Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool is coming off ankle surgery as he enters his final year with the Irish. Indications out of preseason camp are that the injury hasn’t slowed him a bit, and he’s in prime position to build on his effective 2018 campaign and become the next lanky wideout to make his mark for Brian Kelly’s squad. Michael Floyd comparisons have even begun. That’s quite the progression for someone who struggled out of the gates as a junior in 2018.
That level of production hasn’t always been in evidence over the course of Claypool’s previous three years under the Golden Dome. The sight of Kelly and Claypool getting together for talks over missed assignments or the receiver taking plays off was something that had become a standard ritual in the early years. Those frustrating moments weren’t what was envisioned when Claypool first arrived.
An Unknown Quantity
Notre Dame began its recruitment of Claypool in 2015, with the buzz surrounding him focused on his 6-foot-4 frame and overall athletic ability. However, his high school exploits took place in Canada, where the competition is often suspect. Yet any concerns on that end appeared to fade after a camp visit to Notre Dame, leading to him becoming a part of the Irish’s 2016 recruiting class.
While Claypool’s experience was as a wideout, he had the frame to possibly switch to tight end, with some whispers pointing to a move on the defensive side (Frank’s guilty of those whispers). As a freshman, he grabbed just five passes for 81 yards, getting on the radar of Irish fans with a 33-yard catch to start a scoring drive in the loss to Michigan State.
However, like most newcomers, Claypool was destined to spend his first season making his bones on special teams. Paying those dues were required because of the presence of players like Equanimeous St. Brown and Torii Hunter Jr. ahead of him on the depth chart. Still, whatever success he achieved in that role was largely buried in the meltdown that saw the Irish finish with a 4-8 mark.
Hints of Improvement in 2017
Year two found Claypool become more of a target, collecting at least one reception in 11 games to finish with 29 on the year. His true breakout performance came in the high-scoring win over Wake Forest, where he snagged nine passes for 180 yards and one score. That particular touchdown, one of his two on the season, was a complete Claypool production, with the sophomore’s two catches accounting for all 78 of that drive’s yards.
That one monster game skewed the 2017 season numbers for Claypool, considering the other 12 games saw him catch just 20 passes for 222 yards. Those numbers are more representative of what he was offering the team that year, which wasn’t a recipe for the future stardom that some had envisioned at the start of the campaign.
Productive Possession in 2018
Last season, the trio of Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin and Chris Finke combined for 157 receptions, with Claypool’s 50 grabs highlighted by four touchdowns. The shift to Ian Book behind center elevated the role of the passing game within the Irish offense, which in turn offered Claypool more opportunity to make his mark. He largely took advantage, with 11 multiple-catch performances offering a hint of the consistency that he’s been seeking throughout his collegiate career.
Stepping Up Becomes a Priority
With Boykin now in the NFL, there’s little that stands in the way of Claypool taking his game to the next level in Boykin’s old role as the boundary receiver. Finke will obviously serve as a quality complement while junior Michael Young could be a potential standout – when he returns from his broken collarbone. However, the hope is that the speed of Claypool can finally be exploited as a major downfield weapon. That would give the Irish the experienced deep threat that Book needs.
The hope is also that Claypool’s emergence as a star could help mitigate the loss of Young and starting tight end Cole Kmet who also broke his collarbone in camp.
Throughout his Irish career, Claypool has been a safe possession receiver whenever one of the veterans was unable to get open. That’s kept him in the shadows, but he started to take his game to another in 2018 while still lacking the consistency needed to be a star. So far in camp, Claypool has been displaying that consistency. If that carries over onto Saturdays, Claypool will hear his name early in next April’s NFL Draft.
In the Kelly era, only three receivers have broken the threshold of 60 receptions in a season: Michael Floyd (twice), T.J. Jones and William Fuller (twice.) To accomplish that feat, Claypool only needs to snag 10 more passes during the 2019 season, which doesn’t seem to be that big of a challenge.
One way for Claypool to see an uptick in his numbers would be to fully use his athletic talents by becoming Book’s go-to man when unique aspects of receiving, like a leaping grab, are required. Boykin and others in past years have managed to deliver in that manner. That means that 2019 will be pivotal in determining the viability of Chase Claypool to join his Irish brethren at the professional level