Sophomore WRs Hold Key for Notre Dame Passing Attack

Kevin Stepherson - Notre Dame WR

Notre Dame has all of the components to have the most potent offense of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame in 2017.  The Irish also have so many moving parts and unknowns that even with all of its potential, the offense could still be stuck in neutral.  A trio of talented wide receivers in the sophomore class could hold the key to the Notre Dame passing attack unlocking that potential.

When it comes to junior Equanimeous St. Brown, we generally know what Notre Dame has – a bona fide potential star wide receiver.  St. Brown came up just short of 1,000 yards in his first season as a starter last year and is still getting better.  On Tuesday he was named to the Biletnikof Award watch list and is primed to become Notre Dame’s next star receiver.

St. Brown is one of the few knowns when it comes to the Notre Dame passing game though.  After St. Brown, Notre Dame has another five or six wide receivers who will be vying for reps.  The sophomore trio of Chase Claypool, Javon McKinley, and Kevin Stepherson could be the difference between an OK passing attack and an elite one though.

Junior Miles Boykin made some big strides in the spring, but there are still some limitations in his game.  He is a massive target and improved his ball skills but because of his size it takes him a little longer to get to full speed.  Junior CJ Sanders has shown promise as a slot receiver, but he too has some limitations on the opposite end of the size spectrum.  Both can and should have roles in the passing game, but while both have higher floors than the sophomore trio, they likely have lower ceilings as well.

Can Chase Claypool Develop Fast Enough?

Greg has stated Chase Claypool’s very premature unofficial Heisman campaign in the spring.  Claypool is a truly unique athlete and is  the most freakish athlete at the the wide receiver position for Notre Dame.  Heck, Claypool might be the most freakish athlete Notre Dame has at any position.  At the same time, Claypool is still very much learning the game of football after picking it up late.

And therein lies the rub with Claypool in 2017 at least.  While he has freakish skills and has the potential to be a truly dynamic wide receiver for Notre Dame, he might still be a year away from really getting there.  Claypool only caught 5 passes for 81 yards as a freshman.  Can he have a Will Fuller-esque sophomore year breakout and see that total skyrocket?  He’s got the talent to do it.

During the spring Claypool actually spent quite a bit of time playing the slot where he could pose some very interesting matchups for Chip Long to exploit.  He is too talented to keep off the field this fall.   The big question for him, however, will be how fast he can continue to develop.

Will Kevin Stepherson Get Everything Together?

Kevin Stepherson had one of the best freshman seasons for any wide receiver in Notre Dame football history.  So of course he spent most of the spring relegated to the third string.   Brian Kelly swore there was nothing to it, but no one bought then and no one is buying it now.  Stepherson was in the doghouse for some reason.  There were a lot of whispers and rumors why, but to date it doesn’t appear as though it had anything to do with any that will keep him off the field in the fall.

Assuming that is the case, can Stepherson put everything together and get back atop of the depth chart?  If he can, Stepherson could be the most dynamic wide receiver on the roster this fall.  He might not fully match Will Fuller’s top end, downfield speed; but he also has better hands and runs better short and intermediate routes than Fuller did at this point in his career.

Last fall Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards with 5 touchdowns.  He didn’t do it with one huge game against a weak opponent either.  Stepherson was pretty steady once he broke into the rotation.  Line up Stepherson opposite St. Brown with Claypool in the slot and it’s a pick your position situation for opposing defenses.

The question with Stepherson remains whether or not he can overcome whatever it was that had him running with the third team in the spring.

Is Javon McKinley The Best of the Bunch?

While Stepherson flashed elite downfield ball skills and speed and Claypool was wowing everyone with his size and athleticism, Javon McKinley was lost in the mix as he battled injuries during his freshman season.  Let’s not forget, however, that McKinley was one of the highest rated recruits at any position for Notre Dame in the class of 2016.

McKinley was considered one of the best wide receivers in the entire class of 2016 after putting up some gaudy numbers as a prep for one of the best programs in the state of California.  As a junior McKinley posted over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns.  He wasn’t roasting undermatched defenders either.  McKinley played against some of the best teams in the California.

Health is key for McKinley heading into this season.  After his freshman year was cut short due to injuries, McKinley was eased back into action in the spring.  He’s got a lot of ground to make up with the talent Notre Dame has at wide receiver, but when you look at the roster, he very well could be the most well rounded receiver Notre Dame takes into action in 2017.

Will Notre Dame Find Answers in Camp?

The crazy thing about this sophomore trio is all three could play prominent roles, or all three could be relegated to back up roles.  Boykin could lock down a starting spot opposite St. Brown. Arizona State transfer Cameron Smith could be the deep threat Notre Dame is looking for if Stepherson still finds himself running with the 3rd team in camp.  The trio of CJ Sanders, Chris Finke, and Michigan graduate transfer Freddy Canteen could team up to provide Notre Dame with enough combinations in the slot.

For the Notre Dame offense to really take flight in 2017 though, they need at least one, if not two of these sophomores to step up and shine this fall.   The talent is clearly there with this group and the ceiling is high with them.  With all of the questions surrounding the group the floor is still low – at least for 2017 – as well.  If Claypool develops, Stepherson gets his head right, and McKinley is fully back to form.  Look out.

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