The obvious, shortened version of this thought process ties every piece of the receivers’ and tight ends’ development to the shift in quarterbacks. That change certainly aided their production, but so did their development.
A year ago, Brandon Wimbush’s inaccuracy was exacerbated by repeated drops from the likes of Chase Claypool and Alizé Mack. Some of those passes were not perfectly on target, but many hit the target in the hands and yet fell to the turf.
This season, Claypool made twisting grabs contested by defensive backs. Mack held onto passes despite immediate hits. The receivers and tight ends improved on their own, improvements made more evident by Ian Book’s aptitude distributing the ball.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
While discussing the quarterbacks a couple days ago, this space featured a quote from Irish head coach Brian Kelly following the victory in week two against Ball State. In it, Kelly claimed Notre Dame’s leading receiver had nine catches entering 2018. It was only hyperbolic in that senior Miles Boykin had 12 last season and 18 in his career. If Kelly were speaking specifically to Boykin’s regular season output in 2017, nine was indeed accurate.
It remained quoted as nine, rather than with a usual parenthetical correction, because it so aptly underscored the Irish inexperience at receiver and tight end entering this season. Whether Boykin had nine or 12 or 18 receptions, it was not many.
When Boykin established himself as the leading receiving in spring practice and even more so in the preseason, it seemed to serve as a reminder of Claypool’s continued inconsistencies. When sophomore Michael Young suffered a hamstring injury in August, it seemed to lower the ceiling on the passing game even further, pulling the only-known speed threat and replacing it with Chris Finke’s good hands, but not much more.
Book changed those perceptions, but arguably not as much as the receivers themselves did throughout the season.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Let’s continue to use Claypool as the driving example, and let’s acknowledge a mistake in analysis from yours truly. At Northwestern to start November, Claypool had a catch on the second Irish drive, gaining 16 yards and a first down. A possession later, he pulled in another for 19. Both were quality, physical plays. Then he went silent for more than a quarter, targeted just once. Claypool was no longer getting separation as he had to begin the evening.
The halftime score of 7-7 left one wondering how Notre Dame would find needed offensive output. One colleague posited it would come from Claypool. This response? “He already has his two big catches for the day. He’s good.”
To that point, Claypool had not strung together consistently-good performances at any point in his career. Last season he exceeded three catches just twice, and they were separated by six weeks. Through this September and October, he had established five as his lofty ceiling, reaching it in each of the two weeks preceding the trip to Lake Michigan. Expecting Claypool to break out in the second half of a close game was a hope based on little evidence.
Then he put together six catches for 95 yards in that half alone. Two weeks later, a similar stat line came in Yankee Stadium. Claypool has not yet shown a reliable ability to reach his best, but in Book’s last five starts, the junior receiver’s floor became five catches for 60 or so yards. That is production the Irish will gladly take.
“He has really ascended this year,” Kelly said following that Northwestern showing. “… The way he practices, anybody who has been around the game knows the great players are great practice players. The way he practices now carries over to the way he plays, and it’s showing itself in his maturity and the way he practices.”
Similar growth has been seen from the rest of Notre Dame’s primary passing targets.
Boykin’s breakthrough came as September turned to October, making 11 and eight catches in back-to-back weeks, each breaking triple digits and reaching the end zone. Before last year’s Citrus Bowl heroics, Boykin had never made as many as three catches in a game. At this point, he has done so in eight straight. Senior Chris Finke has gone from only one game with multiple catches in 2017 to managing such in every game in 2018.
Miles Boykin: 54 catches for 803 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Chase Claypool: 48 catches for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Chris Finke: 47 catches for 547 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Alizé Mack: 34 catches for 349 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Cole Kmet: 14 catches for 151 yards.
Michael Young: 7 catches for 138 yards and 1 touchdown.
Kevin Austin: 5 catches for 90 yards.
Nic Weishar: 3 catches for 10 yards and 2 touchdowns.
WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
This newfound consistency, plus a big play or two from the tight ends. That is where a mismatch may be found.
Such an added dimension has been lacking in part because the receivers have played so well, in part because sophomore Cole Kmet has battled a lingering ankle injury, and in part because it is a difficult aspect of the game in general, let alone for a first-year starting quarterback without the greatest deep ball.
Kelly has spoken of slipping in a speedy freshman to create a deep threat and put pressure on the Tigers’ safeties.
“We’re looking for maybe one speed guy that could do some things for us in a limited role,” Kelly said last week. “… We’ve got a couple guys on audition. We’ll see if it’s a gong show or if there is someone that can up and do something.”
The thought feels manufactured, something to motivate the freshmen through this month and possibly make Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables think for a night. There is a reason it has not happened yet this season, and that is the Irish know what they may have at tight end.
“Chris Finke was clearly established at that position (where a freshman could step in),” Kelly said. “Our ability to use a tight end as the next guy in at the position in terms of how we were going to run our offense …”
In other words, Finke is backed up by Kmet, not by freshman Braden Lenzy or Lawrence Keys. Kmet’s or Mack’s athleticism and size could put a Tigers safety in a compromised position, creating a 30-yard shot downfield against the defense that ranked No. 11 defending those this season.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
A tricky question to ponder until knowing whether Boykin and Claypool head to the NFL or not. Finke is staying, Mack is going, and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar is out of eligibility. The decisions affect the position’s experience, not as much its depth, considering 11 receivers and six tight ends (counting Mack and Weishar) currently populate the roster with two more receivers expected to sign National Letters of Intent in less than a week.