Meeting between Notre Dame OC Chip Long and WR Chase Claypool set the table for success
They both ordered the deep-fried coconut shrimp, ate like Corndance Tavern in Mishawaka, Ind., was giving it away, and talked about everything but football.
It’s a conversation that Notre Dame third-year offensive coordinator Chip Long is convinced has made him a better coach. It also was the first time Long believed he’d get a chance to see how good of a football player Chase Claypool could be.
Not just in flashes, but in sustained and consistent stretches. In the Blue-Gold Game to end the spring, for instance, he dominated the team’s best cornerback and fastest player on the roster, senior Troy Pride Jr.
“It changed everything,” Long said in mid-June, recalling the impromptu offseason dinner with Notre Dame’s 6-foot-4, 229-pound senior wide receiver and first Canadian import since linebacker Bill Mitoulas in the mid-1990s.
“From that moment on, he’s been outstanding — the way he’s worked, the way he’s grown. Throughout the spring, it was awesome to see him go about his business and how far he’s come.
“Before that we butted heads a lot. People would sometimes ask me what kind of defensive player Chase could have been. To be honest, that’s what I’d threaten him with — to move him to defense — when we got into it and whatnot.
“But now, I think he can be as good as he wants. I want him to be the best receiver in the country. And if he works at it each and every day, then he’ll have the season that he wants.”
The irony in the back-and-forths with Long was that Claypool believes he could be a pretty good defensive player.
His prowess on coverage teams at Notre Dame, particularly his freshman year, is tangible proof. So are the 74 tackles, five interceptions and two fumble recoveries he made as a two-way player at Abbotsford Senior Secondary School as a high school senior in the British Columbian town of 140,000 that hugs the Washington border.
“I even told (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston, if he ever wants to put a package in on third down, I’ll do it,” said Claypool, who played safety, defensive end and outside linebacker and was recruited by Oregon to play the latter.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly admits before Long arrived, there were discussions about where the best roster fit might be for a player who once dabbled at quarterback and running back on offense, returned punts and kickoffs and punted, in addition to playing defense.
“This was a matter of developing a guy at the position that we think best suits him in the NFL,” Kelly said, “so that’s kind of why we stuck with him there.”
Claypool’s stats from 2018 suggest they made the right choice. His 50 catches were only nine fewer than third-round draft choice and NFL Combine conqueror Miles Boykin snagged last season. He had 639 receiving yards and four touchdowns, also second to Boykin.
But in the context of who Chase Claypool could become, the numbers seemed a little empty. Kelly was constantly prodded last season about the breathtaking athletic ability juxtaposed against good but mortal stats. He’d venture down the maturity path or take a stab at Claypool’s attention span.
Ultimately, it turned out to be a matter of the heart.
“He comes from a single-parent home,” Kelly said. “So he’s not very trusting when it comes to adult male figures and those kinds of relationships unless there’s somebody there that cares about him first. He’s got to see that that person cares about him in a manner other than just football.”
“A coach who cares about you just as a football player, that’s only half the pie, half the story,” Claypool said. “What happened that night at Corndance was a turning point. And we both knew it.”
Long didn’t recruit Claypool, who arrived in South Bend a year before he did. But he had opportunities to connect long before the talk that pushed Claypool’s game to new heights.
“When we first got here (after a 4-8 season), my mindset was, “We’ve got to win to save our jobs,’ right?” Long said. “And Chase was all, ‘Why this? Why that? Why that?’ And I was all, ‘No means no.’
“If you’re careless and soft, you and me are probably not going to get along very well. At the time, he was careless. In getting lined up. In effort. In focus. And he realized I wasn’t messing around.
“But what I realized was, I needed to show him we were not the enemy. We’re out there to help you reach whatever dream you want to be. I needed to show him that I really did care, which I did.
“Now he just loves to play the game. He loves to play it hard. He loves to play it physical. You still have to learn the game and play your position. He’s really taken hold of that.”
