Can Notre Dame Find Playmakers at Wide Receiver this Spring?

The storyline from the Cotton Bowl meltdown for Notre Dame was the glaring difference at the skill positions.  Clemson’s wide receivers were just on another level and made plays even when the Irish coverage was actually okay.  To be fair, the Clemson wide receivers did the same to Alabama’s vaunted defense with Tiger receivers making ridiculous play after ridiculous play on their way to blowing out Bama.  Those players don’t grow on trees and Notre Dame can’t manufacture them, but they can start to find some playmakers on their current roster this spring.

When Notre Dame lost Miles Boykin to the NFL a couple months ago, it may have just forced their hand in throwing some younger players on the field this spring.  Had Boykin returned, it would have been very easy for Notre Dame trot out Boykin, Chase Claypool, and Chris Finke again and hope for the best again in 2019.  With Boykin gone, the answer for the Notre Dame passing game might not be as simple as plugging someone in for Boykin.

With an open wide receiver position; Chip Long, Del Vaughn Alexander, and Brian Kelly should take a step back this spring and evaluate which trio of receivers gets the most athleticism on the field without sacrificing technique or fundamentals.

The first thing the Irish staff might – and probably should – look at is moving Claypool to the boundary position that was left open by Boykin’s departure.  After three years it looks as though Boykin and Claypool are more similar than different no matter how freakishly athletic Claypool is.  His game as a wide receiver translates more into what the boundary position asks for in a receiver – big body, huge target, chain mover.

That would open up a competition on the outside that could be one of the more fun battles to watch all spring.  Notre Dame has talent, athleticism, and speed at wide receiver.  It just hasn’t seen the field much to this point. Enter the junior Michael Young and the entire sophomore receiving corps.

Rising junior Michael Young only caught 7 passes for 168 yards with a single touchdown and rising sophomore Kevin Austin caught just 5 for 90 yards and didn’t reach the endzone.  Young pulled in a 66 yarder against Wake Forest and Austin a 38 yarder against Navy though that both gave glimpses of what they are capable if they can put it all together.

If Claypool plays the boundary, the battle between Young and Austin on the outside could be a whole lot of fun to watch.  Both would have the ability to get behind a defense and make plays after the catch as we’ve already seen in very limited sample sizes.  Young’s catches average 19.7 and Austin’s 18.0 in 2018.

Young and Austin aren’t the only potential playmakers already on the roster for Notre Dame this spring though.  Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys both reported to Notre Dame with perhaps more speed than any other receivers on the roster.  Lenzy specifically was a track star though he’s since decided to give up track and focus solely on football – a very positive development for the rising sophomore’s development.

It was thought that either Lenzy or Keys could have had a bigger role in the Cotton Bowl as Notre Dame recognized before the game the difference in speed.  Neither had any sort of impact on the outcome – not that inserting a freshman wide receiver who hadn’t played could have made up the difference anyway.

Converted corner and fellow rising sophomore Joe Wilkins Jr surprised the staff upon reporting to Notre Dame last summer and figures to be in the mix somewhere as well.

Notre Dame also still has Mr. Reliable – Chris Finke.  The former walk-on enters his senior primed for a big season.  As a junior he caught 59 passes for 571 yards with two touchdowns.  We saw against Virginia Tech that Finke can get behind defenses too.  Unfortunately Ian Book wasn’t able to connect with him every time he was open that day.  We saw the chemistry between Book and Finke develop throughout the season after Book assumed the quarterback duties though culminating in Finke’s 7 catch, 86 yard performance in the regular season finale at USC.

How Notre Dame mixes up the receiver rotation is a question we might not have a final answer to until September, but we will get a glimpse this spring as Notre Dame will likely experiment with a lot of different pairings much like they will at linebacker.  Unlike linebacker Notre Dame has much more experience coming back, but the Cotton Bowl exposed Notre Dame’s deficiencies at the position and will hopefully force them to take a hard look at how they handle the position in 2019.

One factor that will be interesting to watch this spring is how Ian Book develops along with the receivers.  Remember, all of last spring and fall camps were spent focusing on developing Brandon Wimbush so Book has never had an off-season where he has had a chance to truly develop that chemistry.  Everything we saw last fall essentially developed on the fly.  As Book enters the 2019 off-season as THE guy at quarterback for Notre Dame, the development of the wide receivers should benefit both from his accuracy as well as the continuity from the final ten games of the 2018 campaign.

And one last factor on the wide receiver position that we won’t know about until after spring is the potential graduate transfer of former Virginia Tech wide receiver Eric Kumah.  He visited Notre Dame this weekend, but still has visits to Penn State and Texas Tech planned.  Where he would fit into the mix still remains to be seen.  After catching 42 passes for 559 yards and 7 touchdowns though the staff can certainly find a role for that kind of production.  That situation won’t resolve until after the spring.

