For the fourth straight season the Notre Dame offense heads into the offseason looking to replace its top pass catcher. There are plenty of bodies and loads of talent returning at wide receiver, but not much of it is proven.
We continue our replace and reload series by looking at the boundary wide receiver position.
WHAT WAS LOST
Notre Dame must replace Javon McKinley, who led the Irish in receiving yards (717) and yards per catch (17.1), and tied for the team lead with 42 receptions. Among players who led the offense in receiving yards during the Brian Kelly era, only Will Fuller (20.3 YPC in 2015) had a better yards per catch average than did McKinley.
McKinley is one of the most under-appreciated and overlooked players on the entire roster this season. When he was actually targeted he was outstanding this season. Only Fuller and Michael Floyd had four or more 100-yard receiving games in a single season, which McKinley did this season.
According to Pro Football Focus, McKinley was targeted just 59 times this season and caught 42 of those passes, which is good for a 71.2% completion rate when targeted. To put that into perspective, compare that to past leading receivers for the Irish in the PFF era.
2019 Chase Claypool - 61.1%
2018 Miles Boykin - 60.2%
2017 Equanimeous St. Brown - 46.5%
2016 Equanimeous St. Brown - 65.2%
2015 Will Fuller - 62.0%
2014 Will Fuller - 68.5%
Only Fuller in 2014 comes close to McKinley’s 71.2% completion rate on targets.
Want more evidence of how important McKinley was to the offense in 2020, McKinley caught at least five passes in six games, and the offense averaged 39.0 points in those contests. In the other six games the offense averaged 24.3 points per game, and just 20.2 against the five Power 5 opponents.
There is a lot of talent coming back in the boundary, but who steps up is a significant question. Who stays is just as big of a question, but for now we’ll talk about every player that has yet to enter the transfer portal as a legitimate option.
For all his immense talent, Kevin Austin has caught just six passes for 108 yards in three seasons. It’s hard to project what he can do next season due to the foot injury that kept him out for much of the 2020 season. The decision to put off surgery also pushed back his recovery, which makes his status for the spring a major question mark.
Notre Dame needs Austin to finally turn his immense talent into some level of consistent production. If he does that, Austin gives the offense a player with the size (6-2, 215), athleticism and playmaking needed to thrive in the boundary. He has number one receiver tools, and now it is time for him to put them to use.
There isn’t a wideout on the roster that came to Notre Dame with a better recruiting profile than rising sophomore Jordan Johnson. His freshman season was a complete waste, with the staff seeming to look for every reason possible to keep him on the sideline, something we’ve grown accustomed to with young wideouts the last decade. There were rumblings about maturity, his decision making and failure to grasp the playbook … which is the excuse we’ve heard time and time again with young receivers.
Johnson certainly has some growing up to do, which seems obvious considering he’s just a freshman. He needs to make better decisions, but the Irish coaches need to invest more time in developing him on and off the field. Not getting Johnson the field in 2020 was a mistake, not getting him into a key role in 2021 would be inexcusable.
It’s exciting to think about what a one-two punch of Austin and Johnson could do for the Irish offense. Both are more than capable of playing in the boundary, but both could also thrive at the field positions, which means the two can play together if they both have big offseasons.
Notre Dame needs at least one of Austin or Johnson to make a big leap this offseason. If both step up the offense should get outstanding production from that position, and when the two are on the field together.
Rising senior Joe Wilkins Jr. can also play both inside and outside, but his game is better suited for the field position. The question marks with Austin’s injury status and Johnson’s “traits” issues means he might be forced to spend more time in the boundary.
Incoming freshman Deion Colzie doesn’t arrive until the summer, and if Johnson and Austin don’t make major strides in the spring they could find themselves challenged by Colzie in fall camp. He’s still quite young for his class, but his tools are outstanding. Of course, we’ve seen a lot of talent freshman receivers come to Notre Dame and get no shot at early playing time, but a focused Colzie could be hard to keep on the sideline.
1. Can Austin finally turn his talent into production — Austin could hold the key to Notre Dame having a highly productive receiving corps next year. No veteran on the roster has his unique tools, and no veteran has the “go-to receiver” skills that Austin brings to the table. He could easily have a Miles Boykin type breakout, and if he does it would give the offense a huge boost.
2. Does Johnson stay, and does he break out in the spring — Notre Dame needs to convince Johnson to stay, and if they do he needs to go into the spring focused. The staff then needs to give him extra attention to make sure he’s growing on and off the field. Kelly has seemed resistant to that in the past, but he needs to get past that and make it happen. If both sides of this relationship get on the same page this spring he could be a breakout player.
3. Could we see Austin and Johnson on the field together — If questions one and two are both answered positively, I’m curious to see if one or both of them cross-train in an attempt to find more ways to get them on the field together.
Past Replace and Reload Features
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