It’s not that Brian Kelly wanted Equanimeous St. Brown to get hurt during the first week of training camp. It’s just that Notre Dame’s head coach let pain inform him on the sophomore wide receiver.
St. Brown sprained his left thumb during the opening practices of August and played with a wrap on the hand. A position where hands are pretty important meant St. Brown was automatically less than his best.
Sometimes he blocked that pain out and looked like an upgrade on Chris Brown. Sometimes he looked like he had the hands of a scout team player. And sometimes both extremes showed in the same practice, which was the case during Notre Dame’s first practice after returning from Culver Academies.
St. Brown torched the secondary during the first half of that workout, getting open deep, short and medium. He caught everything. And then he started dropping everything. And then Kelly made his move, barking at St. Brown after a dropped deep ball that would have been a sure touchdown.
“He's got to be a little bit more aggressive,” Kelly said. “He's doing a really nice job for us. He's going to get open a lot. He’s got very good speed. A good route runner. But he's covering up for a bit of a sprained thumb and he’s got to go get the football.”
St. Brown hasn’t locked down the starting W position but he’s taken first-team work all month. With Notre Dame facing historic receiver turnover down Brown, Will Fuller, Amir Carlisle and Corey Robinson, it’s hard to imagine a better opportunity.
“I think a lot of guys are doubting us right now, a lot of people,” St. Brown said. “It just drives us to go hard and prove them wrong.”
St. Brown, who suffered separate shoulder injuries last fall and last spring, could be a big part of flipping the script on Notre Dame’s wide outs beyond Torii Hunter Jr. Take out Hunter and Notre Dame’s leading returning wide receiver is actually St. Brown at one catch for eight yards.
That opens a world a possibilities for St. Brown based on Kelly’s tenure. The average No. 2 receiver – excluding backs and tight ends – has posted 38 catches for 508 yards and 3.6 touchdowns. The average No. 3 receiver has posted 24 catches, 286 yards and less than one score.
It’s hard to imagine St. Brown not falling between those averages if he can play through the kinds of pains that dogged him in camp’s opening week.
“Last year I didn’t take that many reps at receiver so it wasn’t hard on me physically or mentally,” St. Brown said. “This year, much more reps. Mental toughness and physical toughness is a big part.”
Physically, there’s a lot to like about St. Brown, listed at 6-foot-4 and a trim 205 pounds. He’s out-weighed by Notre Dame’s other W receivers – Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool – by an average of 16 pounds.
“If Equanimeous continues to grow and progress, I could see him being a guy that we can lean on pretty heavily,” said receivers coach Mike Denbrock.
If that all happens, starting next weekend in Austin, the sophomore can look back at camp pains as a reason why. Kelly was watching. So was Denbrock. And they liked the good and the bad of what they saw.
If all goes to plan, St. Brown may become Notre Dame’s next star receiver.
“Every now and then it will be up and down, that’s a part of camp,” St. Brown said. “People get bruised, you get tired, you have a bad day. But you need to bounce back. You can’t let that affect you.”