Notre Dame transfer Freddy Canteen is built for speed, but is he built for stardom?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

He comes from a high school that no longer exists, later languished through injuries that went misdiagnosed and was headed for a college reboot with the Lane Kiffin experiment down in Boca Raton, Fla., when the cold call came from Notre Dame.

Freddy Canteen’s subsequent quiet courtship and addition to the Irish football roster — swallowed up in the brazen and headline-hogging recruiting boom of ND’s burgeoning 2018 class — begs for context.

Dwayne Thomas, Canteen’s head coach in high school in Elkton, Md., and perpetual mentor, made a point of doing just that during the impending grad transfer’s recruiting visit to South Bend earlier this month of which he was a part.

And “DT”, as the football world knows him, sought out Notre Dame’s imminent starting quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, to offer his redacted vision of the 6-foot-1, 200-pound wide receiver’s second chance at stardom — or at least relevance.

“I told Wimbush, ‘Freddy is Will Fuller 2.0,’ ” Thomas related.

Will Fuller 1.0 recently completed his rookie season with the NFL’s Houston Texans after being drafted in the first round last spring. As an early entry, Fuller left behind a chance to challenge many of Michael Floyd’s career records at ND.

Without those marks, his indelible legacy in his three seasons at Notre Dame was elite speed.

That’s also what Canteen purportedly brings to an Irish wide receiver corps long on quantity and short on expiring eligibility. Even Canteen, who enrolls in June, has additional eligibility in 2018, because he’ll graduate from Michigan in three years this spring. That's also the year (2018) the Michigan-ND rivalry re-engages — Sept. 1 in Notre Dame Stadium, to be precise.

Staying on course

Where Fuller and Canteen separate is the swirl of disappointment and chronic lack of connection with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh that left Canteen with six career catches to show for his time in Ann Arbor, the first five of which came under former Wolverine head coach Brady Hoke in 2014.

“The injuries and the misdiagnosis of them is really why I believe it didn’t happen for him at Michigan,” Thomas said. “He was treated for maybe six months for a separated shoulder. When he finally underwent an MRI, it turned out he had two torn labrums. Those require surgery.

“That set him back, but to Freddy’s credit, academically, he didn’t take a step back. He pushed harder. And it gave him time to think and look around and figure out if he could be the player he was in high school.”

Wimbush actually didn’t need an introduction to who Canteen used to be. The two faced each other during the 2013 high school season, Wimbush’s junior year at St. Peter’s Prep and Canteen’s senior season at Eastern Christian Academy.

Canteen made the daily commute of 22 miles across the border from his home in Wilmington, Del., to attend ECA. The school itself, founded as a hybrid online academy that produced numerous Division I football players during its short run, was much more ambitious in its travels before closing its doors for good prior to the 2016 season.

ECA met Wimbush’s team on the campus of Rutgers University in September of 2013, a game St. Peter’s Prep hung on to win, 35-32. Canteen had a couple of TD passes in that game, including a 48-yarder in which he simply outsprinted the St. Peter’s defense.

Canteen also faced current ND offensive linemen Jimmy Byrne and Liam Eichenberg that same season in a 32-29 win in Parma, Ohio, over state power Cleveland St. Ignatius, with another pair of TD receptions in that game.

And he took on current Irish cornerback Shaun Crawford and fellow Ohio prep football bully Lakewood St. Edward in a matchup staged in Philadelphia, with St. Ed prevailing, 41-40. At the time Crawford was also committed to Michigan before flipping to the Irish later in the recruiting cycle.

The quarterback throwing bombs to Canteen for ECA, by the way, was David Sills V. If that name sounds familiar, he made national headlines years ago when he was offered a scholarship by USC — and accepted it — when Sills was a 13-year-old.

The coach who offered the scholarship was none other than Kiffin, the new head coach at Florida Atlantic University, but USC’s head coach at that time.

