Notebook: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame sizing up a big lineup at wide receiver

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — They were stacked on top of each other last fall like poker chips.

Except the offensive structure was too restrictive, and their skill sets — in some cases — too fragmented for Brian Kelly ever to go all-in with all of them.

Yet 13 practices through what has lived up to a reinventive spring for the eighth-year Notre Dame head coach, Kelly’s first wave of wide receivers is evolving toward size not only mattering but it being the strongest option in the Irish offense.

Fans are likely to see glimpses of the alignment Saturday in the annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium (12:30 p.m. EDT; NBCSN) and perhaps a steady diet of it in the Sept. 2 season opener with Temple.

That is 6-foot-5 junior Equanimeous St. Brown, 6-4 sophomore Chase Claypool and 6-4 junior Miles Boykin all on the field at the same time. Last year, they all played the same position, the outside receiver that lines up to the short side of the field.

“They’re all moving closer in the process to where we feel good about them,” Kelly said Wednesday after practice.

It’s easy to see why. Boykin has been one of the most improved players on the team at any position this spring. Wednesday morning, in a practice open to the media, he was particularly impressive in a drill in which the No. 1 offense was challenged to get from its own 40 into field goal range in 65 seconds with no timeouts.

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush stole the show the first time through. Facing a heavy rush on both edges of the pocket, the junior spotted a crease up the middle and took off. Once he worked his way into the secondary, he outran safety Nick Coleman — who had the angle and allegedly sub-4.5 40-yard dash speed — to the end zone for a TD.

The second time, two spectacular grabs by Boykin, one on second-and-17 for a first down, helped put walk-on kicker Sam Kohler in position for a successful field goal with seven seconds left.

St. Brown was expected to be in the 2017 starting group. He was ND’s leading receiver in 2016, with 58 catches for 961 yards and nine TDs. In the new alignment, he now lines up on the wide side of the field, the position at which Will Fuller excelled two seasons ago.

Claypool, with a modest five catches for 81 yards, moves inside to the slot position, last year manned much of the time by diminutive options Chris Finke (5-10) and C.J. Sanders (5-8). Boykin (6 catches, 81 yards, 1 TD in 2016) remains at his original position but now with a clear path to significant playing time.

Add another big body in tight end Alizé Jones (6-5, 245) at tight end, and Wimbush has an arsenal that is particularly difficult to defend in one-on-one matchups. Jones, a junior, missed last season because of academics but was able to practice with the team.

“I don’t know how you’re going to defend him,” Kelly said of Jones, a junior. “He can do the things all the tight ends in the country can do.

“I think what has changed in Alizé is that he’s organized in his thoughts. He’s organized in his day-to-day life. He’s taking care of his business off the field.

“If you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way, and it’s trending the right way on the field for him. He knows what he’s doing. He’s really got his nose in the playbook, and I just think he’s really going to be a successful player.”

Expanded Gug?

The concept of an expanded and upgraded football facility has been floating around for months. Kelly addressed it in passing Wednesday, albeit a bit premature perhaps for university protocol.

Notre Dame likes to have funding accounted for before it announces a construction project, but Kelly acknowledged the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, including the Loftus Center, will be getting bigger and better in the near future.

Construction on the indoor practice facility portion of it would start in November if funding is in place. That expansion would include a second indoor practice field.

A kitchen to help streamline training table is among the other anticipated improvements.

“Those are pretty significant in recruiting,” Kelly said of the proposed Gug construction and the ongoing Campus Crossroads project at Notre Dame Stadium.

Blue-Gold Format

For the second straight year, the best thing about the Blue-Gold Game is there won’t be the football equivalent of golf’s Modified Stableford scoring system used to keep score.

So no points awarded for a first down, for instance, or forcing a punt before the 50-yard line, as was the case most recently in the 2015 game.

Except for a few minor modifications — such as no punt blocks/returns and the quarterbacks being off-limits from being hit — it will play pretty much like a regular game.

In fact, the No. 1 offense will play against the No. 1 defense, and the 2s will face the 2s.

“This isn’t about telling the story,” Kelly said. “This is about a continuation of what we’ve been doing since January.

“They (the crowd) may leave going, ‘I don’t see much of a difference.’ And that’s not really important to me. And then when we get to Temple, they should have an expectation of all that coming together.”

Gruden weighs in

DeShone Kizer’s pre-draft experience has played out like a soap opera, though the former Notre Dame quarterback doesn’t seem to be fazed by it.

Kizer, who reportedly worked out Wednesday in South Bend for the Arizona Cardinals, will be in Philadelphia next week (April 27-29) to attend the NFL Draft in person. And Kelly acknowledged Wednesday he’ll also be on site in Philly “to support DeShone.”

On Wednesday ESPN pro football analyst Jon Gruden weighed in on Kizer and the other top quarterbacks in the draft after spending time with seven of them in the annual “Jon Gruden QB Camp” series on ESPN.

With regard to Kizer, the South Bend Clay grad and former NFL head coach said although he likes Kizer’s skill set and attitude, he would not spend a first-round pick on the first ND player ever at any position to forgo two years of eligibility to enter the draft.

“He’s obviously very sharp, well-spoken,” Gruden said. “He’s charismatic in a lot of ways. I also know he’s emotional. He’s not real proud, I don’t think, of their 4-8 record. But I did like him. I thought he had a genuine, sincere, honest nature about him. I did like his obvious size, and strength of his arm is impressive.

“I don’t think the body of work is complete. I think there are some things he’s going to resolve in terms of end-of-game situations, winning. There are some things I think he’s still rough around the edges, but from a talent standpoint, he’s got a lot of ability,

“He’s athletic, he’s tough. And he’s got a cannon for an arm, but I do think I would probably have a hard time taking him in the first round this year.”

Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, Pitt’s Nathan Peterman, Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs and Miami’s Brad Kaaya were the other six quarterbacks who were part of the Gruden series.

As a group, Gruden call them “underestimated.”

“I think we’re going to see four of them go in the first round, personally,” he said.

Gruden acknowledged several of them were a year away from being ready to be starters, but if he had to pick one most ready to start in 2017, it would be Pitt’s Peterman.

“He’d allow us to do just about anything in a game plan,” Gruden said. “I think he throws the ball pretty darn good. He’s athletic and very, very sharp. I think he’s a lot like Andy Dalton, to me, coming out of TCU.”

Squibs

Sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, bothered by a hamstring injury most of spring per Kelly, missed Wednesday’s practice to attend to “some personal business.”

Kelly said Stepherson is expected to be full-go for the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. He was Notre Dame’s third-leading receiver in 2016, with 25 catches for 462 yards and five TDs.

• Taking in practice Wednesday was incoming freshman tight end Cole Kmet, who enrolls in June. Also observing was former Irish defensive line coach Jappy Oliver.

• Sophomore Jalen Elliott was taking first-team reps at strong safety Wednesday and will likely exit spring as the No. 1 option at that position.

• In the early portions of practice on Wednesday, the Notre Dame quarterbacks were all spending significant time taking snaps under center, a trend that didn’t continue throughout the rest of practice.

Surges by Miles Boykin (pictured) and Chase Claypool this spring have Notre Dame head football coach contemplating a jumbo lineup at wide receiver in the fall. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)