The Notre Dame passing attack wasn’t exactly striking fear into the hearts of opponents this year. The Irish will now bring that passing game into the Citrus Bowl minus two starting wide receivers and its tight end thanks to injuries and suspensions. Notre Dame lost Chase Claypool for the bowl and perhaps part of spring ball to injury and lost Kevin Stepherson and Alize Mack to suspension leaving them without three of their top four receivers.
Let’s take a quick look at what Notre Dame lost in these three players.
- Chase Claypool: 29 catches, 402 yards, 2 TDs
- Kevin Stepherson: 19 catches for 359 yards, 5 TDs
- Alize Mack: 19 catches, 166 yards, 1 TD
That list represents Notre Dame’s #2, 3, and 4 receivers in terms of receptions on the season. Luckily for the Irish junior Equanimeous St. Brown, the team leader in receptions and yards, is available on Monday. Without much experienced help around him, however, he will likely be drawing much more attention than he would have if the Irish were at full strength.
One More Chance for St. Brown in 2017
St. Brown had a disappointing year to say the least. After coming up just short of 1,000 yards as a sophomore, some felt a breakout year was in the cards for the NFL hopeful. Instead, St. Brown had less than half of the yardage he had a year ago and scored five fewer touchdowns. There is still speculation that St. Brown will head to the NFL after this year despite the disappointing season. A big bowl game could help facilitate that even more.
Even with the eyes of the talented LSU secondary fixated on St. Brown, Notre Dame has to find ways to get him the ball if they are going to come away victorious. St. Brown had just a single 100 yard performance this year, but it did come the last time the Irish played.
Brandon Wimbush and St. Brown have just not been completely on the same page this year. Wimbush has had St. Brown open behind defenses multiple times this year only to miss the open St. Brown. Case in point was against Miami when the Irish could have scored on their first drive had Wimbush not overthrown St. Brown in the endzone. Notre Dame needs Wimbush to hit one of those if the opportunity presents itself.
Outside of St. Brown, here is the production Notre Dame has gotten from the other receivers it will have available on Monday.
- Durham Smythe: 13 catches, 234 yards, 1 TD
- Miles Boykin: 9 catches, 151 yards, 1 TD
- Chris Finke: 5 catches, 84 yards, 0 TD
- Cameron Smith: 8 catches, 60 yards, 0 TD
- Nic Weishar: 7 catches, 39 yards, 1 TD
- Cole Kmet: 2 catches, 14 yards, 0 TD
- Michael Young: 2 catches, 10 yards, 0 TD
- CJ Sanders: 0 catches
Notre Dame will look to Miles Boykin to replace Claypool in the starting lineup. Boykin is similar in stature, but not quite the athlete that Claypool is – few big receivers are. Boykin has flashed some skills over the last two years, but he accumulated just 151 yards on the season in 2017 and 54 came on a single long touchdown back in week five against Miami of Ohio. He hasn’t had more than two receptions in any one game this entire season. Still, he gives Brandon Wimbush a big target and he’s shown some ability to make contested catches. He will had to rely on his size to move the chains for the Irish.
Can Veterans Rise to Occasion?
Replacing Kevin Stepherson is a much harder task for Notre Dame. The Irish simply don’t have anyone who can take the top off of a defense like Stepherson can. There is a reason he led the Irish in receiving touchdowns despite sitting out the first four games – he’s really damn good. Chris Finke is listed as a starting receiver on the official depth chart, but Finke is a pure slot receiver. He can get open and make some people miss in the open field, but he isn’t a deep threat.
Notre Dame could turn to Cam Smith, the graduate transfer from Arizona State, to provide a deep threat if he is indeed healthy, but his graduate transfer year has been marred by injuries much like his previous four years were with the Sun Devils.
The Irish could also dust CJ Sanders off the shelf. Last year it looked like Sanders had a potentially bright future in the Irish offense after recording at least 39 yards receiving in each of the first five games and scoring two touchdowns. He hasn’t had more than 24 in a single game since then despite being healthy in every game. Sanders did not catch a pass in 2017. Why he fell out of favor is unknown, but given the other options available, he could get some looks next week.
Freshman Ready to Step Up?
One name to watch at receiver on Monday is Michael Young. The freshman was said to have turned some heads early in camp, but he never really took off this year. He is likely Notre Dame’s slot receiver for 2018 and could be a deep threat for the Irish in the future. He isn’t going to win any races against Stepherson anytime soon, but he is an athletic player who has a bright future. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he has a bigger role than expected in the Citrus Bowl given the players Notre Dame is missing.
At tight end, look out for freshman Cole Kmet. The freshman drew rave reviews in training camp but he caught only two passes for 14 yards on the season. Durham Smythe will start at tight end and is a reliable receiver with 13 receptions for 234 yards on the season, but after four years we know what we have with Smythe. Kmet on the other hand could be the beneficiary of Alize Mack’s second suspension in two years. Could the Citrus Bowl serve as the coming out party for Kmet and propel him into a prominent role for 2018? Perhaps. Mack’s suspension and his relative lack of impact when he has played has opened the door for competition at the position.
Should Kmet not be ready for a big role on Monday, Notre Dame could go to Nic Weishar. The senior who is reportedly coming back for a 5th year caught a touchdown in the first half of the Temple game but has been largely quiet ever since then.
The odds are certainly stacked against the Notre Dame passing attack on Monday, but then again, it’s bowl season and these game are notoriously unpredictable since you never know where the heads of a bunch of 18-22 year olds are when in bowl games that aren’t part of the College Football Playoff.
What would be nice to see from the depleted Notre Dame receiving corps would be someone to step up and provide some optimism for 2018. Between Young and Kmet, Notre Dame has two promising youngsters who could surprise us on Monday. Whether or not either will remains to be seen, but the door is open for them both. Or maybe it’s CJ Sanders resurrecting his once promising career with a big bowl game. Or maybe Miles Boykin shows us that he can make plays downfield even though isn’t a speed demon.
Whatever the case, Notre Dame is going to need at least one, if not two players who have not contributed much this season to step up big time in the Citrus Bowl for the Irish passing attack to get out of neutral. If no one does, it could be a long day for the Notre Dame offense.