To this day it still qualifies as the worst recruiting trip ever in Brian Kelly’s three decades as a college head coach, but not because of the prospect who was waiting on the other end with a house full of giddy relatives.
“An engine blew at 35,000 feet over Portland (Ore.),” Kelly said of the private jet that was taking him up the West Coast. “And the plane started falling out of the sky.”
After a frantic few minutes, the pilot gained control and made an emergency landing in Oregon. When Kelly arrived the next day in Abbotsford, the relatives who were so eager to shake his hand had scattered back to their homes and commitments.
“I never held it against him. I understood,” Claypool said. “The next day my coach got to see him, and then he came to my school, which was pretty cool. To have a picture with him in front of my school was awesome. It worked out.
“The funny thing was a few months before I didn’t even know who he was. I didn’t know what Notre Dame was and what they were all about. It’s crazy how much the school means to me now.”
Had it not been for one of Kelly’s Canadian friends and that friend’s dogged persistence, the Irish coach wouldn’t have ever known who Claypool was, either.
“He played in the CFL and ran camps up there,” Kelly said of his friend. “And he’s running a camp and comes across Chase at one of them and calls (then-Irish offensive coordinator) Mike Denbrock. He said, ‘Mike, you’ve got to look at this kid. I’ve never seen an athlete like this.’ ”
Denbrock’s assessment, though, was based on basketball film. Claypool averaged 45 points a game his senior season. He scored 51 the night before he signed his National Letter of Intent.
“I even thought about calling coach (Mike) Brey near the end of last season with all the injuries they had,” Claypool said. “It would have even been cool just to sit on the bench.”
“Unbelievable,” was Kelly’s reaction to the hoops video. “But I told Mike, ‘We can’t go to Canada on basketball film. You’ve got to find me some football film’ — which is hard to do. We finally got some football film and we saw his skill set.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to go up there and get me something verifiable.’ And we got a verifiable time on him. That’s how it started.”
How it finished was that the local Abbotsford paper, which doesn’t cover many American college football recruitments, proclaimed that Notre Dame “won a bidding war” for Claypool, who actually was sold on the Irish before the plane he flew on to the Midwest for his recruiting visit just happened to play the movie “Rudy” as in-flight entertainment.
“The funny thing was, I was going to stop playing football my junior year,” Claypool said. “I was going to focus on basketball. There was a decision I had to make, where I had a chance to play on the AAU circuit, and I had a lot of good friends on the team and I enjoyed basketball more at the time.
“My brother (Jacob Carvery) told me I was making the wrong decision. He was like, ‘You’ve got to play football and you’ve got to just trust me.’ He promised me I wouldn’t regret it. I never have. A couple of weeks later, I got my first college football scholarship offer.”
And Kelly? Asked if he would do it all over again, even with the aviation drama, a big smile basically said it all.
“In a heartbeat,” he said.
Claypool is on a knee walker scooter, zipping down the hallways of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in June like he’s preparing for a competitive race.
His smile and ambition — he toyed with the idea of taking it to Toronto to celebrate the Raptors’ NBA championship — camouflage the fact that it was actually medically necessary.
“He had the tightrope procedure done that (Alabama quarterback) Tua Tagovailoa had,” Kelly explained of the minor surgery on the right ankle with a three-week recovery window and a projected full return to all football activities by July 1.
“He had a high ankle sprain. The volume that he’s going to play at, we wanted to tighten down and make sure we had no residual issues with the ankle.”
An ankle he vertically jumped a career-best 40 inches on with the sprain in summer testing, days before the surgery.
Claypool has long had a healthy big-picture perspective on life. And if he ever needs a reminder, he only needs to look as far as his right arm, where he has these words tattooed:
A thousand tears won’t bring you back. I know, because I cried. Neither will a thousand words. I know, because I’ve tried. Until we meet again.
Claypool’s older sister, Ashley, took her own life almost eight years ago. She was 17.
“I think it’s a daily reminder of the blessings that I have,” he said, “the opportunity that I have to make my family proud, especially my sister. So I carry that with me every day. It’ll never go away. That’s why I got it tattooed on me. Now it’s a part of me.”
