SOUTH BEND — Just when you thought Chase Claypool was done making highlight catches, he added another one to the reel Saturday against Virginia Tech.
With his team down 20-14 and less than two minutes to go in the game, the senior wide receiver ran a 13-yard out route, catching the ball and dragging his right toe in bounds before his left foot could step out of bounds. Only upon further review could you see the skill and footwork Claypool utilized to make the first-down reception.
“It looked, from my vantage point, that he did get his toe in,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “We felt pretty confident at the time, and of course they put it up on the board. You could see that he did.”
Claypool then had another crucial catch on the drive, hauling in a 26-yard reception on a fourth-and-10 to set up a first-and-goal at the 7-yard line. Three plays later, Book ran it into the end zone for the game-winning score as the No. 16 Irish avoided the upset against the Hokies.
“He’s awesome,” Fighting Irish redshirt junior quarterback Ian Book said of Claypool after the 21-20 victory. “He works hard every day, and he’s a leader on our offense. Makes my job a lot easier, so I can’t thank him enough.”
“Chase was a ‘dude’ on the drive,” junior tight end Cole Kmet added. “He was just demanding the ball, and Ian was putting it where Chase could get it. And Chase was making those plays.”
Claypool was expected to be the No. 1 wide receiver for the Irish this year, and he’s lived up to those expectations. He has 37 receptions for 554 yards and four touchdowns in Notre Dame’s first seven games.
Last season, Claypool was the No. 2 receiver option behind future NFL draft pick Miles Boykin. Even as the second option, Claypool still managed 50 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns.
The step up in role hasn’t affected Claypool.
“I think he’s still the same guy. He’s bigger, stronger, faster. He’s had another year to develop,” Kelly said. “But I just think that attention for wanting the ball and not being afraid of the big moment. I think that’s probably the biggest change from one year to the next.”
Claypool’s catch along the sideline Saturday brought back memories of a similar catch the Vancouver, British Columbia, native made against Georgia earlier in the season. Claypool rose over the Bulldogs defender on a jump ball, tapping his right foot down in bounds before his body landed out of bounds.
On first glance, it looked as if Claypool didn’t catch it in bounds. After a review, though, Claypool was ruled to have made the catch, setting up Notre Dame at the Georgia 4-yard line.
“He’s got great body control,” Kelly said. “He did it in Georgia. He’s done it many times. He’s got a great sense of awareness of the sideline. When you need that big play, he steps up and he makes it.”
The attention Claypool attracts helps out the rest of the Notre Dame offense.
“There’s definitely a good feeling when you’re out there with him,” Kmet said. “It’s kind of nice knowing he’s bringing some attention as well, too. He’s a good guy to have out there.”
The catch against Georgia was on a scoring drive that brought the Irish to within six points of the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter. Claypool also had a 34-yard reception late in the game against Louisville, where he ran nearly a total of 100 yards to get the ball to the Cardinals’ 2-yard line. This set up a touchdown that iced the game for Notre Dame.
He then had 39 of Notre Dame’s 87 yards on the winning drive against Virginia Tech. When the Irish have needed Claypool the most, the senior has been there.
“Those are the guys that have to step up in those periods, right? On those drives, we have to find Chase and we have to get him the football, and we did,” Kelly said. “He stepped up big. Players make plays. Great players make them during times when you need it the most. And he showed himself as a great player because of the time and circumstances.
“He’s got such a highly competitive nature to him that he always wants the football. And I kind of like that.”