Notre Dame Needs Its Talented Wideouts To Turn Potential Into Production
Notre Dame has produced a number of outstanding receivers over the last 15 years. During Brian Kelly’s tenure the Irish have produced six NFL Draft picks from the position, and the most recent was Chase Claypool, a second round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in April.
The Irish must replace Claypool’s dominant play and production, and they must replace slot receiver Chris Finke, who was an undrafted free agent signee of the San Francisco 49ers. Claypool and Finke combined for 256 career catches, 3,410 receiving yards and 27 receiving touchdowns, including 107 catches for 1,493 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2019.
There is a great deal of talent returning, but a number of questions at the position must be answered positively if Notre Dame’s offense is going to be a championship caliber unit this season.
DEPTH CHART (By Class)
Let’s take an overview look at the wide receivers heading into the 2020 season.
MONEY PLAYER(S) MUST EMERGE
With the exception of the 2017 season, Notre Dame’s best teams in the last decade have had top-level pass catchers. It was tight end Tyler Eifert in 2012 (first round pick), Will Fuller in 2015 (first round), Miles Boykin in 2018 (third round) and Chase Claypool in 2019 (second round).
Those players stepped up in big moments, but they weren’t alone. TJ Jones had his fair share of big catches in 2012, Chris Brown had a big role in Notre Dame’s win over Boston College in 2015, Claypool had big moments in 2018.
Who will be the “go-to” receiver in 2020, and will it be just one player, or will multiple players step up in different moments? The answer to those questions remains a mystery, but the options are plentiful. From a pure talent and athleticism standpoint, this is arguably the deepest and most talented wideout depth chart of the Brian Kelly tenure.
WILL ANY VETERANS STEP UP?
Notre Dame returns three veteran players returning, and two of them could have a big say in answering the questions that were just discussed.
Fifth-year senior Javon McKinley came to Notre Dame as one of the nation’s top wideouts. McKinley ranked No. 59 nationally according to Rivals and was one of the top players in the class in my own analysis.
His career can be looked at as nothing short of a disappointment thus far, with McKinley failing to catch a single pass during his first three seasons. He showed flashes of the brilliant high school player he was during the 2019 season, hauling in 11 catches for 268 yards and four scores, but once again an injury cost him time.
That has been a big part of the problem for McKinley at Notre Dame. His inability to stay on the field has kept him from turning his talent into more consistent production. He gets one final shot at it, and if he can stay healthy and stay focused he could become one of those money players that Notre Dame needs to emerge in 2020.
McKinley has the tools to take over games, something that I cannot say about Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek, but that doesn’t mean the Indiana native can’t have a major impact. Skowronek lacks the big-play ability to be a dominant player, but his versatility, route running prowess, size and ball skills are still valuable assets.
If Skowronek can quickly adapt to the system and connect with quarterback Ian Book he could serve as a chain-moving security blanket for the veteran signal caller.
It remains to be seen if former quarterback Avery Davis will ever be able to carve out a niche in the offense. He’s done well in mop up minutes, but he’s failed to make an impact against the better opponents on the schedule. Davis just hasn’t looked comfortable as a wideout, and moving from position to position hasn’t helped his development.
But Davis is a quick athlete with adequate speed, and if he can get more comfortable as a wideout he could add a key rotation weapon to the offense.
TIME TO SHINE FOR THE 2018 CLASS
There were extremely high expectations for the 2018 recruiting class, and arguably no position was as strong as the group of pass catchers. The five-man crew combined for just five catches in 2018, but in year two it started to step up.
If Notre Dame is going to have an elite offense in 2020 it will need this unit to continue maturing their games, and they will need to stay on the field.
Junior Braden Lenzy started to show off the home-run skills that made him a coveted member of the 2018 class. Lenzy has elite speed and playmaking ability, but for the first year and a half of his career at Notre Dame he did very little.
The staff chose not to play him in 2018, and he failed to make much of an impact through the first five games of his second season.
Lenzy’s impact skills finally shined when he ripped off a 51-yard run on a reverse to give the Irish a two-score lead against USC. Despite being mostly a rotation player throughout the season, Lenzy hauled in 11 passes for 254 yards (23.1 YPC) and two scores, and he rushed for 200 yards on 13 carries (15.4 YPA) and two more scores. He did all that while playing just 259 snaps, which is an average of just 23.5 per game.
If Lenzy is healthy he should be a difference maker for the Irish, but staying on the field has been a struggle at times for the talented Oregon native.
We saw flashes from fellow 2018 class member Lawrence Keys III as well. He caught just 13 passes for 134 yards, but Keys performed well in the first three games as the Irish wideouts dealt with injuries. Keys hauled in seven passes for 70 yards in the first three games, including an impressive 28-yard grab in a one-on-one situation against Georgia that set up an Irish score.
Keys should slide into Finke’s role, and his combination of speed, quickness and advanced feel for route running should allow him to thrive. The staff will need to refit that position to what Keys does well, but if they do that he could become an impact wideout for the Irish this season.
The wildcard is the highest ranked member of the 2018 wide receiver haul, and that is Kevin Austin. He has the size, speed, athleticism and ability to win in one-on-one throws that are needed for him to be an elite player. Austin’s lack of focus, however, has kept him from doing much in his career.
Does he finally mature, stay focused and turn his talent into production? We’ll see, but my sources have consistently said Austin has been not only focused, but he’s emerged as one of the hardest working players on the offense in recent months.
If that’s accurate there’s a chance Austin could become one of the top playmakers for the offense in 2020.
Notre Dame brought in a trio of talented freshman pass catchers, and that unit should be poised to battle with the veterans this season.
Jordan Johnson was one of the nation’s top high school receivers last season, ranking as the No. 36 overall player in the country according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Johnson is a long and athletic pass catcher that shows an advanced feel as a route runner. He can win one-on-one battles and has the all-around skills that could fit in well at either outside position in the Irish offense.
Classmate Xavier Watts wasn’t as highly ranked as Johnson. In fact, I would argue he was one of the most underrated players in the entire country. Watts has legit Top 100 talent, and as he focuses more on just being a wideout (he was a tremendous defensive back in high school) his game should explode.
The combination of Johnson and Watts is good enough to get action in 2020, and neither are five-year players. It is imperative the staff give them opportunities to develop and not bury them in year one the way they did Lenzy and Keys in 2018. This duo can help the 2020 offense, and it won’t be long before they are competing to be the stars of the Irish offense.
Fellow freshman Jay Brunelle has been slowed by a shoulder injury, but he is a talented player in his own right. He might need a year to heal and develop, especially considering how loaded the wide receiver position is, but Brunelle has made a habit of proving me wrong over the last year.
1. Can the talented group of pass catchers stay healthy, something the unit has largely struggled with in recent seasons.
2. Who steps up as the go-to players in 2020? Can Javon McKinley finally live up to his prep billing?
3. Does the talented 2018 class finally take over?
4. What role will the freshmen play?
PREVIOUS POSITION PREVIEWS
Be sure to stay locked into Irish Breakdown all the time!