wide receivers

Associated Press

Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers

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The Notre Dame passing game became a bit of a chicken or the egg situation this fall. Was the quarterback inaccurate because the receivers could not get separation from the coverage or were the receivers not open because the quarterback missed his reads?

Unlike the chicken and the egg, the truth likely includes a bit of both.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Spring practice was filled with talk of a towering starting receiving trio consisting of juniors Equanimeous St. Brown (6-foot-5) and Miles Boykin (6-foot-4), and sophomore Chase Claypool (6-foot-4). In preseason practice, Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith rose to the top line of the depth chart due to his institutional knowledge from spending three seasons in the southwest with Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long.

All the meanwhile, sophomore Kevin Stepherson remained in the shadows, essentially absent, perhaps adrift. His was something of an unknown situation filled with speculation, hearsay and unconfirmed reports.

With or without Stepherson, St. Brown was the presumptive top threat. After that — especially without the sophomore speedster for at least the start of the season — was anybody’s guess.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
The receivers were not the strength once expected to be. None of them can be described otherwise. As much as junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s performance deserves criticism for his inaccuracy, the receivers still should have helped him out a good bit more. Dropped passes, lack of separation and all-too rare moments of laid-out effort plagued the passing game just as much as overthrows, underthrows and misreads did.

St. Brown put together an okay season, while also inconsistent. Boykin proved largely ineffective and was hardly seen, as a result. Claypool offered flashes of great possibility, most notably against Wake Forest.

Smith suffered a hamstring injury which — please, allow this, just this once — hamstrung his season. Likewise, Michigan graduate transfer Freddy Canteen needed shoulder surgery after only three games and one catch.

It took awhile, but once Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson started to make an impact this season, he made a rather noticeable one. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Stepherson may have been the lone bright spot at the position this season, even if he missed the season’s first third and took a couple more games after that to find his way in Long’s offense. Once he did, though, he progressed quickly and resoundingly.

Otherwise, only two other receivers even caught passes: Freshman Michael Young pulled in two for 10 yards and junior Chris Finke had a few moments of productivity, particularly during the not-enough comeback attempt against Georgia back on Sept. 9.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

Thanks in large part to a block from sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson (29), Notre Dame junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (6) logged his season-long catch of 75 yards for a score against Stanford. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

— Jr. Equanimeous St. Brown: 31 catches for 468 yards and four touchdowns, bookended by his four catches for 80 yards and a score in the season opener and his five catches for 111 yards and a 75-yard touchdown in the season finale.
— So. Chase Claypool: 20 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by his nine catches for 180 yards and a score against North Carolina State. It should also be noted, Claypool’s two catches for eight yards at Boston College both led the Irish receivers.
— So. Kevin Stepherson: 19 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns in eight games. In the final two games, Stepherson took eight catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns.
— Jr. Miles Boykin: Nine catches for 151 yards and one touchdown, a 54-yarder in the blowout of Miami (OH).
— Fifth-year Cam Smith: Eight catches for 60 yards and one touchdown in five games. Smith was the first receiver to show the possibility of an end-around in Long’s offense, something Stepherson took to a much higher level later on in the year. Otherwise, Smith’s greatest impact was his four catches for 44 yards against Georgia.
— Jr. Chris Finke: Five catches for 84 yards, including three for 36 yards against the Bulldogs and a diving 48-yarder from sophomore quarterback Ian Book in the final frame against Miami (OH).
— Fr. Michael Young: Two catches for 10 yards.
— Sr. Freddy Canteen: One catch for seven yards.

COMING QUESTIONS
Proceeding from least consequential to most over-arching … Will Canteen return for a fifth year? That was certainly the expectation when he transferred from a state north, but it may now be mutually beneficial to pursue other endeavors at this point. Injuries have hampered Canteen’s career at both stops, but, even if healthy, it is difficult to foresee him establishing himself in a producing position in this depth chart.

Will St. Brown return for his senior year? Coming off his breakout sophomore season, a repeat campaign would have seemingly guaranteed his departure to the NFL. Even after 2017’s subpar performance, his physical traits will garner interest on their own from the next level. Rather, that will be the case especially at the next level, as pass-dependent as it is.

