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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, April 22, 2017 11:00 pm

Size serves Irish pass-catchers well

CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame has no shortage of players who provide height and muscle in the passing game. If Saturday's spring game proved nothing else, it's that these bigger Irish pass-catchers can beat defensive backs on 50-50 balls by being more physical.

Wide receiver Miles Boykin made one of the plays of the day when he caught a back-shoulder pass against Nick Coleman, potentially a starting safety. The grab came on a play-action rollout throw from Brandon Wimbush, who went deep, and the 6-foot-4 Boykin outfought the 6-foot Coleman for the ball.

Alizé Mack, who was revealed Saturday to have changed his name after previously playing as Alizé Jones, also made one of the most eye-popping plays of the day. After coming in motion to the right side, the tight end ran a post route and made a leaping grab as safety Jalen Elliott laid a lick. Mack managed to hang onto the ball and even threw out a first-down hand gesture as he jumped back to his feet.

Equanimeous St. Brown (6-5, 204 pounds) is on pace to maintain his place as the team’s top receiver. He had 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore in 2016. He’s a bona fide No. 1 receiver.

Boykin, listed at 225 pounds, had six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown as a freshman. Three of the catches and the lone score came in the last five games. The goal when he was signed was to give Notre Dame at least two big wideouts. You could see St. Brown and Boykin on the field together a lot in 2017.

Javon McKinley (6-2, 220) is another big receiver with speed. He had two catches for 17 yards Saturday. He missed the final five games of his freshman year with a broken leg. Coaches liked what they were seeing from McKinley on special teams prior to the injury.

The staff naturally will try to maximize Mack's versatility. At 6-5 and 245 pounds, Mack is a wide receiver in a tight end's body. He'll be detached from the line at times, split out wide in coach Brian Kelly's spread offense.

Mack finished the spring game with five catches for 46 yards. Boykin had five catches for 102 yards. St. Brown had three catches for 69 yards, and we haven't yet mentioned Chase Claypool, who had four catches for 63 yards.

Claypool is a rare talent at 6-4, 224 pounds with good hands and speed. He is in the mix for a starting role despite catching just five passes as a freshman in 2016.

Zoom out, and it's obvious that, on some downfield passes, Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush can just throw it up and let these guys use their size.

"You tend to want to miss high more," Wimbush said. "In certain situations, you have the ability to kind of put the ball up there and not have it be a perfect throw all the time. Those guys you saw today will go up and make a play for you."

Big targets help in the red zone, and they can use their body to compensate for any flaws in route-running. The Irish do have smaller receivers such as Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders, but even if they mainly use big ones, there's nothing wrong with that. What you want are good ones.

"We have a bunch of receivers who can play," backup quarterback Ian Book said. "When you have lengthy guys out there, guys who can go up and get the football, (they) don't need to be as open as some may think because they're still going to come down with it. It's definitely a confidence-builder from a quarterback standpoint."