Spring Preview: Wide Receiver
Spring practice is almost a month away and the 2020 Notre Dame football team is already starting to take shape.
Over the next couple of weeks we’ll start to dive into what this team might look like by going position-by-position. We’ll start with the position on offense that most intrigues me heading into the spring.
The wide receivers.
SPRING DEPTH CHART
It remains to be seen if potential fifth-year senior Javon McKinley will be back with the Irish in 2020, but for the sake of this breakdown I’m going to include him. The sources I’ve spoken with have stated the staff would like him back, but it might be out of their control. McKinley showed flashes of finally tapping into his Top 100 recruit potential last season, but then he got hurt, missing the last four games of the season.
McKinley showed the ability to win one-on-one battles on the outside and he’s a quality athlete. If he comes back, remains focused and stays healthy he could see a major jump in production. Unfortunately, he’s never been able to do those things for an entire season.
Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek enters the season with 110 career catches for 1,417 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s a long and steady player with strong hands and a wide catch radius. Skowronek isn’t a dynamic athlete, but he’s a savvy route runner that can move the chains.
Skowronek has played in the boundary and the slot during his career, and that flexibility is important because it means the staff can move him around and fit him in with different personnel.
A captain for the Wildcats in 2019, Skowronek brings veteran leadership to the depth chart, which is something it needs.
TIME TO STEP UP
Notre Dame landed one of the nation’s best wide receiver hauls in the 2018 recruiting class, and we started to see a glimpse of that talent last season. Rising juniors Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III combined for 24 catches and 388 yards last season.
Keys wasn’t targeted very often, but when he was the diminutive pass catcher impressed. Lenzy wasn’t targeted much either, but when he was given the ball the speedster was dynamic. He would get a touch, rip off a big play and then not be seen again.
With Chase Claypool, Chris Finke and Michael Young all departed there is a golden opportunity for both Lenzy and Keys to step into pivotal roles.
Lenzy has game-changing speed, and he showed last season that he can use that speed to hit home runs in the screen game, on jet sweeps and on vertical routes. The key for him is getting stronger, continuing to improve as a route runner (and getting off the line against press coverage) and staying healthy. The key for offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is now making Lenzy a more integral part of the offense and using the talented wideout to set up opportunities for his teammates.
There have been years in the not to distant past where Keys would have been Notre Dame’s most explosive wideout, but he doesn’t get that kind of mention with Lenzy around. How Notre Dame plans to use Keys is near the top of my list of things to look for during the spring. Keys has special route running potential, the speed to beat man coverage and he shows good ball skills.
Getting Lenzy and Keys on the field together as often as possible is something Notre Dame should think long and hard about. Lenzy can be the dynamic field stretcher on the outside while Keys can use his speed, route running tools and ball skills to hammer teams from the slot.
If Lenzy and Keys take advantage of their opportunities this spring the Irish could field a far, far more explosive group of wideouts in 2020. Having that kind of speed and home run ability to the field would force defenses to expand to the perimeter, which opens up more running room for the backs.
The difference between Notre Dame fielding a good group of pass catchers or a championship caliber group of pass catchers is Kevin Austin.
I get it, that is quite a bit of hype to put on the shoulders of a player that missed all of last season (games) and enters the 2020 season with just five career catches. But that is the type of talent that Austin brings to the game.
At 6-2 and 210 pounds with long arms, Austin has the kind of length and strength to thrive in the boundary. He can stretch the field, he can outrun defenders on underneath throws and last spring he went through stretches where the Irish corners simply could not defend him on sideline routes. He and sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec seemed to connect on deep ball after deep ball, and sideline route after sideline route during portions of last spring.
Austin has a skillset that is quite different from Lenzy and Keys, but he’s also an explosive athlete that can hit home runs. That combination of length, physicality and speed is rare, which is why he was a Top 100 recruit according to ESPN and Rivals.
Can Austin go from five career catches to being a major weapon? Former Irish stars Will Fuller and Golden Tate both went from six catches as freshmen to 1,000-yard seasons as sophomores, but can Austin make a similar jump after practicing but not playing in games last season?
The question with Austin really is can he stay out of trouble and continue being the focused player and person my sources say he’s been the last several months? If he does he will put his suspension in the rearview and finally become known for what he does on the field, not off it.
UNDER THE RADAR
There are three returns that will have a chance to go from zero career catches to carving out crucial niches in the Irish offense.
The first is rising junior Joe Wilkins Jr., a savvy player that was limited by injuries last season. Wilkins isn’t as explosive athletically as his classmates (Lenzy, Keys, Austin), but he’s smooth, has impressive balance and possesses enough speed to be a weapon. Wilkins has good ball skills and the versatility to play all three wide receiver positions.
If Wilkins can stay healthy and build on what he did last spring and early in fall camp he’ll start getting a lot more attention … and targets.
Another 2018 signee - Micah Jones - quietly worked himself into the cusp of being a rotation player last season. He has impressive length and ball skills, and he can play the boundary and or the slot. Jones wasn’t a favorite of former offensive coordinator Chip Long, so the change at the top of the offense could give him a chance to reset his place in the pecking order.
But Jones will need to have a strong spring if he wants to keep from being buried on the depth chart. That means playing to his strengths and making the coaches recognize the unique skillset he brings to the offense, thereby forcing them to find a role for him in the offense.
Sophomore Kendall Abdur-Rahman spent the 2019 season trying to learn the wide receiver position, and his first spring will give him a chance to take his game to another level. Notre Dame wants more after-the-catch players, and that’s what Abdur-Rahman brings to the offense. If he can show enough of a grasp of the nuances of the position, and if he can stay healthy, he could use his unique skillset to work his way up the depth chart.
QUESTIONS TO ANSWER
1. Will McKinley be on the team in 2020?
2. Where will Skowronek line up, how healthy will he be and how quickly will he transition into the Notre Dame offense?
3. Are Lenzy and Keys ready to become difference makers?
4. What under-the-radar players emerge this spring?
5. Can this unit stay focused and healthy, something that has been a struggle for most of the returners in the past?
6. Can Austin finally stay focused, stay on the field and show off his five-star talent?
7. Will we finally see a deeper wide receiver rotation, and will Rees be able to develop a pass offense that builds around the strengths of his players?