Notre Dame’s more seasoned receiving corps is thinking "big" in 2017, especially with 6-5 All-American candidate Equanimeous St. Brown and 6-4 ½, 228-pound sophomore Chase Claypool and 6-4, 225-pound junior Miles Boykin.
That’s not even including the five-man rotation at tight end in which no one is shorter than 6-4 ½.
Nevertheless, there is a place for “small ball” too in the Fighting Irish arsenal, and that will be led by 5-9 ½, 181-pound junior Chris Finke and 5-8, 181-pound classmate CJ Sanders. They represent two of the four smallest players on the 84-man scholarship roster, joined by defensive backs and fellow juniors Shaun Crawford (5-9, 176) and Nicco Fertitta (5-9, 175).
Both Finke and Sanders fit the water bug prototype of a slot wideout with their diminutive frames and quickness that can take a quick five-yard pass and turn it into a 15-, 20-, 40-…yard gain. However, neither is being pigeonholed into one spot, as new coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo attack has receivers possibly lining up most anywhere, anytime. Both Finke and Sanders have worked on the wide side of the field (X) as well.
“I just try to learn all the plays at every position so that I know what I’m doing and I can be plugged in anywhere,” Finke said.
When the school’s official depth chart was released on Tuesday, Finke was listed as a co-starter with Michigan graduate transfer Freddy Canteen, with St. Brown (W) and Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith (X) the main figures on the outside.
Awarded a scholarship in August 2016, Finke finished his sophomore campaign with a flourish, nabbing a 31-yard touchdown pass against Virginia Tech in the home finale to give the Irish a temporary 17-0 cushion and then catching a career high four passes for 53 yards, including a 14-yard score, in the 45-27 loss at USC.
“There are different sets and plays that have the benefits for the smaller guys,” Finke said. “Learning everything and what everyone does on every play is really helpful for all of us.”
There are 12 scholarship receivers on the Irish roster, but Finke has experience thriving as an underdog and rising to or near the top
"We have a lot of good receivers, a lot of guys who are going to contribute,” he said. “That was the mindset for everyone in camp. Every rep is a competition. Every rep is a chance to prove yourself and try to find your spot in the offense."
Listed with freshman Michael Young as the top man behind Smith, Sanders echoed Finke’s sentiments, and likes the ideal of lining up more on the outside against man coverage.
“I love competition, I love being around guys that make me better,” Sanders said. “The guys that we have, we all have different skill sets. In order to be on the field you have to be a complete player, and it just pushes me to be better every day.
“Me, Chris and Mike, we’re not ‘jump-ball’ guys. My skill set is more of a guy who I can take that short hitch and take it 80 yards quick. I’m just ready whenever my number is called to make it happen.”
After a promising start to 2016, Sanders’ number was seldom called while he appeared to lose confidence.
In the first five games he caught 17 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns — plus returned a 93-yard kickoff for a touchdown versus Syracuse and had a 99-yard opening kickoff tally versus Michigan State called back because of a penalty.
In the final seven games, Sanders caught only seven passes for 39 yards. The lone highlight was a 92-yard opening kickoff return for a score against Army in a 44-6 rout by Notre Dame.
With two more years of eligibility remaining and four career touchdowns on returns, two more scores on returns by Sanders would give him six, tying him with the exclusive company of Tim Brown, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and Allen Rossum on the all-time Irish chart.
However, several special teams snafus, including a mishandled punt inside the five that resulted in a Miami touchdown, has put Sanders in the backup role to Finke on punt returns.
Replacing Sanders in that aforementioned Miami game, Finke’s 23-yard punt return against the Hurricanes set up the game winning score. At Archbishop Alter High in Kettering, Ohio, Finke reportedly had six returns for a score and was nicknamed “The Slippery Fox.”
"That's something that got me here, honesty," said Finke of the punt return role. "As a walk-on I didn't have a lot of success as a receiver in high school. It's something I really enjoy doing, something I am confident in doing and something I hope I can do going forward.
"Punt return, when you catch it it’s find a seam and hit it. Kick return, if it's there it's there; if it's not, it's not. Punt return, you have some opportunity to make some stuff on your own."
Today’s spread punt formations with ultra-quick gunners force a lot of fair catches — “which is unfortunate, but you take what you can get,” Finke said — and Finke’s reliability in judging punts in the air also has earned him the starting nod there over Sanders and Young.
“Small ball” still remains a vital cog in the Irish attack.