Lincoln Navigator on the way to the Jewel-Osco grocery story, assured Daniels that this was his time.

“I told him, it’s time for me to live through you – I look on the field, I see me,” Phillip said. “At this point on, it’s all about you and your career.”

Making this work was still a challenge for Phillip, who was hired by the Redskins as director of player development shortly after retirement. Phillip saw three Notre Dame games in 2012 – Boston College (Daniels had two catches for 22 yards), USC (didn’t play because of a shoulder injury) and Alabama. Daniels finished the year with 31 catches for 490 yards.

Daniels’ stint with the Redskins ended in February, and he’s back in the Chicago area helping coach at Vernon Hills and running Demolition Sports Nutrition, the “absolute best in nutritional supplementation,” according to the company’s web site.

Though Phillip is here now, Daniels never held a grudge when he wasn’t.

“We kind of grew closer because we were so far apart,” Daniels said. “Keeping in touch, always talking about what I should do and shouldn’t do. He’s watched every game online. Always has input on how I did, things I should work on in future.”

Phillip didn’t need to provide much input after the title game. He was simply impressed. He saw his son go against elite cornerbacks, including first-round cornerback Dee Milliner at times during the game, and get open mid-field, carefully cradle the ball into his hands and change directions quickly after the catch.

Phillip wasn’t exactly surprised.

“I’ve never seen him miss a ball unless it surprises him or it’s too low,” Phillip said. “Every time he touches the ball, he makes something happen.”

Tight end Tyler Eifert – a first-round pick with Cincinnati – was too often a safety valve for an offense that didn’t have a consistent vertical threat.

Daniels, who admits he just tried to “fit in” last season, aims to change that. He wants the ball on third downs when a defense knows he’s a primary target.

“To become the receiver everybody wants me to be,” Daniels said. “This year I’m a guy trying to help this team be great.”

Those catches in the title game came from Everett Golson, who won’t return to Notre Dame until spring 2014 at the earliest after reportedly violating a university Residential Life policy.

Kelly quickly turned to senior Tommy Rees, who has grasped the offense so well that he knows it better than some coaches, Daniels said. Daniels would know – he’s Rees’ camp roommate.

Senior T.J. Jones will do his work on intermediate routes, but Daniels likely will be pushing downfield more often. Daniels and Rees connecting deep might help the Irish improve its national 101st ranking with four pass plays over 40 yards a season ago.

Daniels isn’t overselling his title-game performance and expects similar play throughout 2013.

His experience in high school helps him now because he can see a job through, whether that’s cleaning his sister’s room or running a clean slant.

“I know that’s something I should be doing," said Daniels of his performance against the Tide. “That’s the type of guy I should be.”

That’s what’s expected of him now, at home and in South Bend.

“He’s always done well in big moments,” Phillip said. “Every team he’s been on, he’s made better.”


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