Irish sophomore receiver Chase Claypool appeared ready to be a consistent threat at times in 2017. For the most part, though, he seemed as adrift as the rest of the receiving corps. (Getty Images)

Will Stepherson’s growth continue? He is, by far, the greatest big-play threat among this group, and he showcased his hands a few times in the season’s second half, as well. If that progression continues, Stepherson could truly break out next season. If he stumbles upon anything resembling contentedness, however, he could quickly backtrack. For all Stepherson’s physical gifts, the first two games upon his return to the field this year totaled exactly one catch for a loss of three yards.

Is there anyone else? If St. Brown heads to the NFL, a No. 2 option is needed, and then a third read, as well. If he stays, finding a consistent No. 3 will still be a priority.

Frankly, consistency anywhere is a priority. The names to list as options are numerous and growing with recruiting targets still on the board, not to mention sophomore Javon McKinley returning from a season recovering from injury and preserving a year of eligibility.

Yet, this season proved a bevy of possibilities does not guarantee a good result.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams

Questions for the week: If without St. Brown, who will Notre Dame turn to?

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Equanimeous St. Brown may not have matched his breakout sophomore season of a year ago, but his junior year has been nothing to scoff at. Despite being held without a catch in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday, primarily due to injury, the junior receiver stands second in all Irish receiving categories.

If St. Brown is not cleared from the concussion protocol by the end of the week, he will be missed at Stanford (8 p.m. ET; ABC).

How will Notre Dame adjust without its most consistent receiver?

St. Brown has 26 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season. Sophomore Chase Claypool exceeds the first two figures and sophomore Kevin Stepherson caught his third and fourth touchdowns against the Midshipmen. Those two are the obvious candidates to replace St. Brown’s production.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson led all Irish receivers with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

That applies to Stepherson more than Claypool, despite the greater physical disparity from St. Brown. Simply enough, Stepherson’s continued increase in prevalence in the Irish passing game would likely surpass a healthy St. Brown this weekend.

The other possibility is junior Miles Boykin. In St. Brown’s absence this past weekend, Boykin caught two passes for 33 yards. His physicality and skillset most mirrors St. Brown’s, and plugging him into any three-receiver sets would allow Stepherson and Claypool to stick to the roles they regularly rehearse.

Will Notre Dame slow Stanford star running back Bryce Love? Rather, will the Irish need to?

Continued ankle and lower leg injuries have hampered Love for much of the season now. They kept him on the sidelines when the Cardinal barely slipped past Oregon State a few weeks ago, and they limited his fourth quarter this past weekend during Stanford’s 17-14 victory against Cal. The junior finished with 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Backup Cameron Scarlett added 61 yards on 14 carries.

Injuries have been about the only thing capable of consistently stopping Stanford running back Bryce Love this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In the fourth quarter, Love took four carries for 11 total yards. For a running threat rarely stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, it was startling to see him take one of those carries to the line and no further while another gained just one yard.

Thus, there seems to be some logic to Stanford keeping Love sidelined once more. If Washington beats Washington State on Saturday — played concurrently on FOX with the game at hand — then the Cardinal heads to the Pac-12 title game. As much as Stanford undoubtedly wants to beat Notre Dame, there are many more rewards available for winning the conference, such as a nice New Year’s holiday spent in Phoenix, Ariz., instead of a Christmas week spent at home preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.

Will there be any movement within the College Football Playoff poll?

When it comes to tonight’s poll, not much, if any, of note. Few games registered on the national radar last week, and none resulted in top-10 upsets.

One development affects it looking forward, though. West Virginia quarterback Will Grier underwent finger surgery Sunday and will not lead the Mountaineers against Oklahoma as a result (3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN). If West Virginia ever stood a chance at the upset — and greatly helping any Irish dreams of still reaching the Playoff — it was likely going to need an otherworldly performance from Grier.

With a win this weekend, the Sooners would all but assure themselves priority over Notre Dame, even if Oklahoma loses to TCU in the Big 12 championship.

Will Miami finish the regular season undefeated?
Similarly, a win this weekend should lock the Hurricanes ahead of the Irish no matter next week’s results. Miami heads to Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET on Friday; ABC), but that should not be seen as the sure thing instinct might imply it is. A mere 54 weeks ago, a middling Panthers team upset the No. 3 team in the country, stopping Clemson’s pursuit of a perfect slate.

Can Georgia survive Georgia Tech’s option?
Again, a Bulldogs win (12 p.m. ET, ABC) should secure them a nice spot in any chaos-filled future pecking order. However, that will not be an easy task. Paul Johnson will be sure of that.

Can North Carolina State hit the over?
This may not be as consequential, but before the season, this space predicted the Wolfpack would exceed 7.5 wins this regular season, and a win over North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) is needed for that cause.

