The wide receiver position has not played out the way anyone hoped it would for Notre Dame through five games this season. Injuries have limited the group and prevented Notre Dame from playing their original, presumed starters together this year, and they won’t be afforded that luxury at any point in 2020. So, where does Notre Dame go from here at the position? Here’s a look at exactly where the Irish are at two weeks out from their showdown with Clemson and as they prepare for this weekend’s trip to Atlanta.
Kevin Austin – Austin’s season stopped before it ever even started. After breaking his foot in the summer, he missed the first two games of the year only to re-injure the same foot in practice last week. In two games of limited action, Austin hauled in just one pass.
Expectations were sky-high for Austin this year. His teammates told tales of Austin terrorizing the defense from the scout team last year as he toiled in limbo while suspended. Austin and Irish fans will have to wait until 2021 to see what Austin can do.
While he has yet to have a significant impact on the field, Austin is, by all accounts, the kind of receiver Notre Dame needs to beat teams like Clemson.
Braden Lenzy – Like Austin, Leny has not been able to stay healthy this year. He missed the opener with a lingering hamstring injury. Last weekend he re-injured that hamstring in the 4th quarter of a blowout and had to be helped off the field.
Lenzy is technically still on the depth chart, and Brian Kelly was vague about his status moving forward on Monday. Still, I’ll be shocked if Lenzy isn’t on the list of unavailable players Notre Dame releases before kick-off on Saturday. Hamstring issues for speed receivers are tricky, and the fact that he’s been re-injuring it shows how hard they are to come back from.
Anything Notre Dame gets out of Lenzy the rest of the year should be considered a bonus at this time. Lenzy was expected to be Notre Dame’s vertical speed threat. They do not have another receiver that completely fits that mold, so Kelly and Tommy Rees will need to find other ways to incorporate speed in the rotation.
Bennett Skowronek – Like Lenzy, Skowronek had a hard time getting fully healthy this year, but unlike Lenzy, we finally saw the Northwestern grad-transfer at full strength last weekend. Skowronek was everything he was advertised to be in Notre Dame’s win over Pitt and then some.
We knew Skowronek was a big target with good hands, but he flashed some speed that we didn’t think he had. On his 34-yard touchdown in the first quarter, Skowronek flashed some explosiveness that was a pleasant surprise. On his 73-yard score, he showed the ability to high-point the ball and win contested catches that we’d been waiting to see.
Skowronek looks locked in as a starter for the Irish moving forward after we’ve seen him play the role of chain-mover two weeks ago and big-play receiver last week. He might not have the kind of deep speed that will force Clemson to scheme around, but he’s shown enough to prove he’ll be a weapon moving forward.
Javon McKinley – Notre Dame fed McKinley the ball against Florida State a few weeks ago, and the 5th year senior responded with 5 catches for 107 yards. In the other four games this season, McKinley has a combined 4 catches for 64 yards. He’s been a great blocker in the run game all season long, though.
With Skowronek’s emergence, it’s not clear how Notre Dame will utilize both receivers simultaneously. Neither has the kind of speed to stress the Clemson defense by themselves, though like Skowronek, McKinley flashed some explosiveness against Pitt that we hadn’t seen from him before on his 41-yard reception.
There’s a role for McKinley moving forward; that much is clear. What’s not apparent yet, though, is what is the best way to get him and Skowronek involved. They are bot seemingly best suited for the boundary, but you can’t start two boundary receivers against Clemson in two weeks and expect to win.
Avery Davis – Davis had his best output of the season this past weekend with 3 catches for 44 yards against the Panthers. Greg pointed out last week that Davis has had opportunities for some monster plays this year, but Ian Book hasn’t always gotten him the ball.
It’s been assumed that when Lawrence Keys is fully healthy, he will reassume the starting slot position, but Davis has been showing enough this year to justify a role moving forward. A strong case can be made that Davis should have an expanded role moving forward.
Limited so Far
Joe Wilkins – When the injury bug hit the wide receivers in the first half of the season opener, Notre Dame turned to Joe Wilkins. He responded with 4 catches for 39 yards. We have not seen him since.
