On February 25th I wrote in a column for this site that Chase Claypool was going to turn into a star this season like Jeff Samardzija in 2005 (I also said he was a hidden gem back in February 2016, so I’m invested) and that was met with some healthy skepticism from a lot of fans. Sure, he’s got some nice raw talent, they said, but he’s got a long way to go. And that’s fine, he probably does have a long way to go. He probably isn’t very refined, his hands are probably still inconsistent and he’s likely to still be adjusting to major college football after beating up on Canadian kids throughout his high school career. But, I don’t care about any of that, I still believe 2017 will be the season of Chase Claypool.
To be clear, I’ve attended zero practices, have no special insight or sources close to the program. I get my information like most people, from what’s publicly available online. But, it just makes sense to me that Claypool would break out this year, like some of the best receivers in recent Notre Dame history have following luke warm freshman seasons. To be honest, I didn’t even want to write this for fear of the jinx factor, but I feel strong enough about it and I feel putting out this disclaimer mitigates it. Plus, I believe in the player and so lets just go all in with it.
There Is Precedent For A Claypool Breakout
Lets take a look at the freshman years for Notre Dame receiving legends Samardzija, Golden Tate, and Will Fuller and where they ended up a year later.*
*Samardzija’s breakout was actually two years later, but his sophomore numbers didn’t signal some grand ascent either, and including those messes up the chart so just go with it.
Now lets think about what the common criticism was regarding those players early in their career and how they also fit into what we hear about Claypool:
Samardzija couldn’t separate from defenders, wasn’t dynamic enough, and didn’t have the requisite athleticism. That turned out to simply be false. He just needed a coaching staff who knew how to utilize the skills of someone of his caliber. He was nothing more than a bit player under Tyrone Willingham and blew up immediately once Charlie Weis stepped onto campus.
-Claypool parallel: He also received a new coaching staff with new ideas and philosophy, who probably reacted to seeing him walking around the locker room and learning he was an offensive player with rapid double takes.
Golden Tate arrived at Notre Dame as a great athlete who many openly questioned whether or not he knew what a curl route was. And to be honest, I don’t think he did. I’m actually not even sure he still knows what one is or whether or not he can effectively run one. Point is, it didn’t matter, Weis put him out there to make plays and they’d figure out the details later and make plays he did.
Claypool parallel: Claypool also arrived as not a great route runner who didn’t have to be precise with really anything he did in Canada and got by on sheer athleticism. However, given his physical traits and athletic ability wouldn’t it make sense for the coaches to just throw him out there and figure out the details later?
Will Fuller was lightening fast, but he couldn’t catch. He still can’t really catch. But, if a player is good enough you take those lumps as a staff and you accept that he’ll drop some and relish in the ones that he holds onto. Fuller dropped some for sure. But, he also held onto a whole bunch while being the focal point of the aerial attack in 2014 and 2015, which worked out very well for everyone involved.
Claypool parallel: The most common criticism I hear regarding Claypool is he has inconsistent hands. And that’s well and good, but some guys need to be out there, and Claypool is one of those guys.
Claypool Is A Special Kind Of Receiver
When you look at the three receivers mentioned above they all have an elite trait or two that set them apart, but not the entire package. Samardzija was big, agile, great ball skills, but lacked the top end speed of someone like Fuller, but similar to Tate was very good with the ball in his hands. Tate was smaller, great hands, running back like ability in open space and very difficult to tackle. Fuller was a rocket ship who lacked ideal size and hands, but was very good in open space and people just feared him because, well, he was a rocket ship.
Claypool is a blend of all three of those players, and unlike anyone Notre Dame has had at the position since Michael Floyd, but possibly more dynamic. He was very comfortable with the ball in his hands in high school, taking middle screens and weaving in and out of traffic for long gains, which is unusual for a 6-4, 225 pound player. Most guys of his size are the Miles Boykin, Corey Robinson types who rely on their size and strength to over power players. This is something Claypool can do, but he’s also a pretty nimble athlete. He could be Notre Dame’s version of Andre Johnson of Miami, and if you followed his career with the Hurricanes at all, you know that would be an incredibly good thing.
I’ve always been loathe to label players “freak” athletes, because lets be real all these guys are division 1 football players, that takes a unique type of ability. That being said Claypool is on the freakish end of the athletic ability spectrum. In addition, as a former college defensive back, I would want no part of this guy in coverage. He’s a physical monster, he’s fast enough to run by me, nimble enough to run around me, athletic enough to jump over me, and strong enough to out muscle me. Am I supposed to expect success pressing the 6-4, 225 pound guy? Do I feel good playing off, giving him the short throws on the hope I can bring him down in the open field? I’d feel good about none of this.
The Playing Opportunity Is There
Five practices into spring ball, Claypool has been running with the first team at receiver with Equanimeous St. Brown and Chris Finke. Classmate and true sophomore Kevin Stepherson (of 25 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns) has been mired with third team reps for the totally believable and not at all suspicious reason provided by Brian Kelly that they need to get other players reps. Whatever that case may be, Claypool has been the beneficiary gaining valuable reps with new starter Brandon Wimbush and the first team offense.
Also, in benefitting from a new staff with new ideas, he’s seen a good amount of time in the slot so far this spring, which paired next to St. Brown is a terrifying thought for defenses and the type of thing that probably keeps Chip Long up at night drawing up plays. The possibilities for this type of formation are endless with Claypool’s blocking ability, his size/speed combination against a nickel, linebacker, or strong safety, his nimble feet in traffic with the ball in his hands on a middle screen or a jet sweep. There is nothing you can’t do. And that’s really the whole point, his game presents no limitations except for the fact that he has a focus drop every now and then. Which I predict he will get straightened out.
My expectation is Claypool seizes the opportunity and doesn’t look back, leaving a mark on the offense that makes him a mainstay on the team and ultimately leads to stardom. Claypool and fellow wideout St. Brown could provide a duo similar to that of Samardzija and Stovall in 2005, at least in terms of impact, when both players of similar size finished the season over 1,000 yards receiving and double digit touchdowns. It’s hard to predict stats due to a number of variables, but given that new offensive coordinator Chip Long loves to push the pace and get play numbers up, I wouldn’t rule out two 1,000 yard receivers on this team.