Notebook: Can wide receiver Chase Claypool become Notre Dame's 'X' factor?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Chase Claypool never really embraced the red jersey that he was supposed to be wearing, as a signal to his Notre Dame football teammates to stay away from his convalescing right shoulder.

Instead this spring, the junior wide receiver would drape it halfheartedly over his regular, blue practice jersey, looking much like a beauty pageant sash, and proceeded to routinely break the non-contact edict himself.

It’s little surprise that Saturday inside the Loftus Center, with all restrictions and red jersey permanently removed, the 6-foot-4, 229-pound Canada native threw his weight around a bit.

And speed. And glimpses of his breathtaking ceiling.

“If he just respects the process and sticks with it,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said of the team’s second-leading wide receiver in 2017, “he’s going to be a really good player.”

Claypool (29 catches, 402 yards, 2 TDs) is showing enough of it through the first nine of 15 allotted practices this spring that the coaching staff is now investing in him as the answer to Kevin Stepherson’s January dismissal at the outside speed receiver.

“We want him out there,” Kelly said. “We think that’s where he can best impact what we want to do.”

If the experiment progresses, if Claypool can summon consistency … if, if, if. …

Then one of the most important boxes Kelly had to address this spring will be checked off.

Notre Dame’s offense, both the pre-Chip Long version and year two of the offensive coordinator’s regime, thrives when the “x” receiver spot commands the attention of opposing defensive coordinators. When it doesn’t, the field tightens and so do ND’s offensive options.

That was the case early last season when Stepherson was suspended for four games and struggled to shake the stagnation in the couple that followed.

Claypool did get a look there before moving inside to the slot later in the season. He missed ND’s 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over LSU on Jan. 1 after suffering a shoulder injury two weeks earlier that required surgery.

Sophomore Michael Young got the first extended audition this spring on the outside, opposite Citrus Bowl MVP Miles Boykin on the short side of the field, with Chris Finke manning the slot. The plan was to get a look at some of the true freshmen in June, particularly Oregon high school track star Braden Lenzy.

But Claypool may end that discussion long before the newcomers arrive.

On Saturday, his physicality was every bit as impressive as his speed. During one-on-one tackling drills with the Irish defensive backs, most of the wide receivers would try to juke and fake their way past the defender.

Claypool either ran over the would-be tacklers or stiff-armed them, actually seeking the contact.

“It’s good to see those guys back,” Kelly said of Claypool and sophomore tight end Brock Wright, who also was coming back from an injury and had been limited in his contact.

“They’re healthy. They’ve gone through the rehab. They’ve worked hard. And they’ll be full go in the spring game (April 21 at Notre Dame Stadium) as well.

“Chase is a young man that — attention to detail, the focus, he’s got to bring traits every day. He walks by here, everybody knows what he looks like. I mean, he’s a great looking kind. He can make plays. We just have to keep working the process with him.”

Transfer talk

Kelly said Saturday that junior Khalid Kareem had passed incumbent starting defensive end Jay Hayes on the depth chart before the latter announced his intentions to transfer on Thursday.

And fellow junior Adetokunbo Ogundeji was pushing hard.

“This isn’t to beat up on Jay Hayes when he’s not here,” Kelly said. “But there was great competition at that position, and Ade was coming on.”

Hayes will finish out the semester in the classroom and get his degree in May, then take a grad-style transfer, which would come with immediate eligibility at his new school.

“Jay understands the standards that we have here,” Kelly said of the reason for the transfer. ”He just felt like a change would be better for him. We granted him a release to anywhere he wants to play.

"I think you’d have to ask him, but we gave him the opportunity to come back if he could meet the standards that we set here, and I don’t know what his thoughts were. I can’t read into his mind, but he decided to transfer. We love Jay. We wish him the best.”

• Speaking of transfers, former Notre Dame wide receiver Corey Holmes will finish out his college eligibility this fall at Morgan State, an FCS program located in Baltimore that went 1-10 last season

The interim head coach at Morgan State is Ernest Jones, who served as Notre Dame football’s director of player development and engagement from 2011-13.

Holmes played at Purdue in 2017, garnering one catch for seven yards in four games of action before leaving the program in mid-November.

Houston, we don’t have a problem

Freshman Houston Griffith has impressed in his first few practices since being moved from cornerback to safety.

His advanced tackling skills, combined with cornerback coverage ability, have him in the mix for a starting role, though a handful of other candidates could say the same thing.

“There are no starting safeties at Notre Dame in 2018 on April 7,” Kelly emphasized.

One who was a strong candidate to do so at the start of spring, Navy transfer Alohi Gilman, is finally aligning with that projection. The junior had to sit out last season when his waiver request for immediate eligibility was denied by the NCAA.

“He had a slow start to the spring,” Kelly said, “and when I say a slow start, I think he just feels so much more comfortable. He wasn’t taught the (Irish) defense. He was taught everybody else’s defense, because he was on scout team. And that kind of put him back a few practices.

“Now that he knows what he’s doing, he can play fast and play physical. And we’re really starting to see that skill set that he showed when he was at Navy.”

Squibs

• Sophomore Avery Davis played three different positions in practice on Saturday — quarterback, running back and wide receiver — and he had highlight moments at all three.

“He’s got some traits there. He’s going to help us,” Kelly said of the 5-11, 203-pound Texan, who was originally recruited strictly as a QB.

“We just have to figure out where that’s going to be. He’s got to keep his quarterback skills sharp. If he’s not in the two-deep there, we want to be able to utilize an athlete of that caliber while he still continues to build his skill at the quarterback position.

“We want to get guys that can make plays for us on the field, and we think he’s a guy that can do that.”

• Tight end Cole Kmet took his double duty to a new extreme Saturday. After fully participating, and looking good, in the morning football practice, the tight end/left-handed pitcher earned his fifth save of the season in the ND baseball team's 5-2 victory over sixth-ranked Clemson.

Kmet pitched 2 1/3 innings, giving up two hits and three walks, and striking out four.

• Senior Justin Yoon missed practice Saturday to attend a national kicking camp, an arrangement Kelly had approved way back in January. Sophomore Jonathan Doerer performed place-kicking duties in his absence.

• Future Notre Dame safety Paul Moala, a former Penn High standout, took in practice Saturday.

Notre Dame's Chase Claypool (83) leaps high for a pass, Saturday during practice at the Loftus Center. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)