Not often does depth combine with experience. When it does, that position becomes a genuine strength. Notre Dame has that at receiver these days, thanks in equal parts to a former walk-on, a physically-gifted option finally putting together the mental aspects of the game and a quintet of sophomores looking to prove their worth.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
When senior Chase Claypool opted to forgo the NFL — whether it was a genuine consideration or a formality is moot — he gave Irish senior quarterback Ian Book a bona fide No. 1 receiver to rely upon. Coming off a season with 50 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool’s ability to produce could not be questioned, especially considering those numbers came as Notre Dame’s No. 2 receiver. With 29 of those receptions and 410 of those yards coming in Book’s final five regular season starts, Claypool had also finally shown the capacity for consistency.
After him, fifth-year Chris Finke entered the spring as another unquestioned starter. He was simply too reliable last season to be demoted, finishing with 49 catches for 571 yards and two touchdowns.
Then, an abundance of of wondering promised to keep the spring interesting. Junior Michael Young was, and remains, the most-established of the contenders for the third starting spot, but the sophomore grouping of Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, Joe Wilkins and Micah Jones promised to at least make Young work for the honor, not to mention senior Javon McKinley or junior Isaiah Robertson.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Claypool’s stock only rose this spring, perhaps reaching its peak with his 43-yard catch in the Blue-Gold Game on a deep ball from Book. This clip has been embedded a couple times this week, but what harm can once more do, in the name of thoroughness?
If in the past, Claypool stringing together five games to end the regular season (not counting Brandon Wimbush’s start against Florida State) stood out as a mark of consistency, catching at least five passes in each game, then him maintaining a high standard of spring practice jumps off the page. If there was ever a time for a player with questionable focus and maturity to lag in those regards, it would be in late March and early April. That changed in Claypool’s final spring practice.
“The one thing that held Chase back just a little bit is we would see three or four of those plays and then maybe a bit of a drop off,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said earlier in the month. “He’d get tired, fatigued, banged up. His elbow was sore, whatever. He has now reached a new mental toughness level where he can do that play-in and play-out.”
With Claypool more promising than ever, the natural progression is to a discussion of Finke. The former walk-on has hardly been the flashiest of receivers. Standing shorter than 5-foot-10 and weighing less than 185 pounds will do that. Yet, he may have made the most-impressive touchdown catch for Notre Dame in 2018, and he has added heft.
“Our first year (in 2017), [Finke] probably didn’t play just because he was slight, as much as he wanted to,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said a week ago. “He attacked the weight room, had a great year for us. We relied heavily on him.
“He’s done a great job of being a leader for us offensively in that receiver room.”
Notre Dame needs Finke to be that leader because of the vast amount of unproven potential behind him. Young had seven catches for 138 yards and a touchdown last season, and Austin added five receptions for 90 yards, but that is the extent of production from the rest of the receiver corps.
This spring’s focus was on the sophomores, which may be a detriment to the credit Young deserves. Every indication suggests he has sewn up the third starting job.
“He’s now settled into the level of confidence that he can [succeed] every single play,” Kelly said the first week of April. “We’re starting to see that. Catching the football, making plays, that’s what we saw from him in his senior year (of high school).”
Starting Young alongside Finke and opposite Claypool gives Book a full array of options. Young has genuine speed, if not the top-end to match Lenzy’s. Finke has sure hands and shiftiness. Claypool could be one of the most physical receivers in the country in 2019.
The sophomores fit into just as specific of roles, creating a second-unit of Lenzy behind Young, Keys behind Finke and Austin behind Claypool. What stands out about these options is Long expects them to play, unlike a year ago when the Irish relied on three receivers (Miles Boykin being the third, but really the first) until their legs were shot.
“We’ll have a good rotation,” Long said. “Those three guys were pretty dead by the time we got to USC. Having that youth right there, guys are able to stay a whole lot fresher. More reps, really at all skill positions. That’s going to be a good thing to see.”
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Two incoming freshmen will join the fray this summer, Cam Hart and Kendall Abdur-Rahman. Given the numbers at the position ahead of them, neither should be expected to contribute in 2019, which is presumably fine by Notre Dame’s coaches given Hart could use some weight on his 6-foot-3 frame and Abdur-Rahman has some development ahead of him after playing quarterback throughout high school.
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Broadly speaking, a dozen receivers is more than the roster needs. Speculation need not go further than that, but it is something to keep in mind while the Irish roster remains at 87 scholarship players expected in the fall, needing to have a maximum of 85 before the season begins.
AN INTERESTING BIT ON RECEIVERS COACH DEL ALEXANDER
From Long on Thursday, following typical platitudes of Alexander’s great relationships with the players and his high expectations for their discipline …
“Just does a great job of teaching the position, teaching those guys the fundamentals, and he’s always a step ahead. He’s one who loves to research everything that the NFL is doing. It really helps with our guys. Miles Boykin came back here just to sit and watch film with him the other day.”
AND SOME MATH
This is not a prediction. Those come later, usually sometime in August, about 40 at a time. But this is the beginnings of the thinking behind a prediction.
As already mentioned, Claypool caught 29 passes for 410 yards in Book’s five final regular season starts. Across 12 games, those rates extrapolate to 70 catches for 984 yards. Three of those opponents (Pittsburgh, Syracuse, USC) were decent defensively against the pass, Northwestern was middling and Navy was poor. They averaged a 66.4 ranking, per S&P+ pass defense numbers.
Next season’s 12 opponents averaged a 65.75 ranking in 2018’s final numbers. Remove Georgia’s top-ranked pass defense and that average rises to 71.64.
By no means is it outlandish to think Claypool could carry that five-game rate across an entire season. Add in some yards after the catch, as Long insists is a mandate this offseason, and Claypool breaking the 1,000-yard threshold would hardly be a shock, mathematically speaking.