Perhaps Chris Finke was just making up for lost time.
During Tuesday’s spring practice, the graduate student wide receiver could barely be stopped. He was beating defensive backs in just about every portion of practice and creating easy throws for his quarterbacks.
Three days earlier, Finke missed practice to attend a class in Chicago as part of his work toward a Master of Science in finance. Clearly, he was happy to be back in pads.
“I’d much rather be at practice then in class,” Finke said. “It was fun to be out there (Tuesday).”
Much of the attention on Notre Dame’s offense this spring has been on the young wide receivers vying for playing time. That was reflected when Finke met with reporters after practice Tuesday. Roughly one-fourth of the questions asked of him were about the young receivers.
Finke patiently answered them all. Likely none of the receivers he answered questions about will have as big of an impact on the season as he will. But he knows this spring will be significant for all of them.
“It’s definitely good for them to get a lot of reps this spring and get back into the groove of playing a lot of football,” Finke said.
Finke found his groove last season as Notre Dame’s slot receiver. He finished third on the team in receptions (49) and receiving yards (571) and caught a pair of touchdown passes. Both of his touchdowns — a 43-yard catch against Michigan and a 24-yard catch against USC — came in 24-17 victories to start and end the regular season. The former walk-on from Kettering (Ohio) Alter solidified himself as a key member of the Irish offense.
Prior to the 2018 season, Finke had totaled just 16 catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns in three years at Notre Dame. Finke, who received a scholarship as a sophomore in 2016, had always shown flashes in practice but it hadn’t translated to the field.
The only difference in Finke’s mind was opportunity.
“I felt like I was capable of that the year before anyways,” Finke said. “It just wasn’t my time.”
The confidence Finke had in himself allowed him to not be fazed by the increased role.
“I’m doing what I’ve been doing for a while,” Finke said. “It’s just coming my way a little more.”
Leadership responsibilities are coming Finke’s way now too. This offseason, Finke was named one of Notre Dame’s eight SWAT (Spring/Summer Workout Accountability Team) captains. It’s reminded him to become more vocal as a leader.
“I’m not going to change who I am, but understanding that I’m an old guy on the team now — one of the oldest if not the oldest — I’m in a leadership role,” Finke said. “So I know that people look up to me, and that what I say has some weight.”
The offseason focus for Finke also includes improvements in his own game.
“I want to play fast at all times and not really show any fatigue, so I’m really trying to push myself this spring ball right now,” Finke said. “When things are hard, to run as hard as I can no matter what.”
The 5-foot-10, 182-pound Finke wants to be more physical too.
“Obviously I’m undersized. I’m going to have to get in there and block some linebackers and block on the outside for some screen passes and what not,” Finke said. “I’m really trying to play with no fear and play hard and attack everything.”
In Tuesday’s practice, Finke had a good view of what extra effort from a blocker can do. Running back Tony Jones Jr. helped clear a path to the end zone for Finke by blocking safety Jalen Elliott for the last 20 yards at the end of a screen pass that turned into a long touchdown.
“I was yelling at him the whole time, ‘Go Tony. Go Tony. Go Tony. I’m right behind you, Tony.’ He just kept pushing,” Finke said. “That was all Tony there. And the (offensive) line at the line of scrimmage on the screen pass. They kicked some guys out and made a big hole for me. It was pretty easy on my end.”
Finke and wide receiver Chase Claypool should give quarterback Ian Book reliable options in his second season as the starter. A full offseason working together with no doubts about their roles should allow for even more chemistry to develop.
Finke has plenty of confidence in Book and sees plenty of self-confidence coming from the quarterback. They’re on the same page even if Finke has to miss a couple of practices.
“He knows where the throws are going to be,” Finke said. “He knows what the coverages are going to be like. He can put it on the spot, because he’s a talented quarterback.”