Photo by Joe Raymond
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Note: Chase Claypool has not been made available for interviews yet this spring, but we interviewed him late last season and are featuring him for the first time.
A couple of weeks into Notre Dame’s 2016 football season, freshman receiver Chase Claypool was approached during a team meal by senior captain/Sam linebacker James Onwualu.
“He joked around and said, ‘If you keep making plays and tackling people, you might get moved over to defense. We’d love to have you over here,’ ” Claypool recalled.
Onwualu could identify with Claypool. As a 2013 freshman, Onwualu started four games at receiver and saw more action than wideout classmates Will Fuller and Corey Robinson because of his physical presence as a blocker and as a special teams stalwart, where he made six solo stops.
The Canadian native Claypool had “redshirt” written all over him his freshman season at Notre Dame because the former basketball star who had limited exposure to big-time football was repeatedly labeled as a “raw talent.”
Nevertheless, the Fighting Irish coaching staff couldn’t get past his range (now 6-4 3/8, 224 pounds, compared to Onwualu’s 6-1, 232 as a senior), physicality and athletic, playmaking skills. He just had to get on the field, and ended up with five catches for 81 yards. Yet it was on special teams where he found his niche with 11 tackles (a team high seven solos).
Upon watching Notre Dame game tape from 2016, current and first-year Fighting Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian immediately jotted down No. 83 as a potential leader on his 2017 unit.
“Chase Claypool is a heck of a special teams player,” said Polian, who also was the special teams coach at Notre Dame from 2005-09, a couple of weeks into his job when asked about his first impressions. “Watching him run, I got really excited.”
With plenty of receiver/tight end options on the 2017 roster, head coach Brian Kelly admitted the thought of Claypool making an Onwualu-like shift to defense was discussed. He had the frame to grow into a defensive end, the aggression to excel at linebacker and the speed to line up at Rover or safety. Claypool played all of those position — plus receiver and punter — at Abbotsford High School in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
First-year Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander is more than pleased that the decision was made to keep Claypool on offense.
“He’s passionate when he crosses the line, which is a big deal,” Alexander said. “He plays fast, which is a big deal. He plays hard and physical, and then he’s still trying to adjust to the finer things (releases, leverages, understanding defenses, technique).
“We’re moving past the raw talent part. We’re moving more toward him being talented, physical and with great speed. He’s shown a lot of things to me, Coach [Chip] Long and our staff.”
The Path To Notre Dame
The eighth player from Canada to see action for Notre Dame in its 128-season football history (including 1995-2000 athletics director Mike Wadsworth), and the first to sign a letter-of-intent with the Irish since linebacker/Toronto native Bill Mitoulas in 1994, Claypool put up astounding numbers in high school while ranking as the No. 109 overall prospect in the nation by Rivals.com.
• His 58 catches as a senior averaged 25.4 yards, with 18 touchdowns.
• He also rushed for 567 yards and passed for three TDs, while returning two of his four punt return attempts for scores.
• On defense, he recorded 74 tackles and five interceptions.
Yet it was in basketball where his data was mind-numbing with a 40-point plus scoring average, and by his junior year he was receiving scholarship offers on the hardwood from local United States schools such as Portland State and Montana.
Prior to his senior year, he was a solid but hardly blue-chip major college prospect in football.
“I thought it would be basketball,” Claypool said. “Football wasn’t realistic for me at the time, but I didn’t want to give up football.”
He had envisioned suiting up at the University of British Columbia, where his older brother Jacob Carvey played for the Thunderbirds as a 5-10 receiver.
Carvery became the conduit for Claypool’s football dreams when he introduced him to Eddie Ferg, the coach of the Air Raid Academy in Vancouver, a 7-on-7 operation that provided exposure against top competition, plus tape to send to college coaches.
“I couldn’t play summer basketball with my club team, but [Carvery said], ‘If you talk to this guy and train with this guy, he will get you an offer in two weeks,’ ” Claypool said. “He sent my film out, and that’s kind of how I got my first offers. Once other schools saw it, they started offering me.”
Among them was Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, who extended an invitation to Claypool to attend the 2015 Irish Invasion.
“I asked my coach if Notre Dame was any good, and he told me they were in the national championship just a few years ago,” said Claypool, whose education about the school became extended when he watched the movie “Rudy” on the plane trip there.
Irish Invasion was the first among many camp trips that summer that included the prestigious The Opening in Beaverton, Oregon, plus a passing camp in Seattle, Rutgers and the Sound Mind, Sound Body camp at Michigan.
“My first couple of camps were pretty rough,” Claypool said. “I got beat on a lot of reps. It didn’t really discourage me. Rather, it encouraged me and motivated me to keep practicing because I know I can hang with those guys. It’s a matter of practice. The camps were good to integrate myself into the mix.
“I think The Opening helped me realize the DBs and how skilled they are, and you have to change releases and be physical with them. It’s not nearly as easy as in British Columbia.”
Clocked at 4.66 in the 40 at The Opening, the experiences in camp also revealed to him how 7-on-7 football is a whole different world, and that he had to distinguish himself with physicality and non-stop energy.
“I knew I had to run fast every single play, I couldn’t take off a play like in high school because no one else is taking a play off,” Claypool said.
“I thought I was going to redshirt [as a college freshman] just because being from Canada, having to adjust. My brother went to a university in Canada and he said that adjustment was insane. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ ”
What he did know was that Notre Dame was where he wanted to be.
“Growing up, my dad always stressed education,” Claypool said. “I think that those (other schools) just didn’t interest me as much as higher education like Notre Dame did. So as soon as I got that offer, I knew I had to come see it. And I knew that if I liked it, I’d be coming here.”
Once he arrived at Notre Dame, Claypool’s progress was aided by the instruction of fellow rangy wideouts such as Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin and Robinson, who stayed on as a student assistant when his football career ended because of multiple concussions.
Claypool's blocking and physicality are what made the coaches decide not to redshirt him.
“They want to get me into the game, so I’ve been blocking for special plays on perimeter runs,” Claypool said last November. “If that’s what gets me into the game, I have to do it to my fullest ability every single time. I think that helps a lot … it’s what I like to do.”
This spring, he has been used everywhere, including slot, to take advantage of some potential mismatches in an offense that has promised to be more up tempo.
His energy and desire also has been fueled by the death of his sister, Ashley, about five-and-a-half years ago from a suicide. She would have turned 22 in February.
“At first didn’t affect me because I didn’t think it was real,” Claypool said. “It was shocking when it set on. Looking back on it she did give signs, and I wasn’t there … I always use it as motivation, trying to make her proud.”
On his arm is a tattoo that reads: “A thousand tears won’t bring you back. I know, because I cried. Neither will a thousand words. I know, because I’ve tried. Until we meet again.”
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