There were many culprits on the Notre Dame offense in 2016 that led to a dismal 4-8 record and the ouster of three offensive coaches, including offense coordinator Mike Denbrock. Among the most common faults was the poor play of the offensive line, the shaky play calling from the staff, the inconsistency of DeShone Kizer, and the hot and cold play of the running backs.
Interestingly, the wide receiver position mostly emerged from the season unscathed, although no single position on the tea went without blame. But, most of the returns on the performance of the young unit were positive, and it’s easy to see why. First, they had a break out player in Equanimeous St. Brown, who entered the season with a single reception, and left with 58 receptions for 961 yards and nine touchdowns.
Second, they saw an emergence from a true freshman in Kevin Stepherson and flashes from young receivers such as CJ Sanders, Chris Finke, and Chase Claypool. Everyone loved the news toys as EQ was cartwheeling into the end zone, CJ Sanders was darting all over the field against Texas, Finke was taking a post to the end zone against Virginia Tech, and Stepherson was making the yearly roasting of Adoree Jackson. This group was largely seen as not the problem and to be fair, given their inexperience entering the season, they performed rather well, especially in light of the fact Torii Hunter Jr. was so reduced following his concussion against Texas and his knee injury against Navy.
They were young, they were exciting, they made plays. When they were open.
Irish Receivers Were Poor In 2016 On Contested Throws
In reading the scouting reports on DeShone Kizer heading into the upcoming draft a familiar theme emerged: Kizer routinely waited for his receivers to get open, often too long which led to an inordinate amount of coverage sacks. This jives with conventional wisdom on one hand. He was working with a new crew of players from the year before, most with very little playing experience, so it would make sense that he was a little unsure of where guys were going to be, leading to hesitation.
But, it may have been more than simply unfamiliarity with the group and a look at the stats suggests Kizer may not have been totally comfortable with his receivers ability to make plays in coverage.
Here is a chart of stats, compiled from College Football Film Room, that shows the number of contested targets, contested receptions, and completion percentage from the 2015 group of wide receivers.
|2015 Receivers||Contested Targets||Contested Rec||Catch %|
|Torri Hunter Jr||6||4||67%|
They came in at a respectable 40% completion percentage on the season as a group, with over half of the contested receptions coming from someone other than the first round receiver Will Fuller.
Now take a look at the same chart for the 2016 group.
|2015 Receivers||Contested Targets||Contested Rec||Catch %|
|Equanimeous St. Brown||12||3||25%|
|Torii Hunter JR||5||0%|
Incredibly, Notre Dame had three receivers, one of which was a captain, who went 0 for the season on contested targets. And St. Brown, despite his size, was only able to bring in three contested receptions for the year, which is not good for who was inarguably their best receiver.
Not only was their completion percentage really bad at 17%, but it’s telling to me Kizer only attempted 36 passes to receivers that were contested by the defense. Was he trying to be too perfect? Did he not trust their ability to make the play? Is he coached away from this?
Whatever the case may be, when Kizer did give his receivers a chance, they usually didn’t make it happen for him, which human nature would tell you if you’re not reinforced for doing something, you’re going to stop doing it.
On the face of it, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. St. Brown is tall at 6’5, but not an overly physical player known for his strength, and all the other physical options either left the team (Corey Robinson), were suspended (Alize Jones), or were deemed to not be ready (Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool). Kevin Stepherson is a string bean, and both Sanders and Finke are smaller slot types so hard to count on them in traffic.
But, then look at who the options were in 2015. Fuller is super skinny, same with Chris Brown, Carlisle fits the mold of Sanders. Bottom line is, the 2017 group needs to make more plays in traffic to help out their new quarterback if they want to max out what they can be as a unit.
Reasons For Optimism
The good news is Notre Dame looks to be a much more physical receiving unit in 2017 compared to the 2016 version of the same players. Notre Dame looks to add at least three players to the regular rotation who are 6’3 or taller (Boykin, Claypool, and Jones) to pair with the 6’5 St. Brown. There is also good news on the strength front because I’m sure we’ve all heard that Notre Dame is lifting weights now, so that can’t hurt anything.
Another key factor is the lack of a quarterback competition this spring and fall. Kizer made mention during his pre-draft interviews that the lack of reps he received hurt his chemistry with the new receiving core. How much of an obstacle that played is impossible to know, but it’s good to know that Wimbush will not be hampered by a lack of reps and is free to build a nice rapport with all of his receivers.
Lastly, one of the final steps in the development of young receivers is learning to be a catch maker, even when covered. It’s similar to a basketball player learning to be a shot maker even when a defender has a hand in the face. Things like proper hand technique, route running, concentration are all the building blocks to being a good receiver. Being a playmaker when covered comes last and something that can take time to achieve. St. Brown is at this point in his career now, the last step for him is being open even when he’s not open. We’ve seen and heard players like Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool struggle with the little things that make receivers. They’ve got the rest of spring, summer, and fall to make those strides so they can turn it loose on Saturdays. If they do so, the receiver position looks far brighter now than it did 12 months ago.