It’s easy to place all of the blame for Notre Dame’s offensive struggles so far this year on the shoulders of the quarterback since he’s running the show. A quarterback, no matter how good however, is often only as good as his supporting cast – and his play caller. In that sense, Brandon Wimbush hasn’t gotten a whole lot of help through three games in either department. We’ve already talked a lot about the issues with Notre Dame’s game plans and play calling. Today we’re going to look at Notre Dame’s need for playmakers at wide receiver.
Miles Boykin Being Asked to Do Too Much
Against Ball State Miles Boykin hauled in 6 catches for 119 yards for the first 100 yard performance of his career. Notre Dame utilized the senior wide receiver very effectively in the intermediate passing game and the results speak for themselves. A week later Notre Dame asked Boykin to be a vertical threat against a tall, rangy corner and the results also speak for themselves. One catch for 14 yards.
Boykin can be an absolute monster of a chain mover because of his size if used like he was against Ball State. Notre Dame seems keen on using him as a deep threat though. And while we’ve seen him make some incredible plays downfield – hello Citrus Bowl – that isn’t necessarily his game.
Brian Kelly admitted on Tuesday that they are asking him to do a lot – maybe too much – right now and that’s it’s impacted his performance.
“I just think we’ve put so much on Miles this year. How many catches did he have last year? 12? Maybe 12 catches, and I think that includes the bowl game. He didn’t play a lot of football last year. So we’ve heaped a lot on him this year, and I think the amount of scrutiny has put him in a position where he feels like he needs to be perfect,” Kelly said.
“I think you saw a little bit of that frustration this past weekend.,” Kelly added. “Played a really good corner. That kid was really good from Vanderbilt, too, by the way. But not holding his line, vertically, down the field, some of the things that he’s been really good at. And to me that’s frustration,”
“We really just gotta get him back to the basics and doing the things that he’s really good at, and that’s just the learning process.”
Chase Claypool Still Inconsistent
Starting opposite Boykin, Chase Claypool has had a disappointing start to his 2018 campaign. Expected by many to break through this year, Claypool has just seven catches for 100 yards through three games. That puts him on pace for just 30 catches and 433 yards (assuming 13 games). That would be nearly identical to his 29 catch, 402 yard, 2 touchdown output from a year ago. Not quite the improvement most were expecting.
Clayool has flashed some crazy potential over the past two seasons, but he’s been inconsistent to say the least. One play he’ll drive a defensive back out of bounds on a block, the next he won’t engage the defender at all. That inconsistency has been present in the passing game as well with drops and cutting off routes early.
It’s very clear that the potential is there, but so far this year Notre Dame still hasn’t really been able to tap into it fully.
Chris Finke Has Flashed But…
Starting slot receiver Chris Finke has flashed at times this year – namely his 43 yard touchdown against Michigan, but since then, however, his production has been stagnant. Other than that crazy touchdown grab, Finke has 9 catches for 59 yards. This past weekend he had 5 catches for 6 yards.
Part of the reason for Finke’s lack of production is that he’s the kind of receiver that needs to get the ball quick, on time, and accurately to take advantage of his athleticism in space and that just isn’t the kind of quarterback Brandon Wimbush is. He struggles with the wide receiver screen as we saw again last week. Finke could potentially be a weapon for the Irish in the short passing game if Ian Book were behind center, but it doesn’t appear as though that is anywhere near Brian Kelly’s radar.
Are Michael Young and Kevin Austin Part of the Answer?
With Notre Dame lacking any sort of real downfield threat right now, Kelly and Chip Long are hopefully looking for answers. Afterall, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right? If they are, there are two obvious names on the roster right now who could help provide the playmaking ability this offense is lacking – sophomore Michael Young and freshman Kevin Austin.
Kelly was asked about Young specifically on Tuesday and it sounds like we might just see more of the speedy Louisiana native this weekend. “He was limited in camp because of an injury, and I think he’s really started to come on. We saw his confidence kind of start to come in the last probably, I don’t know, ten days to two weeks physically where he really could cut loose,” Kelly said.
“We saw him on the kickoff return where he starts having a little bit of a bounce back. And then we’re starting to see it in practice, too. So I would expect if he’s going to continue to show that in practice and if he continues to do that, I think that’s going to translate into some more playing time for him.”
The kickoff Kelly referenced was a 48 yard return by Young where it was clear that he was the fastest player on the field at the time. Young saw a crease and exploded through it. That kind of speed has to be utilized in Notre Dame’s vertical passing attack if it is going to have any chance of success once the Irish start facing some better defenses.
Then there is freshman Kevin Austin. Had Austin enrolled early, I don’t think there would be much question that he would already be starting. As is, Austin was one of the most impressive freshmen in camp and his time has to be coming. Kelly has been somewhat reluctant to play freshman receivers in the past outside of TJ Jones in 2010 (Jones was an early enrollee though), but he might not have much of a choice soon.
Two other names to keep an eye down the road a bit, if not sooner, are freshmen Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy. Both might need a bit more time in the weight room before they are ready for larger roles, but both have the speed to get behind a defense. With four games of playing time available without losing a year of eligibility now, it could be worth testing one of them out to try and open up the vertical passing game more.
If we look back to the insertion of Will Fuller into the lineup as a true freshman, it was in week four of the 2013 season when we first got the glimpse of what he was capable of. He only had one catch that afternoon but it went for 37 yards and he and fellow freshman Corey Robinson also generated multiple pass interference penalties that afternoon in Notre Dame’s win over Michigan State. Fuller wasn’t ready for a big role either, but they started using him as a deep threat to open up the underneath passing game.
This weekend just so happens to be game number four of the season. Will we see a similar utilization of Austin or Young? Or maybe even one of the the speedy freshmen waiting in the wings? That remains to be seen. What we have seen so far this year, however, is that the wide receiver rotation Notre Dame has been utilizing is not taking the top off of any defense and the Irish are in need of some playmakers. There are some on the roster, it is just a matter of whether or not they are ready for extended action and whether or not the staff is ready to insert them into the lineup.