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Receiver development not holding Irish back on recruiting trail, for now

| Friday, October 23, 2020

Following a 12-7 win over Louisville in which graduate student quarterback Ian Book completed just 11 of 19 passes for 106 yards, Notre Dame’s passing game has become a point of acute scrutiny as it braces for a matchup with perennial defensive power Pittsburgh. While Book perpetually receives his fair share of criticism, the larger issue at play seems to be the lack of production from Irish receivers.

Graduate student Javon McKinley currently leads all Irish players in receiving yards with 121, but 107 of them came in one game against Florida State, and he is the only wide receiver on the roster with triple-digit receiving yards. That reality, one in which the Irish are reeling from the loss of NFL rookie-of-the-year candidate Chase Claypool, has led to calls for the new guard of young receivers — namely freshman five-star prospect Jordan Johnson — to see the field more.

However, according to Irish Breakdown publisher Bryan Driskell, if history is any indication, fans shouldn’t get their hopes up for that to come to fruition.

“I mean, we’ve seen this story before,” Driskell said. “In 2017, Notre Dame loses to Georgia by a point in a game where [wide receivers] Freddy Canteen, Chris Finke and Cam Smith combined for over 100 snaps while [then-junior receiver] Miles Boykin, [then-sophomore] Chase Claypool and [then-freshman] Cole Kmet combined for 12.”

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish graduate student receiver Bennett Skowronek catches and runs for a first down during Notre Dame’s 12-7 win over Louisville on Saturday. Skowronek recorded his first two catches of the season, both third down conversions, against the Cardinals.

According to Driskell, the issue for Notre Dame is not the talent at their disposal (nor a lack thereof), but the slow development process they must endure. However, Driskell warns that if this trend continues, it could hurt the Irish down the road.

“Will Fuller caught only six passes as a freshman. Chase Claypool caught five,” Driskell said. “When you see that kind of trend, you gotta be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘Why aren’t we able to develop young players the way that other programs can, because clearly it’s not a lack of talent when we’re throwing names like Will Fuller, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin into this conversation?’”

For now though, the apparent refusal of Notre Dame’s offensive coaching staff to play talented freshmen has not impaired them. Despite losing target Dont’e Thornton — the No. 6 wide receiver nationally per 247Sports composite ranking — to Oregon this past Tuesday, four-star Georgia prospects Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas have entered the fold for the Irish.

At this point, according to Driskell, the factor keeping the Irish above water with receiver recruiting is the fact that their prospects are panning out so well in the pros.

“Just since the 2016 to 2020 drafts, that’s five drafts [throughout which] Notre Dame had a first rounder in Will Fuller, a second rounder in Chase Claypool, a third rounder in Miles Boykin and a sixth rounder in Equanimeous St. Brown,” he said. “That’s four NFL players and I think people see that, kids see that, and they say, ‘Hey, I can go to Notre Dame, I can get a great degree, and I can be drafted.’ And a lot of kids think, ‘Well, it’ll be different for me, I’ll play early; I won’t have the same problems,’ because that’s what a lot of them are being told when they’re being recruited.”

One position where Notre Dame is getting high level talent and seeing early production is their trademark unit: tight end. Freshman Michael Mayer is currently fourth on Notre Dame’s roster in receiving yards and has the position group’s only touchdown — one of just three passing touchdowns this season for the Irish.

“What [newly-minted tight ends coach] John McNulty gets to sell … is not only does he get to sell the tradition at Notre Dame in recent years, but he gets to look and say, ‘Hey, look, I got Michael Mayer and he went out and played as a freshman,’” Driskell said. “He’s going to be able to sell it really quickly, and we’ve seen him do that. He landed [three-star] Mitchell Evans in the 2021 class and landed [three-star] Jack Nickel in the 2022 class already, so he’s already using that to his advantage.”

It can be tough for a football program known nationally as “tight end U” to improve their ceiling recruiting that position, but one area where the Irish are looking to bolster their profile is running back. That pursuit can be aided both by the production Notre Dame has had on the ground through four games this season — 261 rushing yards per game, 5.9 yards per rush and 13 scores — as well as some new blood coaching the position.

“This is a Notre Dame team that’s ran the ball well in the past,” Driskell said. “The problem is they didn’t have a coach that could get on the recruiting trail and make them pay dividends. I think Lance Taylor is more qualified to do that. I think we’ve seen him do that already. You know, he landed [freshman] Chris Tyree … and I think the fact that Chris Tyree is playing a lot early, getting playing time, is going to help Notre Dame.”

Considering the big bodies Tyree and his fellow backs are running behind, one other position Notre Dame’s production can help is offensive line. Driskell says position coach Jeff Quinn is already looking to leave his mark on the program based on a change in approach from his predecessor.

“[Former Irish offensive line coach] Harry Hiestand wanted tackles. If you look at Notre Dame’s current starting lineup, four of the five were recruited by Harry Hiestand, and even that fifth one, Jarrett Patterson, they were all high school tackles,” Driskell said. “Jeff Quinn so far has had a lot more success recruiting guard bodies. So big, physical tough guys that are more guard bodies, not necessarily as long and athletic as what you see from Harry Hiestand. But it’s been good players.”

Quinn deserves credit for landing four-star offensive linemen Black Fisher and Rocco Spindler in the 2021 class. With that kind of talent and the way Notre Dame has been pounding the rock, it isn’t a leap to say the coaching staff hopes the on and off-field success creates a feedback loop that will bolster the Irish ground game for years to come.

“Now, the way that Jeff Quinn is coaching this line, he can say, ‘Hey, look what we’re doing now; we’ve continued that great tradition; it wasn’t about Harry Hiestand, it was about Notre Dame and the things that we’re doing,” Driskell said. “So he now has things that he’s done as a coach that he can now sell on top of the great tradition, which I think is only going to help as Notre Dame looks to go out in the 2022 class and land some of the nation’s best offensive lineman. They’ve offered a ton of studs, now it’s about being able to close on them and put together an elite class.”

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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