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Claypool’s drops perhaps a harbinger of Notre Dame success to come

Chase Claypool would not even grant the hypothetical’s premise. He knew how many yards he ended up with in Notre Dame’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest last weekend. He knew he caught nine passes and found the end zone once to gain 180 yards.

He would not speculate how much gaudier those numbers could have been if he had not dropped a likely 57-yard touchdown along the sideline early in the third quarter. Quick math would remove his 27-yard reception (as well as another drop, albeit a tougher ball to snag) later on the same drive and realize Claypool came oh-so-close to a nine-catch, 210-yard, two-touchdown afternoon.

“If I didn’t drop those passes, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten the other big gains,” Claypool countered. “I don’t think of it as a negative for dropping two passes. Obviously I need to work on that, but I don’t think of it as I could have had more yards. Maybe I would have had less yards.”

To be clear, Claypool was appropriately self-critical for the drops. That is part of why he would not acknowledge the possible statistical boosts. He just wasn’t so critical as to let the missed opportunities define his day. His fellow receivers made sure of that much.

“I was beating myself up on the sideline, and every single receiver said, you’re good, it’s going to come to you,” Claypool said. “… We’re kind of a family, so to have that security knowing that they have your back, it’s easy to come back from something like that.”

After the most-notable drop, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush kept the ball himself to gain 14 yards and a third-down conversion. Having reset the chains, he again looked for one of his receivers. This time junior Equanimeous St. Brown failed his quarterback. Wimbush then turned to sophomore running back Deon McIntosh to get back ahead of the chains before finally connecting with Claypool for the 27-yarder. Two more incompletions toward Claypool and the drive resulted in a 22-yard field goal.

“There were a lot of points that we left up on the board,” Wimbush said. “It’s scary and I say that every week, but one of these weeks we will connect and everything will be clicking.

“I’m not worried about those guys dropping balls. I’ve got to continue to give them opportunities to go make plays because those guys are playmakers.”

Claypool, specifically, has emerged as a playmaker. After last year’s breakout, St. Brown was widely-expected to be showcased this season. Sophomore Kevin Stepherson flashed enough speed in 2016, it was trusted he would quickly again once he got on the field. The physical Claypool, though, was only a tantalizing-but-unknown possibility.

“He’s a young guy that I wouldn’t say has got it all figured out yet,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “He’s learning every day, but he comes with a great attitude. He wants to get better.

“He’s definitely ascending. He’s not going to be a guy that plateaus out.”

At Boston College on Sept. 16, Claypool was Wimbush’s most-consistent option at receiver. That meant he caught two passes for eight yards. Such were the difficulties in the passing game, the struggles among the receivers and the impotent definition of success. The two catches did set up Claypool as someone Wimbush could trust, drops or not.

The results of that trust have progressively shown themselves. A week later Claypool pulled in four catches for 56 yards. After the dropped deep ball last Saturday, Wimbush still targeted Claypool five more times, completing three of them for 105 yards, most notably a 34-yard touchdown with Claypool using and needing every inch of his 6-foot-3 frame to cross the goal line.

“After I dropped that pass, there was no way I wasn’t scoring here, so I went for it,” Claypool said. “… I have to thank Brandon for trusting me after I dropped a couple passes and then going back to me on the next drives. Without [Wimbush and the Irish offensive line], I couldn’t have done it. It’s obviously big to have that big game moving forward, getting closer to the Playoffs.”

Indeed it is, and Notre Dame will likely need more of the same from Claypool going against Miami’s No. 3 passing efficiency defense tonight. The Hurricanes undoubtedly know the Irish will try to control the game with a running attack led by junior running back Josh Adams. Stopping that becomes much more difficult if also worried about Claypool and Stepherson.

Hence Wimbush’s continued promise of, “One of these weeks we will connect and everything will be clicking …”

As for Claypool’s dropped chance down the sideline a week ago, the cause behind it was rather natural. He was trying to get to that clicking stage a bit sooner than he should have.

“I knew if I caught it I would have a touchdown,” he said. “I was thinking, I catch this, I’m running right away to score. So I ran before I caught it, basically. It happens, I guess.”

It happened. If the difference in seven weeks is going from a two-catch, eight-yard day to a day when the postgame interview is spent denying charitable thought experiments to elevate yardage totals past 200 yards, then the trend indicates the tonight’s prime-time, top-10 contest will be another step forward in Notre Dame’s passing game.