2019 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 69 of 163

68 ✦ BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2019 FOOTBALL PREVIEW BY TODD D. BURLAGE T he first Irish player is a 6-foot-4, clear-cut NFL Draft prospect, per- haps even a first-rounder, who could have left college a year early after last season to accelerate his professional dream. The other is a 5-foot-10 Notre Dame graduate student whose football career will presumably end when the upcoming Irish season wraps up. One was a coveted high school recruit, rated as the top wide receiver in all of Can- ada, who could have played college ball about anywhere he wanted. The other came to Notre Dame as an anonymous walk-on, touted mainly as a special teams ace, who likely would have ended up playing small college or Division II ball without a chance meeting in a high school hallway with Irish head coach Brian Kelly. The more decorated player is often ac- cused by his college coaches of having a "here today, gone tomorrow" effort level. The other is celebrated for being the most detail-oriented player on this Irish team. Shortcuts don't turn walk-ons into starters. Senior star wideout Chase Claypool and durable slot man Chris Finke may be the oddest receiving tandem in all of college football, but they also could become one of the more productive ones this season. The two veterans combined for 99 catches, 1,210 receiving yards and six touchdowns last season. Together, they have also tallied 149 total receptions and 10 scoring grabs in their careers, with presumably many more of both to come this fall. "You have some established players that can play at a high level with Claypool and Finke," Kelly said when asked about his dynamic re- ceiving duo. "They are really good players, we knew that, and it continues to show." And the roads that led this odd couple to this same place for this same season are as contrasting as everything else that makes both of them high achievers. Perfect Timing As an undersized senior wide receiver at Archbishop Alter High School in Ketter- ing, Ohio, near Dayton, Finke's size kept him off the wish list of any major Division I college programs. Seldom do 170-pound receivers who stand under 6-foot-0 grab much attention. Working the recruiting trail, Kelly trav- eled to Kettering to chat some football with longtime Alter head coach Ed Domsitz, and to share some face time during a basket- ball practice there with Nick Coleman — a standout on the gridiron at Alter and a Notre Dame verbal commit at the time. It was during that visit when Finke ser- endipitously walked by the two coaches in the school hallway outside of Domsitz's classroom. The chance encounter inspired Domsitz to introduce Kelly to Finke and rec- ommend that the coach consider making this Alter senior an Irish walk-on. Kelly obliged. A few minutes watching Finke play along- side Coleman at the Alter basketball prac- tice, followed by some later film review of Finke's work as a punt returner, piqued Kelly's interest. "They were scrimmaging during basket- ball practice and [Finke] was fearless," Kelly recalled of his first impression. "Going in against 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 guys and just slap- ping the ball away, just tenacious. "It just caught my eye as a guy who was not going to back down from any challenge when it came to competing." Kelly had never heard of Chris Finke, but the folks at Archbishop Alter and its neigh- boring football rivals knew all about the kid nicknamed "The Slippery Fox." Finke was a shifty, underrated overachiever who returned 10 punts for touchdowns during his prep career, and as a senior set the single-season record at Alter for return yards. "We thought at a minimum if we took a preferred walk-on who had great ball skills, and could be a punt returner, and was fearless, that would be a good get," Kelly said. "Be- cause you've got to be fearless to stand out there in front of 85,000 and then have guys running down at you wanting to hit you." Domsitz, who is entering his 45th season as the Alter head coach, laughed as he revis- ited that chance hallway meeting because Finke came off as aloof and disinterested when Kelly inquired about Finke's interest level in playing big-time college ball. "Son, do you think you would be interested in playing Division I football?" Domsitz re- called of the question Kelly posed to Finke. "His answer was something like, 'Maybe, I think so.' Damn, this is the head coach at Notre Dame. Coach Kelly and I just laughed. "Chris got this opportunity by chance, but what he's done at Notre Dame since is what's so remarkable." About two years prior to Kelly's invitation to attend Notre Dame and Finke's acceptance, this scrawny high school sophomore was looking for any way to simply find his place in the powerhouse Alter football program. In fact, Domsitz recalls Finke considering foot- ball retirement after his freshman season there. One way for Finke to earn attention was taking extra reps and gaining some brownie points by playing catch every day before practice, and in between two-a-day work- outs, with a brash senior teammate and future Notre Dame quarterback named Malik Zaire. "I was looking for a chance to get better, I kind of built a bond with him," Finke said of a relationship with Zaire that helped jump-start Finke's high school career. "Malik was the one who got me some playing time initially, he stuck his neck out for me to the coaches." Two years later, Finke was walking on and reuniting with Zaire at Notre Dame. About one year after that, Finke was put on scholar- ship after Kelly said that chance meeting at Alter, "turned out to be much more than that, he's been pretty good." Finke has not only been pretty good, he has become one of the better slot receivers during the nine-year Kelly coaching era and has likewise grown into a valuable leader, a bona fide captain candidate that the team will vote on near the end of summer. "I understand I'm the old guy on the team now, if not the oldest," said Finke, who was selected by the Irish coaches as one of eight SWAT team workout leaders during the off- season. "I'm in a leadership role, so I know people look up to me and what I say has some weight." Size, playing style and another obvious similarity make the comparisons with small- ish NFL slot receivers Julian Edelman, Wes Welker and Danny Amendola easy ones. THE ODD COUPLE The unlikely duo of Chase Claypool and Chris Finke will lead the way for the Irish receiving corps in 2019 Claypool uses the loss of his sister Ashley as his mo- tivation to be his best on and off the field. He filled his spring academic schedule with eight classes for 18 credit hours to help lighten the workload during football season and plans to graduate this Decem- ber with a degree in management consulting. PHOTO BY ANGELA DRISKELL

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