Notre Dame's Chase Toward History — As A Team
At the turn into the 21st century, a 50-catch season at Notre Dame took on the form of a holy grail among its receivers.
In the 35 seasons from 1971-2005, only Walter Camp Award winner Ken MacAfee at tight end in 1977 and Arnaz Battle in 2002 “officially” reached the 50-catch mark. And even with Battle, it took 10 receptions in the 28-6 Gator Bowl loss to North Carolina State to reach that standard. That also was the same year the NCAA began including the bowl stats. Thus, it took a 13th game and a rule change for Battle to achieve 50.
Luminaries such as 1987 Heisman winner Tim Brown and 1990 Walter Camp Award winner Raghib “Rocket” Ismail had 45 and 38 catches (including bowls), respectively, during those campaigns.
Since 2005, though, or the opening year of the five-year Charlie Weis era, 50 grabs has now become a relatively average season for a top wideout. Last year the Fighting Irish were one Chris Finke catch away from three players snaring 50 in the same campaign for the first time ever at Notre Dame, with third-round selection Miles Boykin latching on to 59, Chase Claypool 50 and Finke 49. That’s not even including the collective tight end position combining for 56.
In head coach Brian Kelly’s nine seasons at Notre Dame, the lone year in which someone didn’t catch at least 50 passes was 2017, when a run-oriented scheme finished seventh nationally in rushing with 269.5 yards per contest and top receiver Equanimeous St. Brown hauled in a modest 33 balls to pace the team..
In 2019, the 6-4 3/8, 229-pound senior Claypool has all the makings to become the sixth different Notre Dame wideout since 2006 to snare at least 70 passes in a season, and the fourth under Kelly. His internal objective is to perhaps match his current career totals of 84 catches for 1,122 yards and six touchdowns — and add 20 pancake blocks for good measure to highlight his aggressiveness and all-around skills.
Despite an ankle injury in the Blue-Gold Game last April that required a tightrope surgery technique that Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa also underwent in 2018, Claypool has had his own tightrope act since the spring while making one circus catch after another, including this month. It has prompted Kelly to view him as a potential first-round pick next spring, one year after Boykin was chosen in the third round.
While the physical skills were never lacking in Claypool, the significant difference to the staff since the spring has been his maturity and consistency in his attitude toward competition that has him playing no longer at a winning level but at a championship one. Part of that job description is to, along with fifth-year senior Finke, lift the others around him.
This includes a potentially explosive five-man sophomore corps that combined for only five catches last year, junior playmaker Michael Young, who has 11 career catches, senior Javon McKinley, a former top-60 prospect who is still seeking his first career reception, plus junior Isaiah Robertson, who has undergone multiple position switches, and freshmen Cam Hart and Kendall Abdur-Rahman.
“I’m just trying to be more of a teacher on our side of the ball and kind of really get these guys’ attention and focus, and kind of tighten up little things,” said Claypool, who earlier in his career had those exact issues that held him back from fulfilling his skills. “If I see something, I make sure it’s said and they don’t keep doing the same thing... tighten down the little details.”
Talking about his own objectives at this point also is not about data points. If one looks at the five seasons the past 10 years where a Notre Dame player caught at least 70 passes, it didn’t necessarily equate with wonderful team success.
1. Michael Floyd (2011) — 100 catches, 1,147 yards, nine touchdowns
Notre Dame finished 8-5.
2. Golden Tate (2009) — 93 catches, 1,496 yards, 15 touchdowns
The Biletnikoff Award winner was brilliant during a 6-6 campaign that resulted in the firing of Weis.
3. Floyd (2010) — 79 catches, 1,025 yards, 12 touchdowns
Kelly’s debut campaign began 4-5 before an emphasis toward simplifying with freshman quarterback Tommy Rees in the lineup resulted in an 8-5 finish.
4. Will Fuller (2014) — 76 catches, 1,094 yards, 15 touchdowns
Phenomenal sophomore campaign resulted in another 8-5 outcome.
5. T.J. Jones (2013) — 70 catches, 1,108 yards, nine touchdowns
The senior earned MVP honors for a 9-4 team that finished No. 20.
Conversely, when the wealth was spread out a little more like last year or in 2012 when four different players grabbed 31 to 50 passes and the running game augmented the attack, the Irish enjoyed 12-0 regular seasons. Defense and special teams also must factor in, but the point is that team success results from individual buy-in toward the greater whole superseding personal goals.
“My goal is to just get a little better than I did the day before,” Claypool summarized. “If I had something I messed up this practice, make sure I don’t do it again and try to improve on it the next practice.”
That’s not to say his personal expectations don’t remain immense.
“I haven’t even scratched the surface,” Claypool noted. “I’m excited of what’s to come but I have to still trust the process. I can’t cheat myself just because I’m in this position now. I can’t take any shortcuts.”