Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Spring Preview: Wide Receiver

February 20, 2017

No position had more unknowns than wide receiver last spring. That carried over until fall camp where things remained murky for quite awhile. By the time the season began, everything started to take shape.

There was more good than bad from the wide receivers last season, but there was a lack of consistency that was glaring at certain points. The depth never came through like it had in 2015. There were more drops. The blocking was not quite at the level it needed to be. There were also too many times that receivers and the quarterback weren't on the same page.

This year many of those things should improve and it starts this spring. There is plenty of talent coming back and if that talent takes the next step, then the passing game could end up being one of the best in the nation.

Can EQ dominate?

Before he even finished his freshman season, there was more than enough hype surrounding Equanimeous St. Brown. He lived up to it last season as the team's top receiver. He shined in game one versus Texas and it continued throughout the season with him just missing out on a 1,000 yards and double digit touchdowns.

Golden Tate put up similar numbers to EQ as a sophomore. Then Tate took his game to another level as a junior and won the Biletnikoff award as the nation's top receiver. I'm not sure if that is where things are headed with EQ, but he should at least be in the conversation as one of the top receivers in college football next fall. That doesn't happen unless he shows he can dominate from rep to rep in the spring.

Can he go from really good to someone that no corner on the roster can cover? We'll see if it's possible.

KJ looking for consistency

If they gave out team awards for the most "wow" plays of the year, I think the runaway winner last season might have been Kevin Stepherson. No one dazzled more as a router runner. Just ask Adoree Jackson.

He had a very productive freshman season, but would disappear at times for long stretches of games. The biggest question for him is if he can be more than just flash and be a reliable presence when needed. He has the talent to be the number two receiver or even the 1A to EQ. He needs to show it as an every day thing.

Will Fuller was rail thin as a true freshman and Stepherson was very similar. By the end of Fuller's time in South Bend, he had put on about 15 pounds of muscle and was an adequate blocker in the run game. It will be interesting to see where Stepherson is at physically with the new strength staff pushing the players harder than the previous one.

Physical maturity can go a long way in college football and Stepherson needs to physically mature to reach his potential.

The battle for the slot

Early on it looked like a potential breakout season for CJ Sanders. As things progressed, his role kept shrinking. He had 18 catches in the first six games and only 6 in the last half of the year. Some of that was due to drops and some of it was Notre Dame deciding to use other players in the slot as well. Torrii Hunter Jr. slid over there and Chris Finke took some reps too. If you only watched the back end of the season, you would assume that Finke had the edge in the slot heading into the off season.

With Hunter now gone, it looks to be wide open between Sanders and Finke. I think both should be happy with the change at offensive coordinator as Chip Long did a really good job of getting the football in the hands of his playmakers on the perimeter at Memphis. So if Sanders or Finke emerge, they could see more touches in the screen game.

If either of them struggle, the door will be open for Freddy Canteen to compete in the slot in the summer. It's a very big spring at this spot because if neither Sanders or Finke makes a move, they may get lost in the shuffle with Notre Dame using more two tight end formations.

Will the group be deep?

Depth was a big concern last fall. When Hunter went down with an injury a couple of times during the year, it was a big drop off to the guys who replaced him. Miles Boykin had serious issues with drops when he was given an opportunity. His traits suggest he could become a big time player with his size-speed combination, but none of that matters if he can't bring the ball in. If he catches the ball well this spring, then that is hopefully a good sign for the fall.

This will be Chase Claypool's first spring ball and I think many are predicting big things for him. He may be the most physically talented player they have on the roster at receiver. Is he 100% up to speed with the offense? If he is, then I don't see much holding him back from becoming a significant contributor this season.

The forgotten man in the bunch was the highest rated receiver in the 2015 class. Javon McKinley didn't get to show anything on the field before breaking his leg in practice last fall. It's unclear if he is going to be fully healthy for spring ball. I would not count him out as someone that can make an impact, though. He showed dynamic ability after the catch in high school and if he can be more consistent with his hands, then he could push at X.

All three of these players have a ton of potential. If two out of three make a move this spring, then the receiving corps should be a very deep one come the fall.
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