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Where Notre Dame was & is: Wide Receivers

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Given the inexperience at quarterback and the relative low number of running backs, it seems odd to say there is more uncertainty for Notre Dame at receiver than either of those skill positions. Yet, largely due to unknowns and general inexperience, that is indeed the case. At least at quarterback, the starter is very much settled and at running back, the leader is a known commodity.

At receiver, spring yielded some theoretical clarity, but that will only be genuinely clear come Sept. 2. For those already counting, that is 123 days away.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
The Irish entered the spring expecting continued progress from rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown following his breakout sophomore campaign. After that, little was known. As a reminder, St. Brown finished 2016 with 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdowns, including a 79-yard score against Syracuse. Each number in the preceding sentence led Notre Dame, and by quite a margin. Former Irish receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., offered 38 catches and 521 yards, but no one else approached so much as half of St. Brown’s production.

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Kevin Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns in his freshman season, leading Notre Dame with an average of 18.5 yards per reception. In theory, his speed combined with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s arm strength could force defenses to always respect the deep ball against the Irish offense, perhaps opening up space for the likes of St. Brown or sophomore Chase Claypool and junior C.J. Sanders in the underneath and mid-range.

Furthering the questions around St. Brown’s supporting cast, new offensive coordinator Chip Long has shown a penchant for including the running backs and tight ends in the passing game. That may be beneficial for offensive versatility, but it does no favors for projecting a future aerial attack.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
The exact options and order of those options at receiver remains in flux, but no longer is there a concern over a lack of choices. Specifically, Claypool and junior Miles Boykin stepped forward this spring, presenting the possibility of a starting trio of the 6-foot-5, 204-pound St. Brown, the 6-foot-4 ½, 224-pound Claypool and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Boykin. Such sizable targets creates more of a margin of error for the raw Wimbush.

“You tend to want to miss high more in certain situations,” Wimbush said following the Blue-Gold Game. “You have the ability to put the ball up there and not have it be a perfect throw all the time. Those guys, you saw it today, they’ll go up and make a play for you.”

The possible starting trio’s size plus athleticism also creates opportunities for Long. For one thing, if a receiver catches a pass on a crossing route and ends up on the opposite sideline during an up-tempo drive, he could possibly line up on that sideline for the next snap rather than spend wasted seconds racing back to his original starting position. In this theory, St. Brown and Boykin could readily flip positions.

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Claypool, meanwhile, would be lining up at the slot position. While some may think his size precludes him from the shiftiness usually requisite the receiver closest to the thick of the line of scrimmage, others see that size and might think of another run-blocker. That versatility is the makings of an offensive coordinator’s dreams.

“It gives you added benefits,” Long said. “That’s our job, to put them in position to make plays. We want to be able to have our base offense and then just get a bigger, faster guy who makes it even better. We’ll tinker it. We’ll find what our guys are best at and put them in position, move them around.

“Being multiple on offense, we can take care of that. We’ll find them a spot, find them their roles, and as they progress, we’ll find where to get them the ball.”

Stepherson is the most-likely backup to St. Brown if the latter ever needs to come off the field and if Stepherson emerges from much spring uncertainty both eligible and in good graces. With that acknowledgement of a cloud of questions, let’s move on rather than fuel speculation.

Junior Chris Finke also fits in well at the field receiver position headlined by St. Brown. At only 5-foot-9 ½ and 177 listed pounds, Finke may seem too much of a shift from St. Brown to fill the same position. At the field position, however, Finke’s ability to maneuver in space could be best utilized.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ pure speed slots him in behind Claypool at the, well, the slot. Of the six receivers mentioned thus far, four, including Sanders, shared a bond with Wimbush before this spring, only furthered during the 15 practices—they came to Notre Dame at the same time and thus spent much time on the scout team developing a rapport. The other two, along with sophomore Javon McKinley (likely providing depth behind Boykin, if by process of elimination than for no other reason), have set to catching up quickly in that regard.

“We were running freshman year together, so we had little bit of chemistry built there,” Wimbush said. “Obviously, the younger guys came in and have done a great job progressing themselves throughout the spring. We’ve built great chemistry.”

That chemistry may most-clearly show itself on back-shoulder throws. To make the reference clear: For a few seasons now, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has feasted on such throws with his favorite target, Jordy Nelson. The receiver begins the route as if on a go or possibly a post route. Something deep. Then, without looking back at the ball, the receiver cuts sharply toward the sideline. If done correctly, the quarterback released the ball before the receiver even cut, anticipating its desired location.

The defensive back, theoretically, doesn’t stand a chance.

“We’re going to run the ball effectively, and if you’re going to drop an extra [defender near the line of scrimmage], we’re going to get a lot of those one-on-one matchups,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s one of the reads in that individual matchup.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
In an up-tempo offense, six or seven receivers may seem more shallow than desired. That should be mitigated greatly by Long’s preference to include running backs and tight ends, even two tight end sets, in the passing game. Furthermore, Notre Dame will add incoming graduate student transfer Freddy Canteen and freshman Jafar Armstrong in the summer.

For that matter, two four-star receivers have already committed to the class of 2018.

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