Noie: A focused finish for Notre Dame senior wide receiver Chase Claypool

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It sure will seem like just another football Saturday for Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool.

He’ll board one of the charter buses from the team’s downtown hotel to campus, just like the previous Saturday. He’ll fall in line with his coaches and teammates and other program personnel for the walk from the Guglielmino Center over to the Hesburgh Library, then south into Notre Dame Stadium like every Saturday home game.

Wearing the players’ standard coat and tie, Claypool will walk down the tunnel and gather with his teammates in a circle at midfield for a prayer, then head for the locker room where he’ll get dressed and taped and focused.

Back in uniform on the FieldTurf is where it all changes. This Saturday will be like none other for Claypool in his collegiate career. A first time. For the last time.

When not blocking or tackling on special teams, when not running routes or catching passes, Claypool often can be seen sitting on the bench along the west sideline, stealing a quick break before being summoned back to work. As the games progress without him, Claypool might catch a play or two on the massive videoboard over the stadium’s south end. That’s usually as engaged as he gets.

Not Saturday. When he’s not on the field, and he’s on it a lot, Claypool plans to remain front and center, standing on the sideline and as close to the action as possible. No sitting this Saturday. He wants to watch his teammates — his brothers — do what they do on defense. Watch Khalid Kareem. Encourage Drew White. Cheer Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott. Hope Troy Pride Jr., makes a big play. See it all. Take in everything about the day and about the time. His last time.

Claypool doesn’t want to miss anything, for once those four quarters end against Boston College (5-5), so will his college career at Notre Dame Stadium. One more game. Four more quarters, and this No. 83 will be a memory in that stadium.

“I’m not sure what to expect,” Claypool said of his final home game for No. 15 Notre Dame (8-2). “It’s definitely surreal that it’s coming to an end.”

Surreal, but also a whole lot satisfying for the kid from Abbotsford, British Columbia, who took a chance four years ago and picked a school 2,304 miles away at a place he didn’t know to play for a football program he really didn’t know. Four Horsemen? Rockne? Touchdown Jesus? All foreign to him as American currency.

Life was a struggle those first few years. Claypool needed to grow up — on the field, off the field, away from home. He had to learn how to become a different football player, a more cerebral football player who could decipher defenses in a snap. One who could do more than use his ridiculous athletic talent (he averaged more than 40 points a game as a high school senior basketball player) to dominate the way he did back in British Columbia where, Claypool let slip following last week’s win over Navy, he once scored 10 touchdowns in one game.

That first year was hard. He didn’t play much; the Irish didn’t win much. Claypool wouldn’t trade it for anything now. Why is he the player he is today? Why are the Irish who they are now? Because of the struggles of yesterday.

“I enjoyed every memory that I made here in South Bend, in that stadium and the road trips with my teammates,” he said. “It’s been a wild ride, for sure.”

Time to deliver

The ride Claypool and the Irish have been on the last couple weeks has indeed been wild. Especially when everything seemingly turned the week after everything looked like it fell apart at Michigan. At home against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame trailed late into the fourth quarter. Time was running away. The season was slipping away. Somebody had to make a play. One more drive for the Irish to either win it or wallow another week in absolute misery.

Enter Claypool, and not so much for his one catch for 13 yards on a massive drive that culminated in an Ian Book keeper into the end zone with 29 seconds remaining to make it 21-20. Rewind to the start of that march, when Book eyed Claypool on first down. He had him. Claypool dropped it. What happened after that said a lot about how far Claypool has come. Maybe in previous years, previous drives, the quarterback would have looked for someone else after that incompletion. Looked for someone he knew would make a play. Come back to Claypool? Maybe later. Like the next week.

Instead, Book looked four more times at Claypool. They connected only that one time, but something about that just clicked.

“Him coming back to me was a big thing, showing that he trusted me,” Claypool said. “We had nothing going well for us that whole game. For us to drive down the field with the confidence that we had showed a lot about the leadership and the confidence that our team has in every one of us.”

And the trust in Claypool. He caught eight passes for 118 yards against the Hokies. He followed with five catches for 97 yards and a score the next week at Duke. Last week, Claypool was even better — arguably the best he’s ever been — catching seven passes for 117 yards and four scores to earn the game ball.

He had that look almost from the start. Get him the ball. He’d make the most of it. He did.

“Chase always has the juice; he’s always talking,” Book said. “You can tell when he gets on a roll, you want to keep getting him the ball. That’s the best.

“He’s having an awesome year.”

With five catches Saturday, Claypool can move past Tim Brown — yeah, that Tim Brown — into 10th all-time for career catches with 138. He’s one catch shy of No. 50 this season. He’s 200 yards and change away from 1,000 receiving yards for the season, 100 and change away from eclipsing 2,000 for his career. Pretty good for a kid who was ranked no higher than the 109th best college prospect out of high school. That included one recruiting service that had him pegged as a tight end in college.

Name three better wide receivers over the last three weeks. Claypool’s been a key factor in the game plan. Let him go deep. Let him work the sideline. Let him come across on a crossing route. Just watch him go. Expect more of the same the final two games. Get him the ball.

“He’s a guy that has all the weapons,” coach Brian Kelly said. “So why wouldn’t you throw him the football? The ball’s going where it should be going.”

Earlier this week, Claypool still was in the process of rounding up extra tickets for the 14 family members expected to attend. He was six short, but wasn’t concerned. He’d find a way to accommodate everyone. They had to see this one. They had to see him play one more time in the Bend.

Four years ago, Claypool was a bystander watching the 2016 season dissolve into a 4-8 finish. Notre Dame’s on pace to get to double-digit victories a third straight season, something that hasn’t been done in a quarter century.

“Looking back on it, it’s kind of nice to know we came from the worst and grew to what we are now,” Claypool said. “We had the right pieces. We just had to put them together.”

The Irish did. So did Claypool.

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Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool had arguably the best game of his college career against Navy. What can he do for an encore the final two weeks of the regular season?