Notre Dame WR Chase Claypool redefining his comfort zone

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It is not lost on Chase Claypool what this all could turn into at some point.

Bigger days statistically than the career-high four catches for 56 yards the Notre Dame sophomore wide receiver concocted last Saturday at Michigan State. More impactful moments. More consistent flashes.

Last season, when he became just the eighth Canadian to see action for Notre Dame in its 129-season football history and the first since linebacker and Torontonian Bill Mitoulas in 1994, Claypool was just trying to shake the culture shock.

Specifically, how high his teammates’ and competitors’ motors revved all the time. How driven they were. How their potential seemed to match their production.

“I think in high school, I played to my competition level a little bit more,” said Claypool, who hails from Abbotsford, British Columbia, a town with a similar population base as South Bend/Mishawaka and that snuggles the Canadian border with Washington.

“I think going full tilt, you realize how much better you could have been in high school.”

And now that’s largely what drives him — to see what the 6-foot-4, 228-pounder’s ceiling might look like. That and daily texts from his mom, almost 2,300 miles away.

“I think where I come from, no one has had an opportunity like this,” Claypool said earlier this week. “It’s just an opportunity of a lifetime you don’t want to give up. You really can’t give up. It’s just too good.”

The opportunity continues in a recently elevated role for Claypool at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, when the 22nd-ranked Irish (3-1) meet Miami (Ohio) (2-2) for the first time since 1909. Both the unusual start time (5 p.m. EDT) and unusual televising network (NBC Sports Network) were prompted by conflicting commitments on NBC, ND’s regular TV partner.

Claypool’s four catches against the Spartans, in his second career start, more than doubled his season total and represent a third of what he’s amassed in a 16-game career to date.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly recently more clearly defined roles for the versatile wide receiver corps and shortened the rotation, both moves that helped Claypool ascend.

“Sometimes you line up, and you’re just not sure,” Claypool said of this mindset before the tweaks. “You’ll have the route in your head, but you’re not sure. You’re second-guessing. And you’ll run it 50 percent, because you don’t want to mess up. You’re just playing uneasy.”

Actually, the whole passing game operation had some uneasiness in the first three games of the season. But first-year starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush responded last Saturday with a 14-of-20 performance for 170 yards and a TD in a 38-18 throttling of the Spartans and the nation’s No. 2 pass-efficiency defense at the time.

“I think Brandon got his confidence back and has continued to practice well for us,” Claypool offered.

Claypool and last year’s leading receiver for the Irish, junior Equanimeous St. Brown, lined up on the outside against MSU, with Arizona State grad transfer Cam Smith moving inside to the slot.

The new wild card on the horizon is sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, the team’s potentially most dangerous vertical threat who was reinstated this week to the active roster after missing the first four games of the season.

Kelly was emphatic Stepherson will have to earn his way up the depth chart, just as Claypool did, despite some breathtaking athletic ability that he showed off last year on special teams with 11 tackles.

“We think he's capable of being a very nice piece to putting our wide receiver corps together,” Kelly said of Claypool. “As you saw, he's big, he's athletic, he can catch the football. We can get some nice match-ups with him.

“But he's a young player that, quite frankly, the game is still evolving for him. We really like the way he ran and caught the football, made that initial defender miss, and got us the yards after the catch.”

Miami, led by former Irish assistant coach Chuck Martin, appears capable of providing resistance. The RedHawks rank 25th nationally in pass-efficiency defense. And at No. 27 in total defense, they represent the highest-ranked team in that category the Irish will face over the balance of the season.

In terms of scoring defense, the RedHawks are 33rd at 19.0 points a game. But if you were to extract two kickoff returns for TDs yielded by special teams and two pick-sixes caused by the Miami offense, the RedHawks defense would rank 11th (12.0 ppg).

Senior safety Tony Reid, Miami’s third-leading tackler with 26, will miss the first half, by rule, Saturday after being ejected for targeting in the third quarter of a 31-14 Redhawks win last Saturday at Central Michigan.

The Irish are roughly three-touchdown favorites.

“We practice the same, we’ll get the same outcome,” Claypool said of the prospect of overconfidence seeping in.

Saturday will be Kelly’s fifth career game against Miami (Ohio), with a win against the RedHawks while coaching at Central Michigan and three more as the head coach at Cincinnati.

“Now we've got another opportunity for growth, and that is to continue to play with the kind of mindset that we've developed since January,” Kelly said. “And that's one of living up to the standard of excellence that we have here in this football program.”

Claypool is holding himself to a higher standard, too.

“Every chance I get, I want to make my team better,” he said.

Claypool fell in love with football watching the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and CFL’s British Columbia Lions on TV and his brother, Jacob Carvery, in person.

Carvery, six inches shorter than Claypool at 5-10, played collegiately at the University of British Columbia.

“I always looked up to him,” Claypool said. “I would always watch his highlight tape and see how he moved. I just think naturally I started moving like him.”

And naturally thought he’d end up playing collegiately in Canada, like him.

Then basketball almost overtook it Claypool’s junior year. The shooting guard averaged almost 48 points a game. And he did start to garner college hoops offers in the U.S.

“But football was my first love, and still is,” he said.

And the sport is starting to love him back.

“We’re excited about Chase, love his work ethic during the week,” Kelly said, “and hope that it becomes elevated and it continues to grow.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool (83) makes one of his career-high four catches Saturday as Michigan State’s Josh Butler (19) defends during ND's 38-18 rout of the Spartans in East Lansing, Mich. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)