That’s not to say he never gets angry, but he says he channels it better these days.
“My freshman year, I got into some fights, but it was all love,” he said. “It was like wrestling. And then sophomore year I’d get into some arguments, but now I just throw the football once in a while — throw it at a wall, and it feels good.”
Among the things that make him feel the best are the conviction that his mom, Jasmine, is still his best friend; that his May study-abroad experience in Brazil has enriched him beyond what he can describe; that coconut shrimp in the offseason never tasted so good; and that going home to Canada is always worth it.
“When he comes back now, he’s completely changed,” said Jay Fujimura, Claypool’s high school football coach and a man who is much more than that when it comes to trust and respect.
“I said it to everyone and anyone, ‘I think Notre Dame was the absolute best choice for him.’ He’s grown up to be this great example for kids here who are struggling and maybe don’t always feel like they fit in and stuff like that.
“Even when you talk to him, it’s completely different, growing up into a confident and strong young man.”
Long sees it, too. After one spring practice, in which the whole receiving corps was seemingly dropping passes, Claypool gathered all the receivers in the position meeting room at the Gug after the session and had them write down three things that they could fix or improve. He then had them go to work on that list the next day.
“I always tell myself before games,” Claypool said, “when we do the prayer in the end zone, at the end of my prayer is: ‘Do it for all the people that have supported you, but most importantly do it for the people who have doubted you.’ ”
That latter group is shrinking, especially those who cross paths with Claypool on a daily basis. He now wants to show the rest of the college football world what he is becoming.
“I know in the winter I made the announcement that I wasn’t coming out early for the NFL Draft,” he said. “I did seek feedback from the NFL. But I already had my mind made up, really, before I did that.
“I like college a lot. I think it’s probably going to be the best times in my life. I’m in no rush to leave, and especially for football, too. I believe I can always grow as a player. So when you go to the league, you want to be as prepared as you possibly can.
“I can’t wait to see what that looks like.”
The ND Insider 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview
Our annual season preview magazine can now be purchased online and in stores locally. You can order copies here to be shipped to you. If you'd like to pick up a copy, you can find them at these local stores.
But what exactly will you be getting in this year’s magazine?
• Our cover story is on senior defensive end Julian Okwara. When he first came to Notre Dame, he wanted to make his own name and not live in the shadow of his older brother, Romeo. Now he has his sights on setting the Irish single-season sack record.
• Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool is on track for a big season in a new role. Learn how a meal with offensive coordinator Chip Long changed their relationship and set the table for more success.
• Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton arrives at Notre Dame as a five-star talent with a three-star mindset. That combination made him the perfect match for the Irish in the pursuit of top prospects.
• Encore seasons haven’t been great for starting quarterbacks at Notre Dame in recent years. Quarterback Ian Book and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees plan to break that trend even if they weren’t aware of it at first. Get an inside look at how the two are preparing Book for an even better senior season.
• In his first months at Notre Dame, Lance Taylor had to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail. The new Irish running backs coach appears to be the right fit on Notre Dame’s coaching staff and in its offensive scheme. Hear from Taylor for the first time since he was hired in February.
• Mike Elston has created a culture of caring with his defensive linemen. The decision to connect so deeply with his players has positively impacted the product on the playing field. That’s just part of the reason the Irish defensive line coach has stayed so long in South Bend.
• Notre Dame’s quarterback recruiting has shifted, with accuracy taking top priority. The attributes of Ian Book can been seen in the quarterbacks the Irish have taken commitments from in the past two recruiting cycles.
• Brian Kelly goes one-on-one with Eric Hansen on a variety of topics, including retirement and karaoke.
The rest of the magazine includes our annual staples: predictions from our staff, an analysis and player feature for each position group, profiles on the freshman class, a recruiting roundtable with national analysts, breakdowns of all 12 opponents and much more.
Don’t miss out on this top-notch product from our award-winning staff. Click here to order your copy today.
The following story appears in the 2019 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.