Brian Kelly was talking about Notre Dame as a whole, not Chase Claypool specifically, when he said the Irish had changed mentalities since the embarrassing loss at Michigan to end October. But the former includes the latter, and Kelly’s point most certainly has applied to Claypool in November.
“They learned that it’s not just about preparation,” Kelly said this past Saturday after the third Irish win since falling at Ann Arbor. “You can work as hard as you want, but you have to flip the switch. They didn’t at Michigan, and they learned how to do that in that game, that you have to flip the switch.”
After catching just two passes for 42 yards against the Wolverines, closing a three-game stretch in which he totaled seven catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns, Claypool has flipped his own switch.
Eight catches for 118 yards against Virginia Tech.
Five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown at Duke.
Seven catches for 117 yards and a school record-tying four touchdowns against Navy.
In some respects, those numbers don’t encapsulate Claypool’s whole effect. His toe-tapping snag drive on the sideline against Virginia Tech in the closing minutes led to a crucial first down en route to the game-winning touchdown.
His twisting grab in the corner of the end zone against Navy put his name atop Irish record books and put a bow on an offensive explosion.
These moments do not surprise his teammates, who have watched Claypool dominate practice since March.
“It’s starting to show on Saturdays because of how hard he’s working during the week in practice,” said senior quarterback Ian Book, the single-greatest beneficiary of Claypool’s play. “He’s taking the next step Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday in practice. …
“He’s someone that all the receivers look to. He’s someone our whole offense looks to be a leader, and he’s doing that and he’s showing that with his play, as well.”
On an offense that has been marked by its inconsistencies this season, Claypool has been its sole constant. He has at least two catches and 30 yards in every game, a modest statement but still one no one else on the roster can claim. He has 20 more receptions than the next most-prolific and has more yards and touchdowns than fifth-year receiver Chris Finke and junior tight end Cole Kmet combined.
Want to give a Notre Dame fan a shudder? Offer them a prompt not suggested to Kelly or Book, for obvious reasons — What would this Irish offense look like without Claypool?
Notre Dame would have had to find out if a friend of former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock had not tipped him off to an athletic freak in British Columbia. Even that was hardly enough. The competition in Claypool’s highlight footage was so clearly overmatched, Kelly needed to fly to the western reaches of Canada just to get an accurate assessment of the physical prospect in a basketball game. To add some drama to this tale, engine failure forced Kelly’s flight to land in Oregon, well short of Abbotsford, British Columbia, delaying him for a day.
“Then when I watched the basketball (competition), that didn’t do much for me, either,” Kelly can joke now. But he had seen enough to recognize the clear potential in Claypool’s 6-foot-4 frame.
“He’s a guy that is difficult to defend because he can catch on drive routes and score a touchdown,” Kelly said. “He can catch a ball on the sideline. He can catch a vertical route in the seam, a fade. He’s virtually a guy that has all of the weapons.”
Kelly’s catch-all at the end includes Claypool’s special teams exploits, highlighted by 11 tackles as a freshman and a punt fumble recovery at Georgia as a senior, with a controversial non-recovery in the Cotton Bowl between them.
Those 11 tackles back in 2016 clearly showed Claypool’s athleticism, but it took until last November for him to show that consistently on offense. His eight catches for 130 yards at Northwestern stood out as a breakthrough — still do, as a matter of fact, as the display when this space stopped criticizing his sometimes-relaxed approach as it shifted into an aggressive attitude.
Beginning with that, Claypool caught 20 passes for 313 yards and a touchdown last November, numbers that pale to his current month (20 catches for 332 yards and five scores in three games with two to go). It took skepticism, a worrisome flight and three years, but Claypool had proven and continues to prove that Canadian connection correct.
“I think last year was a maturation process for him in terms of him and Ian being on the same page,” Kelly said. “… I think Chase was finding himself as a receiver.”
Again, Claypool embodies the overall Irish trend. Neither he nor they will go down as the best all-time, but each has a chance to end up remembered as one of few. Notre Dame has won 10-plus games in three consecutive seasons only once before (1991-93), and that looks more and more likely this year.
Claypool will not join as select of company if he can break 1,000 yards this season, but the names he would join with 232 more yards (77.4 yards per game, including the bowl) are of an elite nature. Only eight previous Irish receivers have cracked the thousand: Jack Snow (1964), Thom Gatewood (1970), Jeff Samardzija (2005, 2006), Maurice Stovall (2005), Golden Tate (2008, 2009), Michael Floyd (2010, 2011), TJ Jones (2013) and Will Fuller (2014, 2015).
Even beyond that round number, with one more touchdown catch, he will be only the seventh Notre Dame receiver to reach double digits in one season (Derrick Mayes, Samardzija, Stovall, Tate, Floyd, Fuller).
Those are names and numbers befitting a senior Kelly described as a “warrior” two weeks ago. It is a standing Claypool has earned, no matter how you phrase it, be it maturation, flipping a switch or simply development. Whatever that vague means of progress may have been, Claypool has personified it in every respect for a flawed Irish offense undergoing its own growth.