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Friday, November 27, 2020

Notre Dame coach lauds versatility that WR Chase Claypool brings to Steelers

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Chase Claypool’s four years at Notre Dame included just about everything on the football field short of playing with marching band at halftime.

The second-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Claypool lined up on the short side and wide sides of the field. He played in the slot.

If Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly needed a gunner on the special teams, Claypool probably was the first to raise his hand, too.

It didn’t matter if he was part of the designed play, Claypool found a way to get involved.

“He can come down and block anybody. Safeties, rovers, corners, he can get a mismatch on them,” Kelly said Tuesday in a conference call.

In 2019, Claypool produced career bests with 66 catches, 1,037 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in 13 games while mainly lining up on the short side of the field as Notre Dame’s “W” receiver.

“In college, it’s a little different with the hashmarks, and he worked on the short field, which gave us one-on-one matchups which he could usually win with great regularity,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy who can flank on the other side of the formation. He has the physical tools to play anywhere at the wide receiver position.”

The Steelers were attracted to the 6-foot-4, 238-pound Claypool because of his 4.42 speed that can stretch the field and a 40 1/2-inch vertical jump and 80-inch wingspan he can use to out-jump cornerbacks and safeties.

Claypool provides options in the deep passing game and the red zone that the Steelers lacked last season when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was on injured reserve for the final 14 games because of a right elbow injury.

“He has some unique physical traits,” Kelly said. “For him, they are his size and length and catch radius. He can create mismatches. It’s elite traits, physically, and from an excellence standpoint, he’s got an incredible drive and competitiveness in him that separates him.”

General manager Kevin Colbert, coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers assistants saw Claypool’s competitive fire at the Senior Bowl when he regularly stood out in blocking drills and special teams work.

“Physicality is a brand of ball that we want regardless of position,” Tomlin said. “We believe it’s an asset to victory for us, and so when you can get some wideouts that display that trait, that’s exciting. Whether he was contributing on special teams or doing things with the ball in his hand or as a blocker, he displayed those traits at ND.”

Recruited from Abbotsford, B.C., Claypool took a while to find his footing on the Fighting Irish depth chart. It didn’t help that he was stuck behind Equanimeous St. Brown, Torii Hunter Jr. and Miles Boykin during his early years on campus.

“You come to any program, and it’s kind of finding your position,” Kelly said. “He got moved around a lot because there were players in front of him.”

As Claypool’s opportunities increased, so did his confidence, Kelly said.

“Once he found himself in a position where he could get consistent reps, it was just a matter of how he practiced,” he said. “I think the change that really occurred for Chase in terms of his play was he became a great practice player. I think all of the really, really good players show themselves at practice.

“He came to practice every day and practiced in a manner to become a great player, and that’s when we really saw a difference in him.”

The Steelers, obviously, thought enough from Claypool’s development that they used the No. 49 overall pick in the draft to add to a deep pool of wide receivers rather than select a running back or linebacker in the second round.

The question is where are they going to use him in an offense that returns three versatile starters from 2019 in JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson.

“I would think outside probably first,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “It’s a more natural thing for the developing of a young receiver to be able to fit in and help. Obviously, the first thing you think about is a possibility in the red zone. Big target, back of the end line, in the corners, those type of things. I probably wouldn’t put him in and just say, ‘Well, he’s locked in. He’d have to be this.’ ”

Good thing, Kelly said, because he believes Claypool can help the Steelers in a multitude of ways.

“His size stands out, so you like to match him out on the perimeter because of his size and ability to run the line on the outside, put the ball up one-on-one and let him use his size to his advantage,” he said. “But we’ve had him inside. We’ve played him in the slot as well.

“He’s extremely versatile.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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Sports | Steelers/NFL

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