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Notre Dame receivers heed Chip Long's mantra, become 'seekers of '

SOUTH BEND – You know those broad white stripes called sidelines on a football field? They might as well be invisible when Notre Dame receivers find the ball in their hands.

Instead, they must be “seekers of ,” offensive coordinator Chip Long’s pet phrase for the only acceptable mentality that follows a reception, one he hopes will lead to more explosive plays.  

“Coach Long tells us never to run out of bounds,” says Chase Claypool, the leading receiver on the Fighting Irish. “I had an opportunity to run out of bounds (earlier this season), but I knew it wasn’t really an option.”

What’s the punishment for running out of bounds? Claypool winces.

“Oh, man,” he says. “I don’t even want to talk about it.”

At 6-4 3/8 and 229 pounds, Claypool can deliver more punishment to opposing defensive backs than he typically takes.

“I love when there’s a lot of guys trying to tackle me and I just don’t go down,” he says. “It gets me fired up. It gets the other guys fired up. It’s something some receivers lack. I never want to lack that.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Javon McKinley (88) makes a catch against Bowling Green defensive back JaJuan Hudson (28) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings, AP

Late-blooming Javon McKinley, coming off his first career 100-yard receiving game, is another bruiser on the perimeter at 6-2 and 220 pounds. His zig-zagging 65-yard touchdown catch and run against New Mexico remains the play of the year for the Notre Dame offense, a testament to one man’s refusal to be tackled.

“He’s really hard to bring down,” quarterback Ian Book says. “He’s done it when we go live in practice. When he gets the ball in his hand, he’s hard to bring down. He’s sneaky fast, faster than you would think, and he’s extremely strong.”

Watching McKinley’s unexpected climb up the depth chart has only reinforced Long’s message.

“I think all of them clearly understand that there is more playing time for those kinds of players,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly says. “I think they clearly have the message about how they can earn more reps if they show a physicality to their game.”

Tale of the Tape 

Saturday night against unranked USC, the Irish will face a group of wide receivers Kelly calls “elite” and the best his defense will see all season.

The image of 15 first-quarter completions, most on quick bubble screens to slippery wideouts, is hard to chase from the memory of last year’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Speed is in abundance in the trio of Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown, who have combined for 90 catches, nine touchdowns and 1,153 yards through five games.

How does Notre Dame’s receiving group compare?  

While reserve receiver Braden Lenzy has track speed, he has been slowed in the early going by at least his second concussion since spring practice. Lawrence Keys III (5-10, 173 pounds) opened the year as the No. 3 receiver, but his quickness has largely been neutralized by plantar fasciitis in his foot.

Michael Young, the 5-10 target he replaced, returned against Virginia after missing the first three games following surgery to stabilize a broken clavicle.  

That has left more snaps for the likes of Joe Wilkins (6-1 ½, 194 pounds) and McKinley. Wilkins has drawn praise from Kelly for his work in practice, and McKinley’s downfield blocking has been a factor in the improved running game.

Young smiles as he tells the story of Long asking what play he’d like called for him to open the Virginia game. A similar courtesy had been extended to tight end Cole Kmet at Georgia after his return from an identical surgery; Kmet caught a short pass en route to a nine-catch, 108-yard night.

Young? He had other ideas.

“I told him I wanted to block,” the 190-pounder from New Orleans says. “I think that says a lot right there.”

The concept of engaging your opponent rather than seeking an easy escape is one Young has followed since his days at Destrehan High School.

“I would say I’m a seeker of ,” he says. “In high school, that was kind of our motto as well: Be physical. Our (offensive coordinator) always told us, ‘If you don’t block, you don’t play. If you don’t block, you don’t get the ball.’"

Simple enough.

“So, for me it was like, ‘OK, well, the guy in front of me, I’ve got to kick his butt every play,’" Young says. “Now it’s no different. Same thing. Just have to go out there and have that mentality. It feels great.”

'Absolutely embarrassing' 

Long was pounding the "seekers of " drum almost from the time the Irish walked off the field 30-3 losers to Clemson in last season's College Football Playoff semifinal.

“None of them were breaking any tackles last year,” Notre Dame’s third-year coordinator said in the spring. “That’s been our No. 1 emphasis. The amount of yards we left out there last year is absolutely embarrassing. We have to be explosive.”

In 13 games last year, Notre Dame had 53 receptions of 20 or more yards, including nine for touchdowns. This year, through five games, the Irish already have 29 such plays, including eight for touchdowns. 

Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet (84) scores a touchdown against Bowling Green defensive back Jamari Bozeman (13) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings, AP

While it’s natural for the tight end trio of Kmet (6-6, 255), Tommy Tremble (6-3, 235) and Brock Wright (6-4, 246) to lower their shoulders and flatten smaller defensive backs after the ball finds them, the motivational effect seems to be even greater when a modest-sized receiver powers through a would-be tackler.

Take graduate receiver Chris Finke. He, too, is a seeker of .

“I’ve seen Chris take some huge hits, pop right back up and be totally fine,” Book says. “That’s just who he is. He’s a gritty player. He’s not afraid to go in there and get physical. I think all the receivers kind of feed off that from him.”

Even at 5-9 ½ and 184 pounds, Finke prides himself on playing bigger than his frame would suggest he could.

“It’s very important,” he says. “That’s what we preach on the offense. That’s just what football is. If you take it to your opponent, things are going to go well for you.”

Physicality knows no positional limits, he says. 

“That’s all the way across the board, from the O-line to the running backs to the receivers, whether it’s with the ball in your hand or blocking for somebody,” Finke says. “If you can put it in the opponents’ mind that they’re going to get hit, it’s not going to hurt you. It’s going to help you.”

There is a line, Kelly says, especially as injuries have cut into a group that just lost freshman Cam Hart (6-2, 208) to a cornerback conversion.

“I think they understand what we’re asking for,” Kelly says. “We don’t want them to be foolish and initiating that’s not necessary, but it there are yards out there to gain by being physical, we want them to do that.

Book, who takes pride in hitting receivers in stride, appreciates the extra effort once the ball leaves his hand. Three weeks removed from bruises to his kidney and ribs, Book eschewed the sideline and lowered his shoulder on a scramble at a key moment in last year’s comeback win at USC.

“Coach Long has instilled that mindset: We don’t run out of bounds,” Book says. “We’re ‘seekers of ’ is what he says, and that goes for me too -- in some cases.”

Nothing fires up a sideline more than the sight of the quarterback knocking helmets with the opposition.

“It’s all about playing the most physical,” Book says. “The team that takes care of the ball and the team that’s most physical, (Long) says, is going to win the game. That’s what we’ve been doing since he’s been here. The receivers know that. We’ve got to be tough.”

Follow Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @MikeBerardino. His email is [email protected]