Heading into the Pitt game, Brian Kelly listed Wilkins as a player he needed to get more involved. He only had one target against the Panthers, and it would have been an enormous gain had Ian Book’s arm not gotten hit as he threw, but he still ended the game without a catch.
Where Wilkins fits in moving forward isn’t clear. He is currently listed as the backup at both the boundary and in the slot. In the limited action we’ve seen Wilkins, he’s caught everything thrown his way. That tends to be a pretty good trait for a receiver to have.
Lawrence Keys – Like Austin and Lenzy, Keys is a presumed starter whose season has really started yet. Keys was listed as unavailable for the South Florida game – presumably as part of the COVID-19 outbreak though never confirmed – and then he missed more time recovering from a concussion. Keys was available last week but wasn’t fully integrated in his first game back from the concussion.
Keys has speed – something the wide receiving corps needs right now, but to date, the Irish staff hasn’t been able to unlock it. He had 13 catches for 134 yards last year playing behind Chris Finke in the slot and only has a single reception for 4 yards this year.
It will be interesting to see how Kelly and Rees use Keys this weekend.
Missing in Action so Far
Jordan Johnson – The 5-star freshman has yet to record a catch after reportedly tearing up fall camp early. He didn’t travel to Pitt last weekend, with rumblings of non-performance related issues being the reason. On Tuesday, however, Ian Book said Johnson had a great practice and made some unbelievable catches, hinting that the freshman might be close to seeing the field.
Johnson is the exact type of explosive receiver Notre Dame needs more of to beat teams like Clemson. Is he ready to have that kind of impact right now? We don’t know, but hopefully, we do soon.
Xavier Watts – Had there been a full spring season, Watts might be closer to playing time since he enrolled early. Instead, Watts looks like he might be a year away from seriously challenging for playing time. Notre Dame needs playmakers at the position, though. If no one else emerges or provides that threat for the offense, maybe he gets his chance this year.
Micah Jones – Jones is very much in the same place that Miles Boykin was at this point in his career. Still developing and buried in the depth chart. Jones does not add much that the Irish don’t already have in McKinley and Skowronek right now, so it’s not likely we’ll see much of Jones the rest of the year.
Jay Brunelle – The third freshmen receiver on the roster probably isn’t anywhere close to playing time yet. He missed time in the off-season with an injury. I wouldn’t expect us to see anything other than potential mop-up duty for Brunnell.
Kendal Abdur-Rahim – The sophomore athlete moved to running back in the summer when Notre Dame needed some depth, but with the running back rotation locked in now, KAR’s long-term fit in the offense is unsettled. He’s got a ton of raw athletic ability but likely isn’t close to game ready just yet. Missing spring practice was detrimental for a player like Abdur-Rahim, who needed to develop.
Where Does Notre Dame Go from here?
Skowronek’s emergence last weekend was huge for the offense, and getting Keys back to full strength could be just as significant for the Irish. So too could be the emergence of someone like Jordan Johnson, if Kelly and Rees are ready to play a true freshman.
Even with Austin’s loss for the year and the likely loss of Lenzy for some time, there is a lot for the Irish to work with to get this passing game going even better than we saw against Pitt. Between Skowronek and McKinley, the Irish have the boundary covered. Davis and Keys are more than capable in the slot.
How Notre Dame handles the receivers this weekend will give us a clear sign of how they plan on addressing the position for the rest of the season. They’d be wise to move forward with the assumption that they won’t have Lenzy at all so that anything they get from him is just a bonus.
The big question for the Irish will be how they handle the field position moving forward. If they handle it by just trotting out McKinley and Skowronek at the same time, they are going to have a hell of a time pushing the ball vertically against Clemson. Do they give Wilkins a chance this weekend? Do they throw Johnson out there this weekend and see what the kid has?
We’ll find out soon enough, but even with the improvements we saw in the passing game, Notre Dame has a lot of work to do this week and next to be ready for the Clemson defense.