Don’t expect Notre Dame to end spring ball with a wide receiver rotation set in stone.  That’s not and shouldn’t be the goal right now for Notre Dame.  If they can exit spring knowing, however, that they can count on Austin, Young, and at least one of Lenzy or Keys in addition to Claypool and Finke, they can use fall camp to lock down what that rotation looks like.

We saw Notre Dame experiment with some actual legit four wide receiver sets in the Cotton Bowl where there were four receivers and not three and a tight end on the field.  With all of the talent and athleticism they have to work with this spring, that is a look I hope to see Long and Kelly given some more attention to over these 15 practices.

Notre Dame’s won’t have a wide receiving corps that can go tit for tat with Clemson’s by September – no one will.  They have the potential, however, to have a wide receiving corps that will be much more dynamic that the one that guided it to a 12-0 regular season in 2018 though.  We’re about to see what the Notre Dame coaching staff does with that group.

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  1. I saw JURKOVEC play live 4 times his senior year in HS!! HE IS the real deal, great arm, great mobility and was also one of the top basketball players in the state!! Nothing against BOOK, but I”D be really surprised if JURKOVEC does not win the starting job!!! BOOK deserves to go into spring practice as the #1 guy ,the competition will only make them both better!!

  2. Too bad that Kevin Stepherson insisted on melting down. It must be especially frustrating for coaches when, try as they might, they can’t save a talent like that.

  3. Are we sure Book is THE guy, though? Kelly said Jurkovec was the best QB recruit in the country. And we saw how good that kid from Clemson was. So if Jurkovec is better than him, shouldn’t he be starting?

    Why would Kelly keep a future #1 overall pick on the bench?

    Hmmm. Something just doesn’t add up.

    1. Keith:

      Spot on with your comment. Some Elite coaches make the tough calls on their teams QB positions last year (Alabama & Clemson) and both ended up playing for a national championship. Book is a great player by not an elite one and certainly not one that will ever be a top NFL draft pick. If Phil is ready…then his time is now!

    2. Keith,

      Completely agree on that. Jurkovec needs to get some serious PT with the 1s this spring and it should be an open competition. Jurkovec has better tools than Book does. While I’m still confident that Book can win some games, I’m not sure he has what it takes to be elite, especially against the really good teams in the nation. He looked very overwhelmed in the Clemson game even when not under pressure. We’ll see what happens.

    3. Ian Book stats the last four games (and each game was progressively worse than the one before it):

      Completion percentage – 58.32
      TDs – 6
      INTs – 3

      And how it compares to his first 5 games:

      Completion percentage – 76
      TDs – 12
      INTs – 4

      Book had numbers that started looking like Brandon Wimbush numbers at the end of the season and we all know how everyone felt about how Wimbush. Defenses/coaches may have figured book out a little bit considering they actually had some meaningful game film on him to watch. Jurkovec needs his shot. Best qb recruit Kelly has ever brought in.

    4. I don’t expect this to be an open competition. It seems like this staff has been hesitant to turn the keys over to younger players at any position.

      Which is why I expect Bilal and Jones to start at LB this fall even though there are better options.

      It’s why ND is look at grad transfer WRs even though they have elite WRs in that freshmen (almost sophomore) group.

      It’s why Book will start at QB and keep his spot unless the wheels fall off.

      1. BC,

        But do you think that is the right move? I was actually wondering about the VT receiver they are trying to bring in. What does that say about all of these “highly rated” guys we already have on the roster? It’s kinda scary really.

        But regardless, isn’t some of this pointing to the fact that Kelly never gave any of the younger guys game time to see how they respond in-game? I mean you have a 4 game redshirt rule now and these young receivers basically didn’t see the field at all. I just don’t get it. How do you truly know what you’ve got from guys in just practices alone?

      2. No I would turn it over to the young guys. Every job is open. May the best man win. Let’s get Lenzy and Austin on the field. Let’s turn LB over to Baurer, Lamb, Simon, JGH, etc.

        Let’s have a real competition to see if Jurkovec is the guy.

      3. Absolutely. And then we wonder why players transfer, and bash them for doing so. I don’t blame them.
        Get the most talented players game ready! That’s on the coaches! No excuses, especially with early enrolling.

  4. It’s funny how you said we ” also have the reliable Mr. Chris Finke” I agree that Notre Dame needs to stretch the field and go more vertical. But don’t put Austin, Young or Lenzy in front of Finke. I know he plays the slot but give him his credit. He should be in the same sentence as Claypool. If it wasn’t for his catches against Pitt and USC, the season may be different. Hopefully Ian Book and Finke can have a Brady Eddleman relationship

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