Notre Dame looks for St. Brown to step up AND a No. 2 option, not OR

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Notre Dame needs both its primary receiver to stand out even more and a second downfield playmaker to emerge. While the two may go hand-in-hand, Irish coach Brian Kelly is approaching them as separate tasks.

Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has earned the designation as junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s top target, and deservedly so. That emphasis comes when your sophomore year breakout campaign includes 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdown. St. Brown played up to that billing in the season opener, catching four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. A week later, though, he managed only two catches for 16 yards.

“[Georgia was] really physical with him,” Kelly said Sunday. “When they were in any kind of two-deep coverage, they had somebody over the top, made it difficult to get him the ball.”

Per Kelly on Tuesday, Notre Dame “targeted” St. Brown 20 times in the 20-19 defeat to the Bulldogs on Saturday. By the working definition, that does not mean Wimbush threw toward St. Brown nearly two dozen times. That was nine times. Rather, Kelly’s targeting means 20 plays were called with St. Brown in mind.

“It’s something that we have to be aware of because you’ve got to get the ball to your playmakers,” Kelly said. “… We have to continue to target him.”

Without a second receiver of note just yet, targeting St. Brown could continue to be a fruitless task. Disagreeing with that dichotomy, Kelly does not intend to let the lack of development on one hand alter the effectiveness of the other. He cited past prominent Irish receivers, including Will Fuller, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd.

Looking at the most-recent of those, Fuller, simply due to pertinence, Kelly’s point holds merit. In 2015, Fuller caught 62 passes for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. The next most effective Notre Dame receiver was Chris Brown with 48 catches for 597 yards and four touchdowns. A year earlier, Fuller tallied 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, compared to Corey Robinson’s 40 catches, 539 yards and five touchdowns. Fuller had no trouble dominating despite secondaries focusing nearly all their energies on him.

The same could, perhaps should, be said for St. Brown.

“We know how to move him around and get the football,” Kelly said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is we need balance. … We have to continue to target him, but we’ve got to find better balance within the structure of the offense.”

Junior receiver Chris Finke will start at the slot position this week following his strong fourth-quarter performance in Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Not that finding a reliable complementary target would be a bad thing. To date, fifth-year receiver Cam Smith has been the closest thing to it, catching seven passes for 54 yards. In the last attempts to regain the lead against Georgia, junior Chris Finke emerged as a possibility, finishing Saturday with three catches for 36 yards. Finke will start this weekend at Boston College.

He takes the spot of senior Freddy Canteen, partly due to a shoulder injury suffered by the Michigan transfer. Canteen has made only one catch for seven yards this season, but that is not entirely on him. Wimbush overthrew an open Canteen on at least one occasion Saturday halfway through the fourth quarter.

The other most-likely possibility remains junior tight end Alizé Mack, only pulling in four passes for 58 yards through two games. Suffice it to say that is a far cry from what was expected from Mack in his return from a season lost due to academic issues. Heading into the matchup with the Bulldogs, Kelly expressed an understanding for Mack starting the season slowly.

“With Alizé we feel like in his situation it’s a young man that really hadn’t played in a long time,” Kelly said last week. “We feel like the improvement we’re going to see from week one to week two is going to be great. … When we come back later in the season, we’re going to be talking about his progression.”

Clearly, that improvement did not come in week two. It could come in week three. Whenever it comes from whomever, if anyone, it will be welcomed by both Kelly and St. Brown, not that the lack of that option is enough of an excuse for St. Brown not making dynamic plays, as well.

“We have to gain balance within our offensive passing game so [St. Brown] doesn’t become double-covered all the time, get somebody rolling up on him, a safety over the top,” Kelly said. “… I think a little bit of that is play calling, a little bit of that is playing and making plays.”

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