With so many returning starters for Notre Dame in 2018 there aren’t as many huge, looming questions as there are some seasons, but there is still plenty of intrigue surrounding the 2018 Fighting Irish. Over the next several weeks we’ll be taking a look at some of those questions in detail as we prepare for the 2018 season. We’re starting with one today that will have a different answer depending on who you ask – who will lead Notre Dame in receiving in 2018?
Quarterback Play Will Determine the Answer
How the quarterback position plays out in 2018 with largely determine the answer here. If Brandon Wimbush improves significantly this year and can start to somewhat consistently deliver a deep ball, the leading receiver for the Irish will be much different than if Wimbush struggles again and were to get replaced by Ian Book at any time.
For the sake of this post, let’s assume that Wimbush improves and is the starter for the majority of the year (we’ll do a whole other deep dive into the quarterback question at a later date).
The Leading Candidates
Let’s also assume that the starting trio of receivers is Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool on the outside and Michael Young on the inside. So there are our first three leading candidates. We can also throw starting tight end Alize Mack into the mix even though the senior has been heavy on talent and light on production thus far in his career.
Before the Citrus Bowl it was safe to wonder if Boykin would even be starter in 2018 or if he would get passed by one of the youngster’s on the depth chart. Then he exploded in the Citrus Bowl with his late game heroics and parlayed that into a strong spring where he really established himself as the top receiver heading into fall camp. Boykin is a massive target with underrated speed as we saw against LSU and then again in the Blue Gold Game.
Brandon Wimbush. Miles Boykin. 64 yards. Wow ☘️ pic.twitter.com/3ArnSiTLrX
— Barstool Irish (@BarstoolIrish) April 21, 2018
If we were to be handicapping this race, Boykin would be the favorite and is easily the safest pick.
Chase Claypool on the other hand is the upside pick. Claypool has flashed his ability since day one but it’s predictably taken him some time to fine tune his game after picking up football later than most collegiate stars. That ability was on full display against Wake Forest last fall when he hauled in 9 passes for a 180 yards and a touchdown. Problem is he didn’t have more than 56 yards in any other game last year.
The talent is clearly there but missing some time during spring ball with a shoulder injury didn’t do much for Claypool’s development. Of course, that didn’t stop him from scoring a 85 yard touchdown in the Blue Gold Game.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 21, 2018
Coming into the 2018 season Michael Young has just four career receptions though one went for a touchdown against LSU in January. Young, however, would potentially be the biggest benefactor from improved downfield accuracy from Wimbush. Young has got some wheels and could be a huge weapon for Notre Dame this fall. Young has the ability to come out of nowhere similar to what Will Fuller did in 2014 when he led the Irish in receiving as a true sophomore after catching just six passes for 160 yards as a frosh in 2013. Equanimeous St. Brown did the same in 2016 when he just missed 1,000 yards as a sohomore after catching just one pass for 8 yards as a frosh.
Alize Mack has all of the talent in the world as Greg pointed out in his recent Now or Never piece on him, but after spending a full season as a starter, Mack caught just 19 passes and scored a single touchdown (a garbage time score in the blowout loss to Miami). He’s got the talent, but at this point, it would be a mild shock if Mack led the Irish in receiving this fall.
The Dark Horses
Remember Javon McKinley? He was the highest rated recruit in the class of 2016 for Notre Dame but after two seasons, McKinley has yet to make an impact. In fact, his next reception will be the first of his collegiate career. Like Mack, the talent is clearly there with McKinley, but to date he has not yet be able to crack the rotation. It’s far too early to write him though and remember, prior to the 2005 season, Jeff Samardzija was a true junior who barely made an impact.
If Mack isn’t able to establish himself as a go to weapon at tight end, Cole Kmet will be there to pick up the slack and it would not surprise me one bit if Kmet was the leading receiver among the tight ends this fall. It would mildly surprise me if he did lead the Irish in receiving this year overall, but by the end of the year I don’t think anyone should be surprised if Kmet is the #1 option at tight end. Even if he’s not, year two of the Chip Long offense will hopefully show much more of the multiple tight end sets we saw in his Memphis offense which will create a role for Kmet.
Chris Finke is a good player but if he ends up leading Notre Dame in receiving, the offense will likely have been taken over by Ian Book. Finke is shifty possession receiver who would needs a quarterback who excels at making quick timing throws for him to really shine. That just isn’t Brandon Wimbush’s game and even if Wimbush improves significantly as a passer, that isn’t going to be his game.
Freshman Kevin Austin is an interesting candidate here. Could the Floridian come in an make a Michael Floyd style impact as a freshman? Absolutely. He’s got that kind of talent and potential. Of course, it’s been a decade since Notre Dame had a freshman receiver make that kind of impact and frosh receivers specifically have not been prominently featured much in Brian Kelly offenses at Notre Dame. If there is a receiver who can buck that trend though, it could be Austin.
Of the other freshmen receivers, it would be hard to imagine any of them breaking through and pacing the Irish in receiving. I can see a role for Braden Lenzy as a deep threat due to his blazing speed or for Lawrence Keys because of his athleticism, but can’t see either cracking the start lineup already this fall.
Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis will find a role in the passing game as well, but both look like complimentary pieces in 2018. In fact, Armstrong will likely be a much bigger factor as a runner than a receiver this fall.
Knowing the strength of Brandon Wimbush’s game, I think we can eliminate either of the top tight ends from consideration for this one. When we examine this same question next year I think we might be thinking differently if we’re talking about Phil Jurkovec as the starting QB, but for 2018, I think we’ll see improved play from the tight ends, but one of them won’t lead the squad in receiving.
I think Young will end up being the big play guy who makes a bunch of highlight reel plays but I see him having a sophomore campaign where he has a couple of monster games, but isn’t a consistent go to option week in and week out. If he has a strong fall camp it’s definitely possible, but I think we might be a year away from him being a focal point.
So it really comes down to Boykin or Claypool to me. Boykin is the safe pick but Claypool is the upside pick here. Even with coming off the injury and missing some of the spring, I am going to go with Claypool. He was such a raw prospect when he came to Notre Dame that he is still very much learning how to play receiver as he goes. His combination of size and athleticism can’t be taught though and I think we’ll see him take a big step forward to lead Notre Dame in receiving and become the first 1,000 yard receiver since Fuller in 2015 for Notre Dame.