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Better balance alongside St. Brown needed at WR

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Compare junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s stats from last season with the combined totals of Notre Dame’s five other returning receivers, and the numbers are startlingly similar. St. Brown caught 58 passes for 961 yards and nine touchdowns. Those five other receivers—juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin and sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool—combined for 70 catches for 1,039 yards and 10 scores.

St. Brown’s stat line, on its own, makes for a good season. Spreading the other set of numbers across five receivers makes for an unsustainably lopsided distribution. Irish coach Brian Kelly expects that to shift in 2017.

“I see better balance,” Kelly said Friday. “We have some guys that will come up to the level [St. Brown] was at least year to give the quarterback and the offense a little more balance than we had last year.”

That is not to say St. Brown will not be at an even higher level than he was in his breakout campaign.

“EQ will be a better player,” Kelly said. “He’s working on some of the weaknesses that he has, which limits him in certain areas, and he’s diligently working on those.”

Even with an improved No. 1 receiver, other feared options will be necessary to keep opposing secondaries honest, allowing the Notre Dame offense to possibly achieve Kelly’s desire of consistency.

“You’re going to see a better supporting cast across the board, which will give us much more balance,” Kelly said. “More importantly, it’s going to give us much more consistency from an offensive standpoint.”

The supporting cast that will provide that balance is in flux through the first half of spring practices, per Kelly. Following the seventh of the 15 practices (with April 22’s Blue-Gold Game being No. 15), Kelly quickly included the receivers among other heated position competitions.

“The wide receiver position is really a very competitive situation,” Kelly said. “Including Miles Boykin, who’s having a really good spring. He’s tracking the ball very well and catching it consistently.”

Boykin made six catches for 81 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown against Virginia Tech, in 2016. Currently listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he provides the option of significant size when aligned with St. Brown (6-foot-5, 204) and Claypool (6-foot-4.5, 224). In his freshman season, Claypool’s length served him well, but Kelly indicated more should be expected from him moving forward.

“It’s been a learning experience for [Claypool],” Kelly said. “We threw him right into the fire last year, and he was swimming … Clearly, [Claypool] has definitely benefited from being here over the year and is more consistent.”

On the other end of the size spectrum from Boykin and Claypool, Sanders (5-foot-8, 185) and Finke (5-foot-9.5, 177) offer the Irish speedier, shiftier options similar to the mold of Torii Hunter, Jr., who finished last season with 38 catches for 521 yards and three touchdowns. Admittedly, Hunter is bigger than both current options, listed at 6-feet and 195 pounds.

“[Sanders] and Finke would be certainly the exception to the rule of the receivers we have,” Kelly said. “But they have a place in our offense and they’ll be used accordingly. The offensive structure is such that we can use those guys. They have a place, they can be effective players.”

Kelly also mentioned the Notre Dame tight ends, led by graduate student Durham Smythe’s returning nine receptions for 112 yards and four scores.

“Durham Smythe is in the best condition physically that he’s ever been, mentally and physically,” Kelly said. “With him, [junior] Alizé Jones and [senior] Nic Weishar you’ve got a great combination.”

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