Notre Dame WR Equanimeous St. Brown sacrifices individual stats for team success

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Fluent in three languages, Notre Dame junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown could go a variety of ways in expressing his opinion on how he should be best utilized.

He could speak in French, but that might draw nothing but blank stares from coaches and teammates.

Faites-moi la balle.

He could talk in German, but again may get no further than more puzzled expressions.

Hol mir den Ball.

Or he just could say something in a language that everyone understands, which likely would draw a promise from roommate Brandon Wimbush and even a nod of approval from head coach Brian Kelly.

Get me the ball.

But that’s just not who St. Brown is. At least, not yet. He’s willing to sacrifice his personal stats for the success of the team. And that team, one that finished 4-8 a year ago when he was making all those catches, gaining all those yards and running all those times into the end zone, is 6-1 and ranked ninth in the nation heading into Saturday’s showdown against No. 14 North Carolina State (6-1) at Notre Dame Stadium.

So for now, St. Brown stays quiet and keeps competing. It’s just who he is. It’s what this season has become. For him. For the Irish.

Seven games with seven starts in, St. Brown again is the team’s leading receiver. But he’s made a rather pedestrian 18 catches for 240 yards and three touchdowns. He averages 13.3 yard per catch, fifth on the team, and 34 receiving yards per game. He’s on track for 30 catches for 422 yards and four touchdowns. That would be less than half of last season’s work.

St. Brown insists he’s fine with it. All of it.

“We’re winning games and that’s what’s most important,” he said following Wednesday’s practice. “Everyone wants to have a better season than they did last year, but we’re winning. That’s the goal of playing football.”

To a point, absolutely it is. And Kelly commends St. Brown for being a team guy first, second and sometimes third. But there also are times when he would like to see his 6-foot-5, 203-pound wide receiver who’s shown that big-play, big-catch ability to demand that more come his way. St. Brown, Kelly said, just isn’t an “I” guy.” But sometimes the guy coaches and teammates refer to as “EQ” being an “I” guy is A-OK with the head coach.

“He’s always been about how he can contribute,” Kelly said. “It’s always been his style and personality, sometimes maybe to a fault.

“You want him to be a little bit more selfish at times.”

Relayed Kelly’s comments, St. Brown insisted that that’s the first time he’s ever heard the head coach talk about a need for him to be selfish. St. Brown wasn’t really sure how to react. What does Kelly mean when he talks about St. Brown being more selfish?

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see about it.”

But …

“I want the ball.”

Doing more

Big plans followed St. Brown into 2017 coming off last season’s breakout effort when he led the Irish in receptions (58), yards (961) and touchdowns (nine). He and former quarterback DeShone Kizer developed a solid rapport. If a catch needed to be made, odds were that Kizer was going to look for No. 6. Odds were that St. Brown would deliver. Of his 58 catches, 36 went for either a first down or a touchdown.

Many figured St. Brown was just getting started after his first real season of competition after a bit role as a freshman. He’d be the big-catch, big-yard, big-play guy the next two years. He was on the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation’s top wide receiver. He’d be that good. That consistent. That counted on.

He was the center of an Irish receiving core that carried a plethora of potent play-makers. They could be off-the-charts good. Unstoppable. Few might design a defense that could stop them. They’d attack in waves. Watch out. Watch him.

That all changed when the offense settled in under new coordinator Chip Long. A team that leaned so heavily and so often on the passing game last season (254.2 yards per game) became one that relied a whole lot on the run. The Irish have rushed for 317.9 yards per game and passed for 157.

“It was an adjustment with a new offensive coordinator coming in,” St. Brown said. “It’s going to be different. New plays. New scheme. You’ve got to do your part to help the team win.”

St. Brown still thought it was going to be more of the same for him this season after the season opener against Temple. Wimbush and St. Brown connected on a big play — 33 yards — on the season's first offensive play. He also caught a 34-yarder and finished with four catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. Little did St. Brown know that those would be his best game stats to date.

The following week, he was targeted 20 times, but made only two catches for 16 yards in the loss to Georgia. St. Brown, like the Irish, left a lot of plays on the field.

“After Georgia, I wasn’t happy,” he said. “Nobody was happy.”

In the games that followed, St. Brown twice finished with one catch — against Boston College and North Carolina. Frustrated early about the lack of opportunities and catches, St. Brown didn’t let that fog his focus.

“You get over it once you start winning,” he said. “Winning is better than losing.”

All about team

Instead of concentrating on route running, St. Brown needed to become a better overall receiver. A complete receiver. That meant he needed to get his blocking assignments down just as seamlessly as he did his quick outs and post routes. It wasn’t always easy. Still isn’t.

The toughest part for St. Brown is understanding who to block on what play. Might be a corner on one play. A linebacker or safety on the next. He’s worked hard in studying film more than ever to make sure he gets it right. One block can mean the difference between another big-gainer for running back Josh Adams or a second-and-long call.

“When the defense is constantly moving pieces, who do you get?” St. Brown said. “That’s the toughest part. I’ve grown in that part.”

He also continues to grow as a receiver. The limited opportunities allow St. Brown to think more of the catches he doesn’t make. A pass or two in this game, one in that game. The post route into the end zone against Southern California was nice for the kid from Southern California, but what about the catches he hasn’t made because he let the ball get too far into his pads instead of snaring it with his hands?

He’s come a long way, but there’s still a ways to go. The work never ends.

“There’s definitely some that I should have caught that I let go,” he said. “It’s about learning from the opportunities and getting better.”

And remaining a team guy. Despite his friendship with Wimbush, seldom does he come sprinting back to the huddle after another run play demanding he get the ball. Wimbush has enough on his mind without having his buddy in his ear. He’ll continue to run his routes, work to be a better blocker and make the most of any chances.

He’d like to make more catches, gain more yards and find the end zone, but not at the cost of team success. Doing all that stuff last year was fine and fun, but this year’s been better all the way around.

“Everyone’s happier; everyone’s more confident,” St. Brown said. “The atmosphere around here is just amazing.”

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Notre Dame wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has had limited opportunities to make plays this season, but he insists that's OK as long as the Irish are winning. (AP File Photo/GERRY BROOME)