SOUTH BEND — The catch launched Chris Finke into a successful senior season.
In the 2018 season opener against Michigan, Notre Dame’s slot receiver made the best grab of his Irish career. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Finke leaped and reached over Michigan safety Brad Hawkins to secure a 43-yard pass from quarterback Brandon Wimbush in the end zone.
Finke split both of Michigan’s safeties deep down the middle of the field. He left safety Tyree Kinnel a couple steps behind him. Then he took the ball away from Hawkins.
The catch gave Notre Dame a 14-0 lead halfway through the first quarter of a 24-17 victory. It helped propel the Irish into an undefeated regular season and Finke into a prominent role in Notre Dame’s offense.
“It was my first game really being the starting slot receiver,” Finke said. “I hadn’t really done a lot to prove myself in the offense. So being able to come out in the first game in a big game and have a play like that gave me some confidence and the coaches some confidence in me going throughout the rest of the season.”
Finke didn’t top the wow factor of his first catch of the season, but he continued to make plays for the Irish all season long. He finished third on the team in receptions (49) and receiving yards (571).
In the regular season finale at USC, Finke notched a career-high seven catches for 86 yards and one touchdown. He came through with two third-down conversions and a 24-yard touchdown catch on a drive late in the second quarter to cut into USC’s early 10-0 lead. He accounted for 51 yards on the 64-yard scoring drive.
It’s not a stretch to say that Notre Dame wouldn’t have found its way into the College Football Playoff if not for Finke. Yet the encore season hasn’t gone as planned for Notre Dame’s walk-on success story.
The first six games as a graduate student had as many lowlights as highlights. A pass from quarterback Ian Book ricocheted off Finke and resulted in an interception in the 23-17 loss to Georgia. A week later in Notre Dame’s 35-20 win over Virginia, Finke muffed a punt return for the first time in his career.
Finke’s only touchdown of the season came on a 54-yard touchdown reception against New Mexico. He caught the short forward toss from Book in the backfield and sprinted into the end zone untouched. The rest of the season has included only 14 catches for 128 yards.
“I haven’t been as productive as I’d like to be or as the team would need me to be,” Finke said. “It being the halfway point, and we just had a bye week, I’m trying to use that as kind of like a clean slate. Go out there and try to rise to the occasion, rise to the expectations that I have for myself and other people have.”
Finke’s clean slate starts Saturday night (7:30 EDT on ABC) in Michigan Stadium against the No. 19 Wolverines (5-2). It would only be fitting if Finke rediscovered success against the same team that launched him into the spotlight last season.
Finke, whose oldest sister, Alex, graduated from Michigan, might have opportunities for big plays against a Michigan defense that allowed Penn State slot receiver K.J. Hamler to catch six passes for 108 yards, including touchdown catches of 25 and 53 yards. Defensive coordinator Don Brown tends to trust his secondary in one-on-one coverage, but Hamler provided another example of how to exploit the Wolverines.
“The way that Michigan plays defense, they like to get after the quarterback and kind of load the box and stop the run,” Finke said. “That forces receivers to make plays in man-to-man coverage. Obviously there are some opportunities out there.
“There have been some players who have taken advantage of it. That’s what we in the receiver room are thinking about this week.”
A preseason camp injury to Michael Young, the projected starting outside receiver to the field side, forced Finke into a different role to start this season for No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1).
Because sophomore slot receiver Lawrence Keys III emerged as Notre Dame’s best option to enter the lineup, Finke was asked to play more outside receiver than anticipated. Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander was confident the Kettering (Ohio) Alter product could handle the task with his experience in the offense.
“We didn’t have to do that as much a year ago,” Alexander said in August. “But this year, we want to do a little bit more, moving guys around and Finke can play anywhere, in the boundary, in the slot or to the field.”
The increased role on the outside didn’t go seamlessly for Finke.
“It was quite a challenge for me — a little out of my comfort zone,” Finke said. “I have to do anything this team asks of me and try to put that spot in my comfort zone and find the nuances in it and try to make plays wherever I’m at.”
With Young returning from his broken collarbone in the Virginia game, Finke has returned to his primary role as a slot receiver. But he’s still asked to play outside receiver at times. Sometimes that comes when the Irish are using two tight ends in Cole Kmet and Tommy Tremble.
But when two tight ends join the lineup, that can also put Finke on the sideline. The different looks keep defenses on alert. Having Young and Kmet, who also missed the first two games with a broken collarbone, back in the mix gives offensive coordinator Chip Long a number of options.
“It’s been good having a lot of different pieces we can put out there,” Finke said. “Different formations, different sets and things like that. Just knowing that we have a lot of weapons that we can spread around and move the ball to.”
Finke, one of Notre Dame’s seven captains, showed his appreciation for his fellow receivers in the 52-0 rout of Bowling Green. When Chase Claypool scored his second touchdown Finke rushed to Claypool to celebrate with him. After Claypool jumped into the arms of right tackle Robert Hainsey, who kept him hoisted in the air for a moment, Finke signaled to Claypool that he wanted to do the same. Then the 6-4, 229-pound Claypool jumped into Finke’s arms for a much less impressive celebration.
Finke tried the stunt again later in the quarter following wide receiver Javon McKinley’s touchdown. It barely left the ground.
“I got Chase in that game. That was a pretty good one,” Finke said. “I tried to get Javon later, but he really wasn’t on the same page with it. I just haven’t been near another receiver that scored since then and in the same position.
“I was trying to do it because the linemen looked like they were having fun when they do it. Switch it up a little bit.”
Speedy sophomore Braden Lenzy has flashed in small doses as another one of the weapons in Notre Dame’s offense. He received his first action in Notre Dame’s 66-14 blowout of New Mexico and made splash plays in garbage time with a 52-yard reception from quarterback Phil Jurkovec and a 22-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Brendon Clark.
Lenzy made his first meaningful impact in the second quarter of Notre Dame’s 30-27 win over USC. He took a misdirection toss from Book and sprinted his way to a 51-yard touchdown run. Lenzy squeezed into the end zone in front of USC cornerback Chris Steele. Finke fought with Steele downfield to prevent him from tracking down Lenzy for a tackle.
Finke prides himself on making that extra effort even if he’s not exactly knocking defenders back with his blocks. It might not be a highlight catch against a rival, but Finke still savored it. His lack of production won’t kill his passion.
“Anytime that you can help your team out, it feels good,” Finke said. “Especially when it’s a guy at your own position. We’re a pretty close receiver room.
“If I was able to do something that helped Braden get a touchdown — I didn’t have to do too much, he’s pretty fast. He kind of took that guy’s angle from him anyways. Sometimes an assist feels just as good as scoring.”