Notre Dame has 12 scholarship players at its three wideout positions, but that “four deep” group is more in need of stability than numbers.
Following last Saturday’s 20-19 loss to Georgia, head coach Brian Kelly said the team is “begging” to find a complement to junior Equanimeous St. Brown, easily the top returning receiver from last year. The Bulldogs' scheme centered on getting physical with St. Brown and employing two-deep coverage that helped limit him to two catches for 16 yards.
“They were going to force us to throw it to somebody else,” Kelly summarized. “Somebody else had to pick us up … We just weren't consistent enough.”
Graduate transfer Cam Smith did catch four passes for 44 yards and junior Chris Finke nabbed all three of his catches in the fourth quarter for 36 yards. It just wasn’t enough to change the game against the stout Bulldogs defense.
Despite all the numbers, the duo of St. Brown and Smith monopolized the playing time with 69 and 64 snaps, respectively, against the Bulldogs out of a possible 79. Next in line was another graduate transfer in Freddy Canteen with 23, but he suffered a shoulder injury that leaves his status doubtful in the near future.
After that, Finke had 19 snaps, freshman Michael Young nine, junior Miles Boykin eight (after not playing in the opener) and sophomore Chase Claypool four. Part of it is that the Irish sometimes use fewer wideouts because of multiple tight end sets, or also have sophomore Tony Jones Jr. in as a second back split wide. Meanwhile:
• In the first two games, junior C.J. Sanders, the team’s top kick return man, did not see a snap on offense, despite catching 24 passes last year.
• Sophomore Javon McKinley, the top-rated receiver among the Irish players, has yet to see action.
• Sophomore Kevin Stepherson, whose 25 catches last season averaged 18.5 yards, is reportedly sidelined the first four weeks this season because of a suspension that the University can neither confirm or will deny.
“We have to settle on where are we going to play certain guys,” Kelly said. “We’re kind of in a flux … where’s Claypool fit? Here’s a young receiver that just needs some seasoning, he needs some time. Is he an inside guy? Is he an outside guy? We can’t take reps away from EQ [on the boundary side].”
At the same time, Smith is much more seasoned at the outside X spot. So who fills in at the slot? Finke? Claypool? Someone else?
“We’ve made a decision,” said Kelly about the receiving corps for the Boston College game. “I don’t want to tell you what it’s going to be because I think that would compromise us a little bit. From a coaching standpoint, the first move is to settle into where these guys could best help us, and then I think everything flows from there. That’s the best I can give you on that. I think after this weekend that question will clear itself up a little bit better.”
There is no such thing as having “too many players” to choose from, but at some point roles and playing time have to be defined.
“We still need the depth, we still need the players that we have," Kelly said. "Guys are going to get banged up. We’re going to call on, I think, what will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position. We really have to start to feature some guys that have maybe not all the experience, but have a higher ceiling at times.”
Smith is the top receiver through two games with seven catches, but they have totaled only 54 yards (7.7 yards per catch).
Per College Football Film Room, Notre Dame also dropped 13 passes the first two games this year after mishandling only 24 last year. A few of them have been by highly heralded junior Alize Mack, who did grab a 32-yard pass to set up a score versus Georgia but has been rusty with in-game action after sitting out last season.
One way or the other, the 2017 Notre Dame receiving corps will need to catch on better overall for the Irish to thrive.