After Notre Dame accepted a graduate transfer from Northwestern wide receiver Bennett Skowronek, it didn’t look like Javon McKinley would be returning for a 5th year whether it was his choice or coaching staff’s seemed irrelevant at the time. Skowronek is a very similar player and likely didn’t transfer to Notre Dame to be backup. On Friday, however, Tyler James of NDInsider reported that McKinley does indeed want to return for a 5th year. Should he ultimately return, it would be a great Notre Dame story.
Javon McKinley came to Notre Dame with sky-high expectations. He was a 4-star, top-100 caliber receiver out of California. He didn’t play for a traditional California prep powerhouse, but he played against high-level competition. And he dominated. Some thought he would challenge for playing time as a true freshman. That didn’t happen.
A broken leg in 2016 cut McKinley’s freshman campaign short after appearing in just six games. He didn’t play at all in 2017 while recovering from the injury. In 2018, he played in only four games and didn’t record a single reception. He entered 2019 as a fourth-year senior, former 4-star recruit who didn’t have a single career reception to his name.
To compound matters, McKinley was involved in an off-the-field incident that involved an altercation with police officers that resulted in three misdemeanor charges last February. McKinley entered a pretrial diversion program that allowed him to avoid any jail time and worked his way back into the good graces of the Notre Dame coaching staff. Had he not, his career at Notre Dame could easily have ended last spring.
This past season, McKinley finally started to flash that potential that made him a national recruit in 2016. In the route of New Mexico, McKinley hauled in two passes for 85 yards – both resulting in touchdowns. The one, a 65-yard insane highlight-reel play, stands as the best play of his career and perhaps the best play by a Notre Dame wide receiver in 2019.
Add up all the injuries, the off-field issues, and the work that McKinley had to put in just to still be a member of the 2019 Fighting Irish and the idea of him overcoming all of that and finishing his career with a 5th season at Notre Dame in 2020 would be a great story of redemption.
On the field, McKinley would have no guaranteed role in 2020. He will have to earn every rep he gets if he is a member of the team this fall. Notre Dame is replacing both Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, but McKinley is in no way built to play the slot, so his best chance for playing time is on the outside where he will fight against Skowronek and hopefully, a reinstated Kevin Austin to replace Claypool.
New Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees could experiment with speedster Braden Lenzy in the the slot if Kevin Austin is as good as advertised to open up a role in the offense for a bigger, chain moving target like McKinley or Skowronek. Or perhaps for incoming freshman Jordan Johnson – the highest-rated receiver to enroll at Notre Dame since Michael Floyd.
All this is to say that even if McKinley returns in 2020, it probably won’t be to start. It would take a monumental effort this spring and summer for that to happen. Just coming back in 2020 after all he has gone through at Notre Dame, however, would be a huge win for the former heralded recruit. Often times we all get consumed by stats and production when it comes to evaluating players, but there is also a human element to college football (more so than the NFL), and in that regard, it’s hard not to route for a kid like McKinley to come back.
Regardless of playing time, Notre Dame could use McKinley’s veteran presence on a wide receiving corps high on potential and short on experience. With Michael Young transferring in addition to the losses of Claypool and Finke, most of Notre Dame’s depth at the position is in the freshman and sophomore classes.
According to James’s report, though, McKinley still has some work to do to earn a spot on the 2020 squad, but if there’s one thing that we shouldn’t doubt about McKinley at this point, is his willingness to put in that work.