Lastly, remember folks, you won’t nod off late Thursday afternoon because turkey has an excess of tryptophan. Chicken actually has more per ounce. Rather, you simply ate too much of the fowl.

Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

Associated Press
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Seven years ago, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team began the season with eight consecutive wins before falling to No. 17 Kentucky in Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky. Then a freshman seeing his first collegiate action, point guard Eric Atkins was asked what he learned about the Irish in the loss.

“I learned that we won’t be undefeated this year,” he replied.

It was tongue-in-cheek, it was the only answer he offered, and it was accurate.

In No. 3 Notre Dame’s 41-8 loss at No. 7 Miami on Saturday, we learned the Irish will not be going to the College Football Playoff this season. So long, dreams of New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles and a balmy afternoon at the Rose Bowl. You made life tolerable for a few weeks.

Notre Dame won’t be in the Playoff because its struggling passing game could be hidden for only so long. It will adjust its view to finishing in the CFP selection committee’s top 12 because the one-dimensional offense could not stand up against a defense featuring speed. It will spend the next few weeks discussing abstract concepts such as pride, what we’ve built and tradition because sometimes a buzzsaw awaits you, and sometimes that buzzsaw comes complete with a raucous fan base ready to throw a rager.

At some point, the Irish were going to need to pass successfully and efficiently. They couldn’t.

Since the overhand nadir of the Boston College rout, Notre Dame’s aerial attack has gradually progressed. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush was beginning to look like he could look the part. To paraphrase ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, Wimbush was a month away from being a month away.

That timetable could have been quick enough. He would have been rounding into form just in time to face an SEC defense in a national semifinal. (Sigh, Pasadena, you will haunt dreams for weeks, won’t you?)

His difficulties were exacerbated by his receivers’ drops. Even those, though, spoke of better things to come. Surely talents like junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomores Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson would not keep losing track of sure-catches for long. Perhaps they won’t, but they did at Hard Rock Stadium.

The Irish needed the passing game to keep Miami honest. Sooner or later, that would be the case. With that time arrived, the passing game was not ready at all, not even a little bit.

Wimbush and sophomore Ian Book combined to finish 13-of-27 for 152 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Both St. Brown and Claypool each had at least one notable drop. Go ahead and point out the first-quarter pass to St. Brown was off-target high. It was, but it still went off his hands to the Hurricane defender. That qualifies as both receiver and quarterback error.

Add in the five sacks allowed for 21 yards, and Notre Dame spent 32 plays to gain 131 yards, an average of 4.09 yards per snap, with 19 of those going for zero yards, negative yards or a change of possession in Miami’s favor.

“It’s a full-team responsibility,” Irish fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “Interceptions and turnovers are a part of the game. There’s no one man. It’s a team effort. It doesn’t matter who is turning the ball over.

“I can probably protect better on those interceptions. I know the rest of the [offensive line] would say the same.”

McGlinchey is correct, but the onus does not lie on him. It lies with a passing game that was still far from developed-enough to handle an elite defense.

That passing game allowed the Hurricanes to showcase their strength, a strength nearly unstoppable from a personnel standpoint in college football.

This argument has been made here before. It will likely be made again, though perhaps one day it will be from the other side of the coin.

Miami knew not to worry too much about Notre Dame’s passing game, so it keyed on the ground attack, led by junior running back Josh Adams and the formidable offensive line in front of him. It very well may be the best offensive line in the country, but when the defense knows what is coming, even the best offensive line cannot counter the anticipation. Combine that anticipation with natural speed and the defensive front wins the battle.

Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams struggled to outrace Miami to the edge Saturday, finishing with only 40 yards on 16 carries. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Very good defensive lines beat great offensive lines. It is that simple. In this instance, it was a motivated and very good defensive line.

“Early on it looked like we were going to have a good day in that regard,” Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt said. “They were struggling blocking our guys. We do have some quickness, for sure, but we’ve got some pretty big boys inside there, too.

“… They were challenged because of the reputation of Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines. They’re big, strong physical people and they took the challenge to try to move them a little bit.”

Notre Dame rushed for 140 yards on 31 carries (sacks adjusted), an average of 4.52 yards per carry. That would seem to be plenty, even if well below the norms heading into the weekend. That is a generous average when considering 13 of those 31 carries went for two yards or fewer or even lost yardage. That inconsistent ability to gain a push forced the Irish away from the run game to the untrustworthy passing game.

