Notebook: Notre Dame's scuffling passing game loses Chase Claypool for Citrus Bowl

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A Notre Dame passing game in need of a December boost now has to navigate a significant personnel change.

Sophomore Chase Claypool, the team’s second-leading receiver, will miss the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl matchup in Orlando, Fla., between the 14th-ranked Irish (9-3) and No. 16 LSU (9-3), with a shoulder injury that will require surgery.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly confirmed the injury and subsequent surgery scheduled for Tuesday after the Irish finished practicing on Saturday afternoon.

“We had considered harnessing it and playing him in the game,” Kelly said of the injury that occurred in a one-on-one drill in practice on Tuesday, “but I think getting it fixed right away instead of waiting, and getting him full-go for spring ball, we opted for the latter.”

The decision means leading receiver junior Equanimeous St. Brown will shift from his normal outside receiver spot into the slot to replace Claypool (29 catches, 402 yards, 2 TDs). Junior Miles Boykin (9 receptions, 151 yards, 1 TD) will move into St. Brown’s spot on the outside, per Kelly.

Grad senior Cam Smith, who missed seven games this season because of injuries — including the last six of the regular season with a hamstring condition — will also get significant reps as a more prominent option in the wide receiver rotation.

Claypool suffered an injury to the same (right) shoulder in ND’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Nov. 18, but was able to come back the next week and play against Stanford.

“(If) this happens in the middle of the season, he misses 5-6-7 games,” Kelly said. “On the positive side, he’s missing one game and he’s back full strength going into spring.”

The Irish, who completed final exams on Friday, have plenty of time to refine the passing-game personnel before they face a fourth top 11 pass-efficiency defense this season.

LSU is ninth nationally in that category. Previously, ND has gone against Nos. 4 (Boston College), 7 (Georgia) and 11 (Miami of Fla.). The Irish pair the nation’s 103rd-ranked pass offense with the nation’s seventh-most-prolific rushing attack.

Junior Brandon Wimbush, a first-year starter, is 87th nationally in pass-efficiency (122.3), 74 spots down from his LSU counterpart, Danny Etling (155.3).

ND’s final three regular-season opponents — Miami (Fla.), Navy and Stanford — all schematically tilted their defenses to overplay the run and try to force the Irish to beat them with Wimbush’s arm. Miami and Stanford were able to accomplish that. Navy came close.

“He has struggled in the last couple of games throwing the football, but he has not struggled mentally at all,” Kelly said. “I will say that like any competitor, if you’re a really good golfer and you’re duck-hooking it off every tee, it starts to affect you.

“If you’re a great (baseball) hitter and you’re swinging and missing and you’re used to hitting the ball all the time, it affects you, right? But his issues are mechanical issues. They’re not mental issues. He doesn’t have this weakness that is not allowing him to be the player that he can be.

“We need to fix some things in the offseason mechanically that will allow him to throw the ball more consistently. But his traits, in terms of all the things that a quarterback needs in terms of his makeup, he has those. That’s pretty exciting.”

Kelly said the reason the mechanical issues didn’t come to light in Wimbush’s first two years in the program is largely because he only played in a couple of games as a reserve in 2015, and redshirted and played on the scout team in practice in 2016.

“It’s the first time he’s really been under the spotlight,” Kelly said. “Sometimes when you step into the batter’s box, it’s a little bit different than being in the batting cage.

“Things change a little bit. You have to move a little bit quicker. Decisions have to be quicker, and so sometimes those mechanics don’t hold up under those bright lights.

“There’s no analysis on scout team. As you know he filled in (two) games the year before, so we’re really talking about him being a first-time starter and under that scrutiny. We’ve seen there needs to be some corrections.

“Having said that, he found a way to get us nine wins and put us in a position to get to 10.”

Back in the running?

Kelly said his convalescing running back corps looked closer to form on Saturday than it had in a while.

All three of the backs at the top of the depth chart were sidelined and played through injuries this season. Junior Josh Adams’ production fell off dramatically late in the season, though Kelly had said earlier that was not all due to injuries.

Adams ran for 1,169 yards and 8.86 yards per carry in ND’s first eight games, 217 and a 3.68 average over the last four. Fellow junior Dexter Williams missed three games because of injury and had zero carries in two other games that he did play in.

Sophomore Tony Jones Jr., had four games in which he had one carry or none at all.

“They all look like they’ve got that bounce back in their step,” Kelly said, but added he’d have a better feel for just how much by the middle of next week, when they’ve distanced themselves a bit from final exams.

“We’ve been pushing them really hard academically and in the weight room. They were sore today. This has been our most aggressive practice schedule since I’ve been here.”

Moving forward

Next week the practice focus will shift toward LSU and getting the starters and key backups more work, but the third-teamers had a chance to make impressions during the early sessions.

Freshman quarterback Avery Davis is one such player who caught Kelly’s eye.

“He’s efficient with the football, very strong runner,” Kelly said. “He’s an athlete that can impact each and every time he has the football in his hands. He’s difficult to defend.”

Right on schedule?

Kelly didn’t have much to say Saturday about ND’s recent announcement that a 2018 home game with Syracuse (Nov. 17) was being shifted to Yankee Stadium, giving the Irish four games away from South Bend in its last five next season.

“I coach the team,” he said. “I play wherever they tell me to play. Good with that?”

When pressed whether he was consulted about the move, Kelly acknowledged that he was.

“I was (presented), ‘Here are the scenarios for you. Which one don’t you want?’ ” Kelly related. “I could tell you, I didn’t want to play indoors, late in November against a team that likes to throw it around (Syracuse). Let’s get them outside in the elements and as close to South Bend as possible.”

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Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool (83) pushes off Wake Forest’s Cameron Glenn (2) in a Nov. 4 game at Notre Dame Stadium. Claypool will miss ND's Citrus Bowl matchup with LSU on Jan. 1 with a shoulder injury. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)