Notre Dame lost its top two pass catchers from last season and the returners, albeit talented, have been injury prone for much of their careers. The Irish also lost four players from last season's roster that still has multiple years of eligibility remaining.
Despite those losses I'm confident the wide receivers can put up big numbers in 2021. It's time to break down all the reasons why.
RETURNING PRODUCTION (Career)
Avery Davis - 39 catches, 476 yards, 12.2 YPC, 4 TD / 31 carries, 137 yards
Braden Lenzy - 18 catches, 317 yards, 17.6 YPC, 3 TD / 16 carries, 208 yards, 2 TD
Lawrence Keys III - 18 catches, 185 yards, 10.3 YPC / 6 carries, 45 yards
Joe Wilkins Jr. - 7 catches, 63 yards, 9.0 YPC, 1 TD
Kevin Austin - 6 catches, 108 yards, 18.0 YPC
CAN AVERY DAVIS BECOME A GO-TO RECEIVER?
Fifth-year senior Avery Davis has done a little bit of everything during his tenure at Notre Dame. The Texas native was recruited to play quarterback, he has played running back and he played cornerback before finally finding a home at wide receiver.
Davis was solid last season, hauling in 24 passes for 322 yards (13.4 YPC) and two scores. Although his production doesn't knock your socks off, consider that it was his first season at the position and he didn't get an offseason to build his game. Davis was also a clutch player for the Irish, thriving on third down and of course coming up huge in Notre Dame's win over Clemson.
Now that he's the veteran of the group you can expect Davis to provide leadership, which isn't a surprise considering his background as a quarterback. The question, however, is can he become more of a go-to receiver in the offense or is his best role as more of a complementary option?
Well, that depends on what kind of offense Notre Dame runs this season. If it looks a lot like last season I expect Davis to see better numbers but it won't be significant. If the Irish more effectively get the ball to the perimeter, implement RPOs (Run Pass Options) and improve the screen game then Davis could see a much bigger jump.
Davis isn't an elite speed player by any means, but he's a high-quality athlete that shows top-notch foot quickness and his ball skills were surprisingly good last season. His route running improved dramatically and he's an effective player in the short to intermediate areas.
If Davis can become more effective in the slot, which means more yards after catch plays and more damage over the middle, it will make the Irish offense even more efficient in 2021. It would also help take some of the pressure off talented tight end Michael Mayer and the outside receivers.
TIME FOR THE 2018 CLASS TO STEP UP
When Notre Dame signed its receiver class in 2018 the expectation was that the deep and athletic group of players would give the Irish the playmaking ability it needed to become an explosive offense. The group has done just enough to entice Irish fans with that playmaking ability, but overall the unit has been quite disappointing.
I'm not ready to write that group off, and to be honest it is that group that has me excited about what the unit can be this season. There aren't anymore veterans to play above them and it's imperative that the Irish coaches do what it takes to get that group ready to play. And it's up to that group to stay healthy and turn their potential into production.
I expect 2018 signee Joe Wilkins Jr. to be a key part of the rotation, but Wilkins has thus far only shown to be a solid rotation player. Can he be more this season? We'll have to wait and see, but at the very least he is a quality part of a rotation. The rest of his remaining classmates hold the key to the 2021 wide receiver unit.
CAN LENZY STAY HEALTHY?
Senior Braden Lenzy is the most proven of that group. Lenzy showed off game-breaking speed in 2019, hauling in 11 passes for 254 yards (23.1 YPC) and two scores while carrying the ball 13 times for 200 yards (15.4 YPC). Lenzy had scores of 70, 61, 51 and 24 yards that season, showing the speed to make plays on vertical routes, on reverses, on jet sweeps and on screen plays.
The problem is Lenzy has been unable to stay healthy and produce over a period of time. He was expected to be a focal point of the offseason last season but entered the season banged up and he never got healthy. Lenzy finished with just 10 touches (7 catches, 3 carries) for 71 yards.
Notre Dame needs Lenzy to stay healthy, and if he can do that he gives the offense the home run speed it lacked last season. A healthy Lenzy would have a significant impact on the Irish offense this season.
KEYS IS READY FOR A BREAKOUT
When Lawrence Keys III got a chance to start early in 2019 he performed well, hauling in seven passes for 70 yards in three games, which included a crucial third-down catch in the season-opening win over Louisville and an important 28-yard gain to set up a score at Georgia.
He didn't play much the remainder of that season and he wasn't a factor in 2020 for a number of reasons. Like the rest of his classmates, Keys will get every opportunity to become a key part of the rotation this season, and if his spring performance is any indication of what he is poised to do the New Orleans native is set for a breakout.
Keys is a precise route runner with very good feet and speed. He made a lot of plays down the field during spring practices and he was outstanding in the Blue-Gold Game, hauling in five passes for 115 yards.
Keys can play the slot and outside, which gives him the ability to fit into the offense in a variety of ways. If the offense is going to be built more on the perimeter pass game Keys is the kind of player that could really thrive.