Sills would decommit years later when Kiffin’s successor, Steve Sarkisian, recruited Sam Darnold and Ricky Town. Sills ended up at West Virginia and now plays Canteen’s position, wide receiver, for the Mountaineers after being unable to crack the two-deeps at QB.

Summer camp exposure

Most of the other ECA players didn’t garner near the exposure Sills did. In fact, an abbreviated, three-game inaugural football season for the school in 2012 — the result of bickering with Maryland’s high school sports governing body — coaxed the ECA players into the summer camp circuit to expand their offer lists.

Four-star prospect Canteen landed a scholarship offer at Hoke’s Michigan camp heading into his senior season, and committed less than a week later. The Irish did not offer a scholarship to Canteen during the 2014 recruiting cycle.

Instead, ND landed Justin Brent and Corey Holmes, two former four-star prospects who, ironically, are aligned to become outgoing grad transfers themselves after the summer term. If that does indeed play out, they’ll become the 25th and 26th outgoing grad transfers of the Kelly Era.

That compares to Canteen becoming the third incoming ND football grad transfer — four if you count walk-on Wake Forest punter Alex Wulfeck. In between came cornerback Cody Riggs from Florida and safety Avery Sebastian from Cal.

Grad transfers tend to be regarded as college’s versions of free agents and more guarantee than risk, but in reality there’s more of a lottery ticket vibe to most of them.

Of Notre Dame’s 26 past and pending outgoing grad transfers, Miami (Ohio) quarterback Andrew Hendrix probably came the closest to actual stardom at his new school.

A chip on the shoulder isn’t enough for a Russell Wilson-type rebirth for any of them. But Thomas is convinced Canteen’s work ethic, long-held speed, new-found health and new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense will all align to push Canteen back into the spotlight at ND.

“He’s changed his body since he last played at Michigan,” Thomas said. “He’s put on 15 pounds of muscle without losing any speed. He’s one of the best-kept secrets in college football.”

Kiffin was sold

Thomas went on to describe Canteen as an elite route-runner, the hardest working player Thomas has coached in his 27-year career, and someone worthy of marrying his own daughter.

“I don’t say any of those things too often about anybody,” Thomas said.

Kiffin didn’t have to be sold, and Canteen was bound to restart at FAU until Notre Dame intercepted him at the 11th hour.

“Lane is a friend, and Freddy loved Boca,” Thomas said. “But he loved Chip Long’s offense more. It’s almost like basketball on grass.

“In basketball, you know how to isolate a guy on the wing and let him get 1-on1-situations by spreading the court. I see Chip Long doing the same thing on the football field, spreading it out and making people have to cover people in space.

“Notre Dame is going to force you to try to stop the run with numbers. And if you do, you leave people 1-on-1 on the outside. And guys like Freddy Canteen will hurt you bad if you do that.”

The Irish coaching staff believed strongly enough that could happen to bloat their 2017 receiver numbers to 11 scholarship players. That, in turn, brings the current roster count to 87 overall — two over the NCAA limit — even factoring in the coming known transfers. The Irish, though, don’t have to rectify the overage until fall.

“I hear what people say about Freddy, and how they look at him maybe as a Michigan castoff,” Thomas said. “And to be honest, last year at this time, he was questioning himself. But not now. And now I told him, ‘Only God could do what’s happening for you.’

“You’re talking about a kid who’s going to graduate from Michigan in three years, get an opportunity to come to Notre Dame and get a BA degree from Michigan and an MA from Notre Dame. C’mon, who lives that kind of life?

“He’s extremely excited. Speaking to the coaches, they have the same excitement to have him. I guess he feels like he’s really got a chance to start all over again but he has the understanding and experience of a veteran in college.

“So when you couple those things with everything else he’s got going, the sky’s the limit.”

Soon-to-be Notre Dame wide receiver Freddy Canteen (with ball)  had his playing time at Michigan diluted by injuries. (AP File Photo/AL GOLDIS)