Notre Dame freshman Chase Claypool offers multitude of possibilities

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

A thousand tears won’t bring you back. I know, because I cried. Neither will a thousand words. I know, because I’ve tried. Until we meet again.

The words adorn Chase Claypool’s sinewy right arm along with ornate images that will never let him forget.

And the Notre Dame freshman wide receiver doesn’t want to forget sister Ashley, who took her own life five years and one month ago.

Now he totes the dreams for both of them.

“I was told the news, and at first it didn’t affect me, because I didn’t think it was real,” he said of his sister, who would have celebrated her 22nd birthday in February.

“I knew how strong she was. It was just like shocking when it set in, because looking back at it she was giving people signs, and I wasn’t there for her. So I always use it as motivation, trying to make her proud.”

Saturday afternoon, the Abbotsford, British Columbia, product will be doing so at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where Claypool and the Irish (4-7) clash with perhaps the nation’s hottest team, heavily favored and 12th-ranked USC (8-3). Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. EST on ABC-TV.

The eighth player from Canada to see action for Notre Dame in its 128-season football history and the first to sign a letter-of-intent with the Irish since linebacker and Torontonian Bill Mitoulas in 1994 doesn’t figure to be a central character in the 88th meeting between the cross-country rivals.

But his nuanced contributions this season, when a redshirt year was anticipated by both Claypool and the Irish coaches, strongly hint at a larger role in future ND-USC battles, not to mention the bigger picture.

And that is specifically as a wild card on a 2017 team loaded with potential returning starters and established players that coach Brian Kelly is counting on to distance himself from the program’s first losing season in nine years.

Claypool, defensive end Daelin Hayes, safety Jalen Elliott and offensive linemen Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer are among a group of freshmen whose playing time was limited or non-existent in 2016 but who could leapfrog their way up the depth chart in 2017 and become building blocks, too.

“We're still lacking that big play when we need it on both sides of the ball,” Kelly said earlier this week.

“So I think a lot of it, in the offseason, will be defining roles and refining some of the more athletic players that we think can help us close out games and be more effective in those pressure situations. And I think he (Claypool) is one of them.”

But will it be as a wide receiver? Hybrid tight end? The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Claypool has played both this season in collecting four receptions for 61 yards and a rush for nine yards, while blocking like a veteran at both positions.

Or will it come as a defensive end? An outside linebacker? A safety? He played all three of those positions at Abbotsford High School (and punter) and has nine tackles as a special teams player for the Irish this season.

To provide a little perspective, that’s one fewer tackle than part-time starting nose guard Daniel Cage has garnered in eight games this season.

“After the first couple of weeks (of the season), I was eating dinner one night,” Claypool said of a conversation with senior linebacker James Onwualu, who started his ND career at wide receiver as well.

“He was joking around and he said, ‘If you keep making plays and tackling people, you might get moved over to defense. We’d love to have you over there.’ ”

It might be the path of least resistance and perhaps the best fit as well.

Notre Dame does not have a wide receiver with expiring eligibility. And senior Torii Hunter Jr., who seemed certain to be moving on before a series of injuries cut into his production, may have a difficult decision now about whether to use his fifth-year option.

Also, ND’s leading receiver, sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown, plays the same, outside “W” spot, that Claypool does. But some observers believe Claypool has the best upside of any of the Irish receivers, including Hunter and St. Brown.

Claypool, when pressed, is tempted to say “shooting guard” is his best position. He averaged almost 48 points a game his senior basketball season at Abbotsford and was starting to cull Division I hoops scholarship offers as a high school sophomore when he decided to put his football future front and center.

It was his dream to play big-time football in the United States, but he was convinced the only realistic path was playing for a Canadian university. And so he set his sights on the University of British Columbia, where his older — but much shorter — brother, 5-foot-10 Jacob Carvery, once played.

But Carvery connected Claypool with Eddie Ferg, who coached a 7-on-7 team out of Vancouver, Air Raid Academy, that provided British Columbians with competition and exposure in the States.

“He sent my film out, and that’s kind of how I got my first offer,” Claypool said of Ferg. “And once other schools saw it, they started offering me.”

Irish recruiting coordinator Mike Elston eventually made his way out to British Columbia and convinced Claypool to visit for the Irish Invasion Camp the June before his senior season.

On the plane ride to South Bend, Claypool watched the movie, “Rudy.”

“That got me excited,” said Claypool, who knew little about Notre Dame or its football program before Elston extended a scholarship offer.

Oregon, Washington and Michigan were the most high-profile competing offers from a short and scattered list for a four-star, top 150 player (No. 109 in the 2016 class).

“Growing up, my dad always stressed education,” Claypool said. “I think that those (other schools) just didn’t interest me as much as higher education like Notre dame did. So as soon as I got that offer, I knew I had to come see it. And I knew that if I liked it, I’d be coming here.”

Once Claypool enrolled last June, the gap in the speed of the game and competition level was larger than it was for virtually all of his freshman teammates. But incrementally he erased that gap, and by the time training camp opened in Culver, Ind., in early August, Claypool had worked his way into a viable option for 2016, not just the distant future.

“I had a lot of help from the coaches and the players in making the adjustments,” Claypool said.

And he also had plenty of motivation.

“I know Ashley is watching,” he said.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame freshmen Kevin Stepherson (29) and Chase Claypool (83) say a prayer before the start of the Nevada game, Sept. 10 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ)