SOUTH BEND — One of the biggest questions heading into the 2018 season for Notre Dame football was its wide receiver play. The team’s leading receiver in 2017 — Equanimeous St. Brown — left for the NFL (he’s currently on the Green Bay Packers). There was a lot of inexperience coming back to the position, leaving a lot of uncertainty about the production the position would yield for the Fighting Irish.
Those questions have been answered, and then some, this season. The Irish’s top four receivers — Miles Boykin (54), Chase Claypool (48), Chris Finke (47) and tight end Alize Mack (34) — all have more receptions than St. Brown (33) had a season ago. Boykin (803), Claypool (631) and Finke (547) all have more receiving yards than St. Brown (515) as well.
So, what has made the Notre Dame receiving corps so successful this year? I talked with Irish wide receivers coach Del Alexander to find out the answer to that question.
Q: The wide receiver group coming into this season, obviously Miles Boykin is a big kid (6-4) and Chase Claypool is a big kid (6-4). But I don’t know if anyone expected the development they have had. Chris Finke as well. What have you seen from Aug. 1 to now in the growth of this group?
A: “I think they haven’t changed or haven’t budged on their desire to improve. I think they’re great competitors, but I think more than anything, they go into practice trying to learn something new and execute that on Saturday’s.”
Q: Specifically Miles — he had all the pressure coming in after the Citrus Bowl one-handed catch. How do you think he’s handled that?
A: “After the Citrus Bowl, I think he was proud of himself. But at the same time, he knew there was some things that he wanted to work on. I think going into the season, he had goals, but no goal bigger than the team. You know, no goal bigger than being an example of what it looks like to work every day. Being an example of a guy that does things right and following our process.”
Q: How does the quarterback change affect the receivers? Obviously, you switched from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book. Does that affect receivers?
A: “As a coach, I’m teaching fundamentals. I’m trying to get these guys to understand that we are as good as the whole. So, our job never changed. Our job is to make plays — to go out and execute the offense — that never changed from Brandon to Ian, and that’s how we go about our business.”
Q: Chris Finke is kind of the most unassuming threat ever. For him to go from walk-on to starting receiver … How did he get to this moment?
A: “All about his grit, his determination. All about his work. All about wanting to understand what it takes to take the next step, and then taking it. Doing it in the weight room, in the drills, in the off-season conditioning. And then following that up with making plays and working hard in practice.”
Q: Claypool — he’s been consistently good, but he had a breakout moment against Northwestern (eight catches, 130 yards). When you’re watching one of those guys have a breakout game, what is that emotion like for you?
A: “It’s great because you know the frustrating times. You know when a guy is talented and wants and deserves more, but there’s a little bit more he has to do to earn those opportunities. And Chase really works hard. He’s focused on the details of the position, and to see him do that, it’s a big-time feeling.”
Q: There’s a lot of focus on the Clemson defensive line, and rightfully so. A lot of people might think they’re beatable in the secondary, though. How do you game plan, or do you do any game planning for that? What is your mentality?
A: “We’re never going to get too far ahead of ourselves. We understand that we’re playing the No. 2 ranked team in the country, and with that, they have a great secondary. Those guys play hard. Everyone is going to talk about the defensive line, but if the defensive line is just average, you still have a secondary that’s still really, really good. So, we’re never going to get ahead of ourselves. We’re just going to focus on who they are as a unit.”
Austin Hough can be reached at email@example.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN