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Notre Dame’s receivers hope for a big-play future, unlike their past

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Although Notre Dame lost its two leading receivers from 2017, one to the NFL draft and one to repeated off-field mistakes, the need to find replacements is less urgent than it is at running back. That is not an inherent good thing. Rather, it is a reflection of the lack of production from last year’s receivers.

As a group, they totaled 12 catches of 30 or more yards last season, led by four from NFL-bound Equanimeous St. Brown. The returnees accounted for only six of those, with three of them coming from Chase Claypool in just one weekend, against Wake Forest in early November. The receivers are well aware more is needed moving forward.

“After last year and what we are able to do on offense, and what we were not able to do, our focus is helping in the passing game and being more explosive,” receivers coach Del Alexander said last week. “Showing a dimension in the offense that we haven’t used yet … there is a focus and determination to be playmakers and be fast and take advantage of secondaries.”

Aside from Claypool’s nine catches for 180 yards and a score against the Demon Deacons, the returning Irish receiver with the best, arguably only, track record of big plays is obviously Miles Boykin. Plenty has already been said about the rising-senior, an unavoidable result after providing the season highlight moments before the season ended. That memory somewhat obscures Boykin’s entire 2017 production of 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Both he and Claypool need to focus on the basics before reaching playmaker status.

For Claypool, those fundamentals are coming while not fully cleared for practice as he recovers from shoulder surgery. If he taps into those a bit more, Alexander argues Claypool could reach unexpected levels.

“Chase is an angry and physical blocker, he is an emotional player,” Alexander said. “We have to try to channel that emotion into, ‘Take this step right here.’ He just wants to make the big play.

“Even with his size, speed and strength, it is difficult for him to free himself up. If you’re playing against an All-American cornerback, you’re playing against a guy that has been playing for four years and really understands where you are aligned and anticipating what you’re doing.

“We really need to focus on Chase and his football IQ so that he can use his talents.”

Continuing with the big-play theme, only rising-senior Chris Finke can also claim a reception of greater than 30 yards last season, a 48-yarder from Ian Book in mop-up time against Miami (OH). Pulling in only five other catches for 54 yards may not speak to a plethora of potential beneath the surface, but that is exactly what Alexander expects thanks to Finke’s broader understanding of football, something of an inverse to Claypool.

With Notre Dame well ahead of Miami (OH), Chris Finke pulled in a 48-yard reception from backup quarterback Ian Book. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

“At this point in the game, Finke knows everything,” Alexander said. “… We’re doing so many little things with Finke that help him have a knack for the game outside of the playbook. That’s his spring, because he understands exactly what we want, he knows the playbook.

“At the same time, we’re talking about leverage, we’re talking about using his height to gain an advantage, using his quickness, timing on breaks and anticipation of people around him. With Finke, we’re doing some things that help you play for a long time.”

Finke’s quickness fits alongside the speed of rising-sophomore Michael Young and fifth-year Freddy Canteen, the two names Alexander offered along with Finke’s when discussing true top-end speed. Including rising-junior Javon McKinley, they form what may be the back-end of Notre Dame’s primary receivers.

Especially in the case of McKinley, the concept of being among the starters is quite the ascension considering he spent last season working with the scout team while rehabbing a leg injury. That time kept him away from Alexander.

“[McKinley is] in both groups, he can roll in with the first or the second group,” Alexander said. “His progress has been good. He’s made some plays. There have been some opportunities that he’s missed, but like most guys, he has a different determination because he is going into year three and he wants that opportunity for his family to see him play.”

It is conceivable, maybe even likely, early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones finds himself in a similar scout-to-contributor transition a year from now. Even with his January arrival, Jones is behind the rest of the receivers in both understanding and development, as should be expected of any freshman. If he had come in with the three other receivers in his class, Jones would have at least had the support of their presumed struggles. By Alexander’s math, being the only freshman is 10 times that difficulty.

“His advantage won’t show up until we get to [summer] camp,” Alexander said. “For him, we’re not going to slow down because we have a veteran group. He’s chasing his tail and trying to chase everybody out in front of him.”

This spring, Jones is somewhat limited in team-wide drills, primarily getting work in one-on-one matchups or seven-on-seven drills.

When joined by incoming freshmen Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin and Lawrence Keys, the quartet will fulfill Alexander’s preferred promise to his charges.

“Everyone in that room will be replaced one day. They decide how soon.”