The Irish head into the spring with a budding star (Equanimeous St. Brown), a promising sophomore (Kevin Stepherson) with standout moments as a rookie, a pair of slot receivers (Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders) that produced in separate halves of the ’16 season, and a bunch of unproven youngsters.
St. Brown emerged as the standout in the opener against Texas last year when he caught five passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns. His productivity continued throughout the season. Through five games, he had 25 catches for 541 yards (21.6-yard average) and six touchdowns. St. Brown was steady over the next five games (20 receptions, 236 yards, 11.8 average, two TDs), and then finished strong with 13 catches for 184 yards (14.1 average) and a touchdown against Virginia Tech and USC.
Stepherson finished third on the team in receptions with 25 for 462 yards (18.5 average) and five touchdowns (second on the team). He didn’t catch a pass in his debut against Texas and was shutout in the monsoon at N.C. State in Game 6. In between, he caught nine passes for 200 yards (22.2 average), including touchdowns against Nevada, Duke and Syracuse (a 54-yarder). After catching one pass against Stanford and N.C. State combined, Stepherson closed with 15 receptions for 253 yards (16.8 average) with touchdowns against Army and USC.
Finke, playing behind Sanders most of the 2016 season, caught seven passes in four of the last five games for 104 yards with touchdowns against Virginia Tech and USC. Sanders caught 17 passes for 293 yards (17.3-yard average) and two touchdowns in the first five games of the season.
St. Brown could emerge as one of the top young receivers in the country if he can get on the same page with a new quarterback. Stepherson, now starting his second set of spring sessions after an early-entry last year, could become a more consistent receiver to form a dynamic one-two punch with St. Brown.
After a quick start, Sanders snagged just seven passes for 39 yards over the final seven games. If he can be a consistent presence from the slot – and that’s more difficult now with the emergence of Finke – he could easily slide into the upside category.
Stepherson, like so many young players in the program, needs to continue his adaptation to the academic rigors at Notre Dame.
WIDE RECEIVER OPTIONS
Sophomore Chase Claypool is the most exciting among the yet-to-be established receivers on the roster. Much of the excitement generated came on special teams, where he recorded 11 tackles (seven solo). Now it’s time to build upon his five-catch, 81-yard (16.2 average) rookie season at receiver. He is a special athlete.
Red-shirt sophomore Miles Boykin and red-shirt freshman Javon McKinley are promising prospects. Boykin had six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown (Virginia Tech), but his drops rivaled his receptions. That’s a big body with athleticism.
The Irish wisely preserved McKinley’s rookie year, which allows the W receiver to join another red-shirt freshman, Deon McIntosh (Z/X), and August arrivals Michael Young (Z) and Jafar Armstrong (X) to form a four-man group with four years of eligibility.
Michigan transfer Freddy Canteen joins the mix this summer.
So much depends upon the accuracy of Wimbush and the chemistry with a young group of receivers, which should be starting to form right now and will move forward during 15 spring practices. A St. Brown-Stepherson pairing – not to mention a bevy of tight ends -- is a very promising go-to option for Wimbush.
St. Brown didn’t have a breakout sophomore season quite like Will Fuller in 2014 (76-1,094-15), but his 58-catch, 961-yard, nine-touchdown 2016 wasn’t far behind.
The competition at Z likely won’t be resolved until the fall. A one-two (and perhaps even three) punch is the best-case scenario. Claypool’s athleticism and versatility is something new offensive coordinator Chip Long must exploit. (Note: Playing time at this position likely will be altered by Long’s preferred two-tight end attack.)