Notre Dame’s wide receiver position has been a bit up and down in recent seasons. At times the position has been a strength of the offense, which we saw in 2018, at times in 2019 and certainly during the 2015 season. At other times it has been considered a hindrance to a successful offense.
The unit certainly caught plenty of flak in 2020. Fair or not, the production at the position wasn’t up to the level we saw in the years that were considered better years at the position.
Notre Dame returns veterans Avery Davis, who is poised for a breakout final season in South Bend. For the offense to become the high-powered unit it needs to be the wideout position needs a lot more than just Davis.
Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class was absolutely loaded at wide receiver, with Top 100 recruit Kevin Austin being joined by speedster Braden Lenzy, talented Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins Jr., who was initially recruited to play defense for the Irish.
For years fans have been clamoring for that group to get more reps and more opportunities. As that group becomes the veterans on the roster they become the key to Notre Dame’s wide receiver position to become a strength.
“Receiver is really about, to me, more than anything else, is getting Wilkins, Lenzy and Keys at the next level,” Kelly said following the tenth practice of the spring. “That’s where this really is about.”
Keys has been a constant in the three minute videos that Notre Dame posts following each practice. It seems that he has at least one or two big plays every time we get a new video. In limited playing time early in 2019 he impressed with his ability to move the chains and make plays outside.
In 2019, Lenzy touched the ball just 24 times but still managed to produce gains of 70, 61, 52, 51, 43 and 24 yards. Wilkins was a key role player for the Irish in 2020. Austin has just six career catches, but he's oozed talent and potential from the moment he stepped foot on campus.
Now the unit is battling this spring to become not just key parts of the rotation, but the kind of dynamic playmakers the offense lacked in the past game last season.
“Those three guys are where this is at,” Kelly said of the 2018 wide receivers. “They have got to ascent to the championship level. They’ve been good, don’t get me wrong, they’ve been good, I need them to move to that great level. They’re capable of it, and we’re seeing some signs, but this is all wrapped up in those three guys really taking that next step.”
Austin has not practice this spring, but his return to health and the emergence of his classmates could be the key ingredients to the offense being explosive next season.
“If we get Kevin Austin back health, Avery’s obviously been steady for us in the slot,” continued Kelly. “We’ve got a great tight end (Michael Mayer), we’ve got two outstanding backs (Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree), three really with C’Bo [Flemister], you’ve got a pretty good offense there. But these three guys really have to ascend, that’s really the key here for us at the wide receiver position.”
Sophomores Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts don’t seem to be in the mix, at least not through ten practices. Kelly rarely talks about Watts, didn’t mention him at all when asked generally about the wide receiver position, and he constantly tamps down the excitement fans have about Johnson.
“Jordan Johnson’s getting better, there’s no doubt,” Kelly said of the talented rising sophomore. "He’s got to continue though, on the little things. He’s missed a couple of practices, we have to get him in the flow of things.”
If the 2018 wideouts can do what Kelly believes they can, which means getting to that great level, the Irish head coach is absolutely correct, there is potential for the Notre Dame offense to be very, very good in 2021.
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