Shaky Notre Dame passing attack now even more unstable

Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) throws against Stanford during the second half of a game last month in Stanford, Calif. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame's Kevin Stepherson makes a 11-yard touchdown reception against North Carolina State's Nick McCloud during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Notre Dame sophomore wide receiver Chase Claypool hauls in a pass during a drill in training camp in August at Culver Academy. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Stepherson (29) runs for a touchdown after a catch against Stanford during the first half of a game last month in Stanford, Calif. (By The Associated Press)
Then-Notre Dame freshman wide receiver Kevin Stepherson walks into the Fulton County Courthouse in Rochester for an appearance after being arrested in a car with four other Irish players in August 2016 and being charged with marijuana possession. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame's Equanimeous St. Brown runs the ball while North Carolina's K.J. Sails tries to make the tackle during the first half of a game earlier this season in Chapel Hill, N.C. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, right, watches the final minute of his team's lass last month against Stanford in Stanford, Calif. (By The Associated Press)

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LSU football coach Ed Orgeron is very concerned with the running attack of Notre Dame in advance of the Citrus Bowl in Orlando (Jan. 1, noon, ABC) and with good reason. However, what is concerning to the Irish fan base is its passing game, and that is becoming more and more worrisome by the day.

The Fighting Irish (9-3) will face the Tigers (9-3) and should be able to rely on their run game, especially due to the fact that Irish coach Brian Kelly said recently that his running backs are all healthy, which may be the first time all season that statement could be made. However, the passing attack remains in serious question.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush played his worst football late in the season and if Notre Dame can’t have a balanced offense in the Citrus Bowl, it’ll have a difficult time beating LSU.

“I’d like to take a moment to say a couple of words on that,” Kelly said. “He has struggled in the last couple of games throwing the football, but he has not struggled mentally at all.”

“This is his first year in playing. It’s the first time that he’s really been under the spotlight.”

And late in the season, the lights proved way too bright for Wimbush.

He finished the season with six interceptions, but four of those came in primetime road games at Miami (Fla.) and Stanford, both of which were Notre Dame defeats.

“Sometimes when you step into the batter’s box,” Kelly analogized, “it’s a little bit different than being in the batting cage.”

To add to Wimbush’s challenge in the bowl game, his figurative bat just got smaller, as well.

The Irish have lost two of their top three receiving threats due to differing reasons.

Sophomore Chase Claypool reinjured his right shoulder in a recent practice and won’t play in the game, while classmate and oft-maligned (though talented) receiver Kevin Stepherson was recently suspended from the program along with C.J. Holmes following a reported shoplifting incident at a South Bend mall.

Both will considerably hurt Wimbush’s ability to be effective.

“It’s unfortunate, obviously,” Kelly said of Claypool’s injury. “It was one of those unintended injuries in a one-on-one drill where he goes up for the ball and he lands on his shoulder the wrong way.”

Claypool exploded with a nine-catch, 180-yard performance against Wake Forest in early November, but closed the year with just five receptions over the final three games. However, he finished as Notre Dame’s second leading receiver (29 catches).

“Anytime that you go out there,” Kelly said of the practice, “you’re competing and he’s a competitor.”

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In the case of Stepherson, his latest problems most assuredly will end his career in South Bend.

In addition to the shoplifting charge from Dec. 15, it was reported Friday evening that he was also arrested Dec. 14 in Marshall County south of South Bend.

WNDU television in South Bend reported that The Marshall County Prosecutor’s Office said Stepherson was pulled over for speeding and is being charged with possession of marijuana, speeding, and possessing no valid driver’s license.

According to the report, Stepherson was driving 80 miles per hour in a 60 mph zone.

Stepherson began his career a year ago with an arrest along with four other players for marijuana possession and Kelly’s disciplinary actions toward him carried into the spring, in which he was essentially a non-factor.

That led to Stepherson doing almost nothing through the first half of this season, as Kelly continually explained that he needed to demonstrate the “traits” that each player had to possess in order to play. But when he finally got onto the field, Stepherson made an immediate impact.

Stepherson finished third on the team with 19 receptions despite the fact that he caught passes in just seven games and only played in eight.

In the regular season finale, he hauled in three passes for 112 yards and a score.

Stepherson’s speed helped to lessen the coverage on Notre Dame’s top receiver, junior Equanimeous St. Brown, who will now be engulfed by Tiger defenders in the bowl game.

Kelly said that his staff will utilize redshirt sophomore wide receiver Miles Boykin against the Tigers, as well as the return to health of graduate receiver Cam Smith, who saw action in just eight games, none since early October.

“I think we’re in great shape,” Kelly said. “We’ll move around Equanimeous, he’ll play in that (slot) position. Miles Boykin will be featured into the short field. Cam Smith is back healthy, so he’ll get some work, as well in that position.”

“That is kind of the rotation that you will see.”

First-year offensive coordinator Chip Long has stressed versatility among his receivers since he was hired in January, so that will be beneficial in that these players have learned multiple roles.

Other players that can help Wimbush against LSU will be redshirt sophomore Chris Finke, as well as freshman Michael Young, and a whole assortment of tight ends.

LENZY ON BOARD

Kelly said on Wednesday that his program may not be finished signing prospects this week and just hours before the end of this initial signing period, the Fighting Irish got a lot faster.

Oregon wide receiver Braden Lenzy signed with Notre Dame Friday evening.

The 6-foot pass catcher brings absolute speed to the field and his signature makes him a solid commitment for the program after wavering in his pledge throughout his high school career.

Lenzy originally committed to the Irish, but later decommitted and pledged to play for his home state Oregon Ducks. However, that plan went awry when Ducks coach Willie Taggert left earlier this month for Florida State.

Lenzy is a two-time state champ in the 400 meters and was second in the 200 meters as a junior and fourth in the 100. He has run a 10.62 in the 100 meters.

“Great to have Braden Lenzy’s competitiveness as a part of our program,” Kelly tweeted Friday. “Not only will he be a great addition to our locker room, but he has the traits to be a very special student-athlete.”

Lenzy totaled over 1,000 yards from scrimmage this past season and scored 10 times while defensively making seven interceptions and 35 tackles.

For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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