With three offensive starters and a key backup in warmups instead of pads on Saturday, Notre Dame needed someone to step up on offense. Javon McKinley saw the opportunity and seized it to emerge as a potential weapon for the Irish offense moving forward. The outburst also had his head coach in a self-deprecating mood.
“He’s been a guy that has been kind of lost in, you know, cyberspace, if you will, and he’s now going to have to play a significant role,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly of McKinley.
McKinley’s breakout performance had reporters asking Kelly if McKinley should get more targets and had Kelly in a joking mood. “I don’t know how to respond to that, other than I’m a moron,” Kelly quipped.
Coming into this weekend, Javon McKinley had one career reception – an 11-yard grab two weeks ago against Louisville. He only recorded two more yesterday afternoon, but they were massive. McKinley hauled in a short Ian Book pass on a crosser and turned it into a highlight reel worthy, 65-yard touchdown that included six broken tackles.
His second wasn’t as crazy, but was still impressive and also found the endzone. McKinley ran a simple go route and hauled in a 20-yard touchdown from Book by high-pointing the ball and grabbing a contested catch. That quality is something the Notre Dame offense needs this year with Miles Boykin scoring touchdowns in the NFL already.
Kelly got a bit more serious though in describing what McKinley’s role might be moving forward. “He’s a physical presence. As you know, he got on the field in a first-team rotation, so we’re starting to get it here, and figure it out, that he’s not a No. 2. He can play as a No. 1,” Kelly said.
McKinley was on the field with the first unit because Notre Dame played on Saturday without starting slot receiver Michael Young for the second consecutive game as he recovers from a broken collarbone. Lawrence Keys got the start at the slot with Chris Finke moving outside, but McKinley’s physical presence could give him the nod next week against Georgia which would also allow the Irish to move Finke back inside.
“We like his size. We like what he’s done. Look, he would have been playing a long time ago if — if we had the young man playing at a consistent level,” Kelly said. “He is showing that. He is practicing well. He is doing the right things both on and off the field. You guys don’t want to hear this, but all those traits are starting to show themselves, and he’s preparing himself for a big year for us,” added Kelly.
Following McKinley’s single reception outing against Louisville, I wrote that it made sense to get McKinley on the field more on the outside to allow Chris Finke to work more on the inside where he should excel. After yesterday, McKinley only further cemented my belief that a lineup of Claypool, McKinley, and Finke gives Notre Dame the best chance to win next weekend in Athens.
While Lawrence Keys has shown lighting like quickness in the slot, he and Finke are not complementary players in the offense – they are much more similar than they are unique. Both are quick, fast, and athletic – traits that make both perfect options in the slot. When you move Finke to the outside, however, his size becomes a liability and his ability to get open is short spaces goes out the window.
As a result, Finke has just 59 yards on the season through two games, and 54 of those came on a toss pass that was more of a glorified run than a pass. Finke should be racking up catches in bunches in this offense.
That is where it looks like Javon McKinley can help this offense. People forget that McKinley came to Notre Dame as a top-100 player by most recruiting services after dominating a high level of high school football in California. It has taken a long time for that talent to become evident at Notre Dame, but after Saturday, it is easy to see why he was once a highly sought after recruit.
Two years ago, Greg wrote about McKinley being a sleeping giant for the Notre Dame offense. It didn’t happen then as McKinley struggled throughout his Irish career with consistency. Some practices he would dominate, others he would disappear. That inconsistency kept McKinley off the field other than on special teams.
Of the field issues nearly derailed McKinley’s career earlier this year as well. McKinley was arrested in the off-season for an incident involving an altercation with police. Charges, however, could eventually be dropped after McKinley entered a pretrial diversion program.
It appears as though McKinley has put his on and off the field issues behind him and is finally playing the potential that was evident in his high school film. And the timing could not be any better for Notre Dame.
Next weekend in Georgia, Notre Dame is going to be facing faster, more physical corners. Lining up McKinley and Claypool on the outside gives Notre Dame two big wide receivers who can make catches when they aren’t necessarily wide open – a luxury they are likely not to have in Athens. Book is going to have to lob up some passes and trust his receivers can come down with them. We know Claypool can do that and on Saturday McKinley showed he could as well.
A lot is going to have to go right for Notre Dame next weekend if they hope to escape Athens with another W. One of those things could be getting the ball in Javon McKinley’s hands more often. If they do, Brian Kelly won’t have to call himself a moron for the second week in a row.