He started strong, he finished strong and he had his best singular outing in the middle.
Equanimeous St. Brown was Notre Dame’s best wide receiver last season.
That was the case in September when he secured four of his nine touchdowns, in October when he posted 324 yards and three scores over the four game set (including one contest played in a hurricane, not ideal for pass-catching statistics), and in November when he amassed nearly 300 more receiving yards and two scores, finishing with a career-high seven grabs for 94 yards and a touchdown at USC.
So what does the rising junior do for an encore?
Get serious – along with the rest of his returning 4-8 crew.
“The major difference is everything is much more serious,” said St. Brown of the team’s overall approach. “Since we came back from winter break, everything has been way more serious than last year. There’s no tolerance for anything. Being late, anything like that. Everyone is on point. It shows.”
St. Brown’s observations while a bit unsettling are nonetheless part of a familiar refrain offered by players and returning coaches.
Things had to change.
“I don’t know how that works, I just know with (director of football performance) coach (Matt) Balis coming in, he changed the demeanor of the team,” said St. Brown.
St. Brown’s internal charge is to get bigger and stronger, both for blocking purposes and to improve fourth quarter/late season performance. For the offense as a whole it’s about adjustment. Adjusting in the spring so opposing defenses will have to do the same, on the fly, in the fall.
“We have to put in more time outside the meeting rooms to learn the new offense, to go at that pace,” said St. Brown of first-year offensive coordinator Chip Long and the quick-tempo approach he preaches.
“I like that it catches (the defense) off-guard a lot. Their personnel, getting plays and signals in on time, their formations. They might not be able to communicate as well (facing a quick tempo).
“But we have a ways to go to get to the level of execution we need to run at the speed he wants.”
St. Brown isn’t cross training outside of his familiar “W” position (pre-snap alignment to the boundary/short side of the formation) noting he still has a lot to learn about the new plays instituted at the position this spring.
“We kept a lot of the same terminology but the way we call plays is different so we just have to get used to that, too.”
A future NFL prospect thanks to his combination of size (6’5”) and speed, St. Brown might have to get used to another new aspect of the offense –sharing the wealth.
“We have some guys that will come up to the level he was at last year to give the quarterback and the offense a little more balance than we had last year,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of St. Brown’s breakout performance last fall.
“EQ will be a better player. He’s diligently working on some of the weaknesses that he had, which limited him in certain areas. (But) I think you’re going to see a better supporting cast across the board, which will give us much more balance. More importantly, it’s going to give us much more consistency from an offensive standpoint.”
Balance was in short supply in the passing game last season, with St. Brown out-producing his two closest teammates’ – Torii Hunter and Kevin Stepherson – combined totals for touchdowns (9-8) and nearly doing so in receptions (58 to 63 combined) and yardage (961 to 983).
But including St. Brown, six returning Irish receivers/tight ends caught touchdown passes last season – a number doesn’t include prize tight end prospect, junior Alizé’ Jones, impossibly athletic sophomore receiver Chase Claypool, or annual August camp wonder Nic Weishar.
Five of those seven, St. Brown included, secured his first score last fall. It was trial-by-fire on the perimeter.
“You can see where this offense clearly is going,” said Kelly of his collection of massive frames both on the perimeter and up front. “We’ve got depth at the tight end position, we’ve got big-bodied wide receivers. We’ve got a very physical offensive line and we’re very deep at the running back position. You guys can figure out where that takes you.”
Wherever that is, St. Brown is certain to be back at the head of the pack.