Analysis: Chase Claypool says 'I do' to making Notre Dame's passing game better — and he does

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CULVER, Ind. — Chase Claypool laughed when reminded recently that his Facebook status says he’s married, which the Notre Dame senior wide receiver is most decidedly not.

“I was probably in a one-day relationship with a girl, and I probably changed my status to be married to be honest. I did that a lot in middle school,” the 6-foot-4, 229-pound Canada native said. “It’s probably just left over from then. I should probably put ‘divorced’ now.

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“No wait, put down that I’m married to the game.”

Actually, there was nothing to suggest otherwise Sunday, when Claypool and the rest of the coaches poll’s preseason No. 9 team, for the sixth preseason in a row, opened training camp at the Culver Academies, about 45 miles southwest of the ND campus.

After a drop on a low pass with a trajectory to hit him right in the shoelaces, Claypool looked like the transformed player from spring who finally paired relentless consistency with his breathtaking potential.

Even on a day when 10th-year head coach Brian Kelly expected to ease his leading returning receiver into shape, with Claypool less than eight weeks removed from minor tightrope surgery on his right ankle to clean up a high ankle sprain sustained in the first quarter of the April 13 Blue-Gold Game.

Apparently, Claypool didn’t get the memo.

“I’m glad I didn’t hold back anything,” he said Sunday when asked how hard that would be to do.

Perhaps Kelly didn’t notice. After all, he professed not to know about the apparent leg cramp burgeoning freshman safety Kyle Hamilton suffered late in the roughly two-hour practice in moderate heat, or the three interceptions Hamilton snagged preceding the injury.

“Well that’s a good first day,” Kelly offered when told of the hat trick on picks. “I’d write him up as having a good first day.”

For the Irish to have a good year — or something even better — Claypool has to continue to distance himself from perplexing stretches of play during his first three seasons. In the spring and into Sunday he has the look of a cornerstone piece to what should be the most potent offense of the Kelly Era at ND and a unit that will likely have to compensate for an Irish defense that may not peak until later in the season.

Athletic ability was never the issue. Claypool could have been a Division I basketball player. He once was an aspiring BMX bike rider, withdrawing only eventually because he outgrew the bike.

Claypool claimed to be such a baseball prodigy that he was allowed to play at age 4, one year younger than the rules allowed. But his propensity to make sandcastles while in the field truncated that venture.

In football, he played a multitude of positions for his Abbotsford Senior Secondary School team in British Columbia, including quarterback. His first pass attempt resulted in a touchdown.

“I mean, it’s a pretty serious game, and if you want to be good at it, you better start taking it seriously,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said back in June. “That’s something at first he didn’t quite get, and that’s why we butted heads quite a bit our first year. We can joke about it now.”

An off-campus dinner with Long before spring practice set the table for sustained change.

“I think when we finally started to get to know each other,” Long said, “and (Chase) finally said, ‘well he actually does really care about me,’ I think that’s when his confidence in practice and in me really helped elevate his willingness to work and see how good of a player he could be.”

But Claypool has taken it a step further. He became a strong leader over the spring and summer — joining forces with fellow receiver Chris Finke — to help bring the rest of the receiving corps along to see how good they could be.

“I’m trying to be just more of a teacher on our side of the ball and really get these guys’ attention and focus, and kind of tighten up the little things,” Claypool said. “If I see something (a mistake), I make sure I say something, and they don’t keep doing the same thing.”

First practices can be light on context at times. Depth charts may be blurred or ignored on purpose. Play-calling can be predictable. Most distorting, the Irish won’t practice in full pads until practice No. 5, on Thursday.

Yet you could see Sunday the Claypool influence in the younger members of the receiving corps, including sophomore Braden Lenzy and freshman Cam Hart.

Even on shorter routes, the 5-11, 180-pound Lenzy showed off his elite speed. In a one-on-one drill, he took a short dump pass on the right side of the field, then reversed field and ran past and away from cornerback Avery Davis, a backup but one of the team’s fastest players.

Lenzy finished practice on the sidelines, however, with an apparent injury that looked to be minor.

The unheralded 6-3, 208-pound Hart had some clunky moments in this first-ever official Irish practice, but also flashed some promise.

“He’s been texting me always, asking me questions in workouts, so he wants to be as good as he can,” Claypool said of Hart. “He’s eager to learn, eager to do better. So if he keeps doing that, he’ll be a good player.”

Hart, fellow freshman Kendall Abdur-Rahman and sophomore Joe Wilkins Jr. lined up as the receivers in the third-team offense in the opening tempo drill. Claypool, Finke and junior Michael Young were the first-team receivers.

Lenzy, fellow sophomore Lawrence Keys III and senior Javon McKinley were the second-teamers.

Predictably and noticeably absent from that drill and many others was sophomore Kevin Austin Jr. He did find his way into some 11-on-11 action with the deep reserves late in the practice and even lined up as a cornerback in some drills.

It’s fairly consistent with how camp reps were distributed in 2016 for former wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and last season for former running back Dexter Williams when the two faced university-imposed suspensions to start those seasons.

Kelly continues to dance around the questions about Austin’s status, and likely has to because of university privacy laws. If Kelly himself imposes a suspension, there are no such limitations put on him.

“Look, you can understand if I’m not commenting on someone, there’s got to be a reason for it,” said Kelly to The Tribune in June in his most expansive statement on the topic.

“And so he’s on our roster. He’s made great progress, but sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out what happens when it happens. I can’t get into the specifics of what goes on in those kinds of matters, and that’s kind of the Kevin Austin situation.”

When the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Fort Lauderdale, Fla., product eventually gets his chance, he has the kind of ability to help a very good receiving corps get even better.

And Claypool, very likely, will be there to help Austin pick up the pieces.

“His maturity, his ability working with the other players is exactly what we want from him,” Kelly said.

Chase Claypool (83) catches a pass during the Notre Dame Football training camp at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind., on Sunday.