In the season’s first nine games, Notre Dame averaged 44.67 carries per game. Sticking with the ground game for another 14 rushes Saturday would have likely produced another six fruitless plays.

“They just were able to control the game a little bit,” McGlinchey said. “They got around on the perimeter very well, a lot better than a lot of the teams that we’ve played.”

Even an elite left tackle like Irish fifth-year lineman Mike McGlinchey can do only so much against a top-flight defensive front. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

That is what speed and quickness do. A very good front allows a defense to focus on the field’s 53-yard width, not its 120-yard length. McGlinchey might handle his block just fine, but no one will then block the linebacker racing around the edge set by the end engaged with McGlinchey. This leads to two-yard losses on running plays and four-yard sacks on passes.

McGlinchey is a special talent. Senior left guard Quenton Nelson is even more so. Senior center Sam Mustipher has been having an outstanding season, as has senior right guard Alex Bars. The right tackle combination of sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey has fared far better than anyone would have expected it to this year. Miami’s success does not eliminate all that offensive line has done to date this fall.

It does, however, highlight the gap between Notre Dame and the top of the country as well as the desperate need for a dangerous passing game to make an opposing coordinator at least ponder using a nickel package with the safeties far from the line of scrimmage.

None of this was helped by Hard Rock Stadium’s atmosphere.

Let’s make this clear: The Irish offense’s inability to sustain a drive and four turnovers cost Notre Dame the game.

The Irish defense did not start real well, though. It was not done any favors by the offense’s charitable donations to the Miami Fund. (That is not a real non-profit organization, but it is a step toward working Human Fund into a story in this space.)

By the end of the night, the Miami student section was likely the rowdiest party in south Florida. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Everyone around Notre Dame will deny this until the day they die, but the loud and energetic crowd may have gotten into the heads of some of the young defenders. Three sophomores started in the secondary and another got the nod on the defensive line. Linebacker Te’von Coney may be a junior — and led the team in tackles for the fourth consecutive game — but he has only been seeing major minutes for two months now. The same can be said of tackle Jonathan Bonner with a senior distinction.

None of these players had ever competed in an atmosphere like Saturday’s. Frankly, the Hurricanes fans should be applauded.

Naturally, they were so upbeat because Miami is good, really good.

The Hurricanes had apparently been playing down to their schedule to date. For the second consecutive week, they rose to a challenge, and then some.

Feel free to sound your the-world-is-ending alarms, however unnecessary they are. Notre Dame lost to a top-five program for the second time this season. That fact alone is not cause for panic. It was a complete and utter blowout, yes, but much of that traces to the turnovers rather than systematic failures.

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

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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.

Notre Dame lands speedy CA receiver’s commitment

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Notre Dame’s offense this season has relied on the running game. Its passing attack has been serviceable, at best. Yet the Irish success and the coaching staff behind it have impressed consensus three-star receiver Geordon Porter (Etiwanda High School; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) enough for the California speedster to commit to Notre Dame on Wednesday.

“I like the coaching staff there and the good academics,” Porter told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It’s a great school to get a degree from, and they’ve got a good balanced attack on offense with running the ball, play-action and all that good stuff.”

Porter chose the Irish over Arizona State and Utah, both of which he visited more recently than his trip to Notre Dame to watch the 20-19 loss against Georgia on Sept. 9. He also held offers from Alabama, Georgia and Washington State.

The No. 47 player in California and the No. 67 receiver in the country, per rivals.com, Porter excels in track, as well. As a junior, he ran a 10.61-second 100-meter dash. That interest may continue in college, but it did not seem to determine much of his recruitment. Rather, Porter expressed a distinct desire to use his speed to find his way to the NFL and wanted to join a program that would best aid in that endeavor.

Porter is the 18th commitment in the Irish class of 2018 and the third receiver, joining consensus four-star and mid-August commit Kevin Austin (North Broward H.S.; Coconut Creek, Fla.) and Rivals four-star and mid-February commit Micah Jones (Warren Township; Gurnee, Ill.). The trio will join a receiver depth chart laden with youth and lacking much of a future pecking order.

Current sophomores Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson will lead the way in 2018, along with current junior Equanimeous St. Brown, presuming he returns for his senior year. Junior Chris Finke has played well in limited time this season, but his eligibility will run out before any of the 2018 commitments are desperate for snaps.

Opportunities, and competition, will await Porter, Austin and Jones.