Sunday, November 05, 2017 6:00 am
Irish get boost with rise of Claypool, Stepherson
CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame's missing piece is no longer missing.
With a first-year starter at quarterback, a dominant rushing attack that doesn't need much help and a No. 1 wide receiver in Equanimeous St. Brown with only three touchdown catches this season, the Irish continue to hope their passing game can shake itself loose from too many inaccurate passes and not enough reliable targets.
Fifth-ranked Notre Dame won easily Saturday against Wake Forest and took a big leap forward in the passing game, generating a season-high 330 yards through the air. Of course, the real challenge will occur in next week's game at No. 10 Miami.
I think the real key to that game, and the rest of the season, for that matter, is either Chase Claypool or Kevin Stepherson being a consistently productive No. 2 wide receiver.
Yeah, that's right, Stepherson, the same mercurial receiver who served an unofficial four-game suspension at the start of this season. Irish coach Brian Kelly was apparently unhappy with Stepherson's attitude and mental miscues in practice.
Yes, Claypool, the ultra-athletic sophomore who finally had a breakout game Saturday after failing to emerge in the first seven games.
Now is Stepherson's time to prove he's what everyone thought he would be. He started two weeks ago and contributed again (two catches for 22 yards, two rushes for 42 yards) against Wake Forest.
Now is Claypool's time to live up to his recruiting pedigree. Other than quarterback Brandon Wimbush, he was the offensive star of the Wake game with nine catches for 180 yards and a touchdown.
Claypool and Stepherson are vital for a team that has been searching for that reliable second option to pair with St. Brown and draw the extra coverage away from St. Brown.
"There are still some areas of improvement (needed) there," Kelly said. "I would like to see more consistency. What I was pleased with, with Chase, was, after the drop he had when he was wide open down the sideline, he came back with nice catches after that, so he was able to re-focus, which is something we talk a lot about, and that's his maturation and development as a receiver."
Stepherson, who had three catches for 58 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago against Southern California, adds something exciting on the outside. Last week, Stepherson had two receptions for 24 yards and a score versus North Carolina State.
"As we get him integrated into our offense and get him caught up to speed and understanding what we're doing, as he gets back into shape, I think he'll keep progressing," Wimbush said. "Sometimes he's a little lagging behind when we're trying to push the tempo, just because he (wasn't) out there for the first four weeks."
Because of his versatility, Stepherson is an ideal fit in any game plan.
When the Irish had Will Fuller, he always played the X position (split end) that fits Stepherson's skill set, but Stepherson is someone they want to move to Z (flanker) at times. The flanker can line up off the line and has the freedom to go in motion.
As a freshman last year, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns. He had emerged as the No. 3 receiver in the second half of the season. He repeatedly demonstrated his ability to stretch the field, hauling in deep balls from DeShone Kizer, something Notre Dame's receivers haven't done too often this year.
"I think Kevin Stepherson adds a dimension to our offense," Kelly said.
He sure does. The coaches need to make a concerted effort to get Stepherson the ball. He's out of the doghouse and ready to sink his teeth into opposing secondaries.
"Proud of guys like Kevin Stepherson, who has mostly been in Siberia this season," Kelly said. "I think it's pretty easy to point out his athletic skills. We've never questioned those. This has been about having the right traits, not the talent, and he's starting to really get that."
At 6-foot-4, Claypool has length that stands out. Add in his leaping ability, and he can high-point the ball in a way Notre Dame hasn't had.
With Claypool and Stepherson getting behind defenses, Notre Dame is a much more dangerous offense. Though Claypool isn't the fastest, he has explosion and quickness. Saturday, the sophomore had a career day and showed his potential.
"I had to thank the offensive line to give Brandon the time," Claypool said. "I had to thank Brandon for trusting me. It's obviously big to have that type of game. It shows preparation pays off."