The storyline from the Cotton Bowl meltdown for Notre Dame was the glaring difference at the skill positions. Clemson’s wide receivers were just on another level and made plays even when the Irish coverage was actually okay. To be fair, the Clemson wide receivers did the same to Alabama’s vaunted defense with Tiger receivers making ridiculous play after ridiculous play on their way to blowing out Bama. Those players don’t grow on trees and Notre Dame can’t manufacture them, but they can start to find some playmakers on their current roster this spring.
When Notre Dame lost Miles Boykin to the NFL a couple months ago, it may have just forced their hand in throwing some younger players on the field this spring. Had Boykin returned, it would have been very easy for Notre Dame trot out Boykin, Chase Claypool, and Chris Finke again and hope for the best again in 2019. With Boykin gone, the answer for the Notre Dame passing game might not be as simple as plugging someone in for Boykin.
With an open wide receiver position; Chip Long, Del Vaughn Alexander, and Brian Kelly should take a step back this spring and evaluate which trio of receivers gets the most athleticism on the field without sacrificing technique or fundamentals.
The first thing the Irish staff might – and probably should – look at is moving Claypool to the boundary position that was left open by Boykin’s departure. After three years it looks as though Boykin and Claypool are more similar than different no matter how freakishly athletic Claypool is. His game as a wide receiver translates more into what the boundary position asks for in a receiver – big body, huge target, chain mover.
That would open up a competition on the outside that could be one of the more fun battles to watch all spring. Notre Dame has talent, athleticism, and speed at wide receiver. It just hasn’t seen the field much to this point. Enter the junior Michael Young and the entire sophomore receiving corps.
Rising junior Michael Young only caught 7 passes for 168 yards with a single touchdown and rising sophomore Kevin Austin caught just 5 for 90 yards and didn’t reach the endzone. Young pulled in a 66 yarder against Wake Forest and Austin a 38 yarder against Navy though that both gave glimpses of what they are capable if they can put it all together.
If Claypool plays the boundary, the battle between Young and Austin on the outside could be a whole lot of fun to watch. Both would have the ability to get behind a defense and make plays after the catch as we’ve already seen in very limited sample sizes. Young’s catches average 19.7 and Austin’s 18.0 in 2018.
Young and Austin aren’t the only potential playmakers already on the roster for Notre Dame this spring though. Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys both reported to Notre Dame with perhaps more speed than any other receivers on the roster. Lenzy specifically was a track star though he’s since decided to give up track and focus solely on football – a very positive development for the rising sophomore’s development.
It was thought that either Lenzy or Keys could have had a bigger role in the Cotton Bowl as Notre Dame recognized before the game the difference in speed. Neither had any sort of impact on the outcome – not that inserting a freshman wide receiver who hadn’t played could have made up the difference anyway.
Converted corner and fellow rising sophomore Joe Wilkins Jr surprised the staff upon reporting to Notre Dame last summer and figures to be in the mix somewhere as well.
Notre Dame also still has Mr. Reliable – Chris Finke. The former walk-on enters his senior primed for a big season. As a junior he caught 59 passes for 571 yards with two touchdowns. We saw against Virginia Tech that Finke can get behind defenses too. Unfortunately Ian Book wasn’t able to connect with him every time he was open that day. We saw the chemistry between Book and Finke develop throughout the season after Book assumed the quarterback duties though culminating in Finke’s 7 catch, 86 yard performance in the regular season finale at USC.
How Notre Dame mixes up the receiver rotation is a question we might not have a final answer to until September, but we will get a glimpse this spring as Notre Dame will likely experiment with a lot of different pairings much like they will at linebacker. Unlike linebacker Notre Dame has much more experience coming back, but the Cotton Bowl exposed Notre Dame’s deficiencies at the position and will hopefully force them to take a hard look at how they handle the position in 2019.
One factor that will be interesting to watch this spring is how Ian Book develops along with the receivers. Remember, all of last spring and fall camps were spent focusing on developing Brandon Wimbush so Book has never had an off-season where he has had a chance to truly develop that chemistry. Everything we saw last fall essentially developed on the fly. As Book enters the 2019 off-season as THE guy at quarterback for Notre Dame, the development of the wide receivers should benefit both from his accuracy as well as the continuity from the final ten games of the 2018 campaign.
And one last factor on the wide receiver position that we won’t know about until after spring is the potential graduate transfer of former Virginia Tech wide receiver Eric Kumah. He visited Notre Dame this weekend, but still has visits to Penn State and Texas Tech planned. Where he would fit into the mix still remains to be seen. After catching 42 passes for 559 yards and 7 touchdowns though the staff can certainly find a role for that kind of production. That situation won’t resolve until after the spring.
Don’t expect Notre Dame to end spring ball with a wide receiver rotation set in stone. That’s not and shouldn’t be the goal right now for Notre Dame. If they can exit spring knowing, however, that they can count on Austin, Young, and at least one of Lenzy or Keys in addition to Claypool and Finke, they can use fall camp to lock down what that rotation looks like.
We saw Notre Dame experiment with some actual legit four wide receiver sets in the Cotton Bowl where there were four receivers and not three and a tight end on the field. With all of the talent and athleticism they have to work with this spring, that is a look I hope to see Long and Kelly given some more attention to over these 15 practices.
Notre Dame’s won’t have a wide receiving corps that can go tit for tat with Clemson’s by September – no one will. They have the potential, however, to have a wide receiving corps that will be much more dynamic that the one that guided it to a 12-0 regular season in 2018 though. We’re about to see what the Notre Dame coaching staff does with that group.