Replace and Reload: Wide Receiver

Breaking down how Notre Dame will replace Ben Skowronek at the field wide receiver position
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Javon McKinley isn't the only wide receiver that Notre Dame must replace next season. The Fighting Irish also need to replace Ben Skowronek, who spent one season in South Bend after transferring in from Northwestern.

Notre Dame has plenty of talented options at the position, but there are as many question marks at the X position as there are at the boundary position. Yesterday I broke down the boundary position, now let's take a look at how Notre Dame will reload at the field position.

WHAT WAS LOST

Skowronek's Notre Dame career got off to a slow start, as he was held without a catch in his first game, a game he left in the first half due to a hamstring injury. That injury kept him out of two games, but when he returned he put together a quality final collegiate season.

Skowronek was fourth on the offense in catches (29) and third in receiving yards (439), but he led the offense with five receiving touchdowns. His 15.1 yards per catch was second among the regulars, trailing only McKinley's 17.1 yards per reception.

His five touchdowns came in two games, with Skowronek hauling in two scoring catches against Pittsburgh and three against Boston College. He also had a 13-yard scoring run on a jet sweep against North Carolina.

Skowronek proved to be a quality complementary player to McKinley and the tight ends.

WHO RETURNS

There will certainly be no shortage of options at the position in 2021. Notre Dame can't replace Skowronek's size and experience, but the position certainly has a chance to become far more dynamic and explosive in 2021.

The first name in the discussion is rising senior Braden Lenzy, who had a disappointing 2020 campaign. Lenzy struggled to stay healthy, missing the season opener and then missing three more full games as he battled to keep his hamstring from going out.

When he was healthy, Lenzy was an afterthought in the offense. He caught six passes for 63 yards in wins over South Florida and Florida State, but Lenzy caught just one pass for zero yards the remainder of the season.

Lenzy never showed the explosiveness that allowed him to average 18.9 yards on his 24 touches in 2019. The staff failed to find ways to get him the football in the situations we saw in 2019, and Lenzy never got on track. Despite being healthy, Lenzy didn't play a snap against Clemson in the ACC title game and took just 10 snaps in the loss to Alabama.

Lenzy must prove he can stay healthy. I've been critical of the staff not finding ways to get other players into the rotation, but with Lenzy it's somewhat understandable. It's hard to justify giving a lot of reps in practice to a player who misses so much time with multiple injuries.

The Portland, Ore. native has game-changing speed, and we saw that during his sophomore season. If he can stay healthy this spring, get focused and get his game back on track he could provide the offense with the home run threat it lacked at wide receiver this past season.

Even if Lenzy is healthy he's just not a guy that should eat up 50-plus snaps a game like Skowronek did this past season. He needs to be part of a rotation, which will limit the wear and tear on his body, allow for different skillsets to get on the field and allow Lenzy to stay fresh. A fresh Lenzy in the fourth quarter of games would be a dangerous weapon for the Irish offense.

A player to keep an eye on this spring is rising sophomore Xavier Watts. Multiple sources have raved about what Watts did in practice. The Nebraska native is a unique player that lacks the size that Notre Dame has preferred in the past, but he's the ideal modern-day field receiver.

Watts has speed, top-notch foot quickness, impressive strength and he can do damage after the catch. He's the kind of wideout that can turn a short throw into a big gain, he can do damage on screens, reverses and jets and he has the ball skills to make one-on-one plays down the field. 

Watts was a two-way player in high school, so his route running still needs work. He spent half the season on scout team, which means he wasn't getting much technique work or coaching, so this spring will be huge for him. Watts needs to put in the work needed to enhance his route running, and the staff needs to invest time developing this part of his game.

If Watts makes the strides I think he can in the weight room and as a route runner he could be a breakout player next season, assuming the staff allows an open competition and doesn't just insert the veterans into the lineup.

Senior Joe Wilkins Jr. lacks the explosiveness that Lenzy brings to the game, and he's not the after-the-catch weapon that Watts can be, but he should find a role in the rotation next season. He needs to continue developing as a route runner, but the big thing holding him back is consistency catching the football. 

You can accept the occasional drop from Lenzy because he's a home run threat, but a player like Wilkins can't afford to be anything but sound and consistent.

Rising sophomore Jay Brunelle got ill during camp, which combined with him being on scout team to stunt his development as a freshman. Brunelle has good size and I really like his ball skills. He brings some of the skills that Skowronek did, although Brunelle is shorter and projects to be a bigger play threat. Like Watts, he needs a big spring to not only push the veterans, but to hold off the younger players.

I talked about Kevin Austin and Jordan Johnson in the boundary receiver breakdown, but both could be options here. This is especially true of Johnson, whose body and game is even better suited for the field spot. If Johnson has a big spring and the players mentioned above do not it would not be a surprise to see him get more and more work at the field.

NEWCOMERS

Notre Dame welcomes 2021 signee Lorenzo Styles Jr. this spring. Styles is an intriguing player that could play both the slot and outside field position. He could end up battling Avery Davis and Lawrence Keys III for playing time in the slot, or he could use his speed and playmaking ability to compete for time outside.

Fellow signee Jayden Thomas does not arrive until fall camp. If the returners don't stay healthy, develop and create some distance in the spring it could make it easier for Thomas to make an early push, assuming the staff gives him a chance to compete for time. Thomas lacks the explosiveness of most of the players at this position, but he's a heady football player with very good size and strength.

KEY QUESTIONS

1. Can Lenzy get healthy, stay healthy and get his explosiveness back - Lenzy is one of the biggest question marks on the offense. We know he can be a game-breaker, and he can make plays in a lot of different ways. What we don't know, however, is if he'll ever be able to stay healthy long enough to become a true difference maker in the offense. If he answers this question in the affirmative he immediately gives the offense a boost.

2. Will Watts get his chance to shine this spring - A Lenzy/Watts combo at the X position could be dangerous. Lenzy can be the fast game-changer and Watts can use his strength, after-the-catch skills and all-around athleticism to do damage. If the staff gives him a real chance to shine this spring I believe he will be one of the breakouts. The ideal scenario for Notre Dame is that both Lenzy and Watts become standouts in the spring. 

3. Will Notre Dame finally start using more of a rotation - Notre Dame has preferred to go with one main player at the wide receiver positions for much of Brian Kelly's tenure in South Bend. For many years it made sense, because talent drop between the first-team receiver and everyone else was usually quite dramatic. That, however, is no longer the case.

Notre Dame's offensive staff needs to finally expand the wide receiver rotation and start building the offense and its play calls around the specific skills of the wideouts and stop trying to fit the wideouts into the stale, stagnant concepts we saw this past season.

There is definitely not a talent problem for Notre Dame at wide receiver. There is an experience problem and a usage problem. If both get fixed in 2021 the pass offense could be dangerous.

Past Replace and Reload Features

Replace and Reload: Tight End
Replace and Reload: Boundary Receiver

Replace and Reload: Strongside End
Replace and Reload: Drop End/Vyper

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