WILL WE EVER SEE AUSTIN AT HIS BEST?
One of the biggest enigmas to play at Notre Dame in the last decade is now senior receiver Kevin Austin. A case could be made he's one of the most talented wideouts to put on an Irish uniform in the last decade, but injuries and suspensions have held him to just six career catches.
That hasn't kept Austin from flashing big time potential in practices and games. After breaking his foot twice last season there are major questions about whether or not Austin will be healthy, or at least at full strength.
A healthy and ready to break out Austin could be the biggest key to Notre Dame putting the kind of explosive offense on the field it needs to compete for a title this season.
Austin has a unique blend of size (6-2, 210), athleticism and pass catching potential. He's big and long enough and has the kind of top-flight ball skills to win one-on-ones on the perimeter. He's also fast and athletic enough to stretch the field and make plays after the catch.
The Florida native is the ideal boundary receiver for Notre Dame, but can he be an every down player? Can he stay healthy? Can he stay locked in? If the answer to all those questions is yes we'll finally get a chance to see the best of Kevin Austin, which is a very, very exciting proposition.
But that is all three very big ifs.
YOUNG PLAYERS WILL GET THEIR CHANCE
Notre Dame hasn't made a habit of playing young players for much of Brian Kelly's tenure, but that has been especially true in the last four seasons. In the four seasons with DelVaughn Alexander coaching the position true freshman have combined for just nine catches, and just two players caught those balls.
Sophomores have fared a bit better but even then the production has been inconsistent.
There are four young wideouts that will get a shot to make an impact in 2021, and they are essential to providing depth, some size and playmaking ability.
Sophomore Xavier Watts is a unique talent that could play all three receiver spots in the Irish offense. Watts isn't a burner, but he has enough speed to stretch the field and he has one-on-one ball skills that are better than you'd expect from a guy who is only 6-0. Watts is a strong athletic player that can also do damage after the catch.
Simply put, Watts is the kind of talented player that Notre Dame needs and it's up to Alexander and OC Tommy Rees to figure out a way to get him in the mix and get him the football.
Notre Dame's freshman class of receivers is outstanding, and Lorenzo Styles Jr. is the best of the bunch, and he's already gone through a spring. Styles is arguably the second fastest wideout on the roster (behind Lenzy) and he is a legit stretch the field kind of weapon. He's also a strong athlete despite being just 186 pounds, which combines with his speed to making him a threat after the catch.
Styles is still developing as a route runner but he has potential to be really good there. If we start to see that this season he'll emerge as a key part of the rotation and could far out-perform the freshman receiver production of the Alexander tenure. Sometimes a freshman is just too good not to play, and that could be Styles.
Fellow rookie Deion Colzie is the tallest wideout on the roster and he brings size that no one other than Austin brings to the depth chart. He's another young weapon that is simply too good not to play and it's up to Alexander to work hard to get him ready to contribute. Colzie being ready to play this year makes the W depth chart look a lot better.
I'm not sure what to expect from Jayden Thomas. He showed off quality route running ability and speed as a junior but was injured as a senior. He has some size and could work his way into the rotation this season, especially if there are some injuries.
KEY WIDE RECEIVER QUESTIONS
There are five wide receiver questions I’m looking forward to seeing answered this summer and into the fall.
1. Can this unit make a difference? — There is talent at the position but right now there are even more questions. It all sounds good on paper and there's certainly potential, but the concern is the many questions that also exist. Whether or not the potential or the production becomes the primary topic of conversation will have a big impact on how good this offense will be in 2021.
2. Will Austin and Lenzy stay healthy? — I have no doubt that Austin and Lenzy can be impact players if healthy, but what I don't have as much confidence in is whether they can actually stay healthy. A healthy Austin can become the kind of alpha perimeter pass catcher that many want and a healthy Lenzy has the kind of speed to scare any defense. If both of them are healthy this offense could be really, really fun to watch.
3. How big of a jump can Davis make? — Davis will be important even if he only repeats his 2020 performance, but is that all he can do? I'm curious to see if he's capable of making a jump. If that happens expect to see Davis become a major third-down weapon, a key to the screen game and a legit threat over the middle of the field.
4. Will Lawrence Keys III break out? — Keys gets overlooked when talking about the 2018 class but he's very talented. I could see Keys challenging Austin for most catches in the class this season, and if Austin and Lenzy get banged up again he'll be needed to be even more than a key rotation player.
5. What young players will produce? — Watts and the freshmen are very, very talented. I'm very curious to see if they get a shot to play this season, because if they do I fully expect them to make their presence felt.
The wide receiver depth chart will play to its potential if ….
Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy stay healthy ... Avery Davis becomes a higher volume performer ... Lawrence Keys III gives the offense a route running weapon that is a breakout player ... Xavier Watts and at least two freshmen play major minutes in the rotation and make a lot of plays.
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