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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame returns two starting WRs and nearly no other production

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Bringing back two starting receivers would normally set up Notre Dame for a lack of uncertainty, especially with only two other returning receivers catching passes last season. Presumably, one of those two would end up the third starter, eliminating any drama at the position.

Yet, the eventual dozen Irish receivers present a myriad of questions, ponderings of potential and possibilities of role changes. These doubts stem from so few receivers contributing in 2018. Only one of five freshmen saw more than offensive mop-up work, and that one, Kevin Austin, eventually found himself on the wrong side of the “traits” ledger. Two upperclassmen have yet to catch even a single pass, adding to the depth chart congestion behind the established duo.

Spring roster:
— Fifth-year Chris Finke, returning slot starter.
— Senior Chase Claypool, returning field starter, though a boundary move would not be surprising.
— Junior Michael Young and sophomore Kevin Austin, the two others to catch passes in 2018.
— Sophomores Joe Wilkins and Micah Jones, sizable options in the vein of Claypool or Austin.
— Sophomores Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys, shifty and speedy options a la Finke or Young.
— Senior Javon McKinley and junior Isaiah Robertson, neither having ever forced the issue of pertinent playing time.

Summer arrivals:
— Incoming freshmen Kendall Abdur-Rahman, a high school quarterback who could end up at running back or receiver, though the recruiting focus was on receiver.
— Incoming freshman Cam Hart, another lengthy frame.

Possible summer arrival:
— After a visit last weekend, Virginia Tech rising senior Eric Kumah may yet transfer to Notre Dame. His decision will not come until after spring practice, though, and one might wonder how much it will depend on certain situations already within the Irish receivers room. More on those in a moment.

Chris Finke could crack 100 career receptions with a strong 2019, already with 65 for 795 yards in his career’s rise from walk-on to multi-year starter. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Let’s focus on the top half of the dozen. Across the last four seasons, only once did as many as six receivers catch at least 10 passes, the disastrous 2016. Last year only three did so, though that was an outlier. The 2015 and 2017 distributions of five receivers with double-digit catches in each season is a reasonable expectation, and also illustrates how a dynamic passing game (2015) can share some traits of a struggling one (2017).

Claypool and Finke will play significant roles in the 2019 offense. Finke might be a known commodity at this point, a solid contributor who both senior quarterback Ian Book and offensive coordinator Chip Long trust. Claypool, however, still has significant room for improvement. If he were to show something finally resembling consistency this spring, that would be the best news for Long’s fall hopes. Anticipating such is not unreasonable after Claypool finished the regular season with 29 catches for 419 yards in Book’s final five regular-season starts.

Whether Austin or Young emerges as the third starter may be a nominal distinction. They offer different aspects to the offense, the former a rangy receiver with solid speed, the latter an underrated burner with crisp route-running when both healthy and at his best. Long would ideally combine the two with the starting duo to create a reliable rotation of four, something Notre Dame never found last season.

Claypool, Finke and Miles Boykin did not struggle to find separation as the season progressed — most notably against Clemson, but that was not the first instance by any means — because their legs were worn out, but it certainly did not help the cause.

Either Lenzy or Keys could have helped the cause with top-end speed, something teased by Irish head coach Brian Kelly in the Cotton Bowl lead-up. That was most likely more a smoke screen than a plausible reality; neither was physically ready as a true freshman. Lenzy’s decision to bypass the indoor track season reflects that. He knows time in the weight room is sorely needed.

As for the depth …
A dozen receivers is more than Long could ever need. Even if focusing on developing the incoming freshmen and perhaps two of the sophomores, eight receivers would not realistically and genuinely contribute in a season. In 2016, eight caught passes, and Claypool’s five receptions helped steady him for future action, but that should be the role of a true freshman, especially in the time of four games not costing a year of eligibility. It is not usually the purview of an upperclassmen.

That positional calculus was clear, if unspoken, before McKinley’s recent legal trouble. He faces three misdemeanors. Those do not carry the University-policy cut-and-dry repercussions that a felony would, but the writing appears to be on the wall.

2018 statistically speaking:
Boykin: 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns.
Claypool: 50 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns.
Finke: 49 catches for 571 yards and two touchdowns.
Young: Seven catches for 138 yards and one touchdown.
Austin: Five catches for 90 yards.

2018 departures:
Losing Boykin is unfortunate in the sense that returning all three starters, their chemistry with Book and their understanding of Long’s system would have been quite the luxury. Boykin had developed into a reliable No. 1 receiver, and his back-shoulder timing with Book was nearly unstoppable.

But Claypool’s continued progress should mitigate those losses. He can be every bit as physical as Boykin, if not more so. Should that become reality, then the question is who steps into Claypool’s shoes as the inconsistent but potent threat. Notre Dame has a few names in that mix, maybe even a few too many.

As for Boykin, his ability as a possession receiver could place him on a 53-man roster at the end of August, a designation as much determined by his preseason showing as it is by his performance in this weekend’s NFL combine.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Kendall Abdur-Rahman
Notre Dame gets the letter: Cam Hart

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