If you’ve been watching the second-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish this year, the offense might look a little different, especially at the wide receiver position. A whole new receiving core had some new faces and some familiar names, but one player, in particular, emerged as a weapon. That player is number is #88 Javon McKinley, who has made big catch after big catch this season.
The casual Notre Dame fan might see this #88 popping off on the screen and think he’s a freshman or sophomore who got his first shot to play this year as opposed to a fifth-year senior who looked like opportunity had passed him by.
A Roller Coaster Journey
Mckinley hails from Corona, CA, where his play at Centennial High school earned him national spotlight as a recruit. He had offers from schools across the country, including Ohio State, Florida, and just about every major program on the west coast. McKinley was ranked #59 overall in the Rivals 100 and a consensus 4-star recruit.
At the 2016 Army All-American bowl, McKinley put on an Irish hat over the Oregon and Washington ones also on the table. McKinley picked Notre Dame at the time, citing he believed he could play right away due to Will Fuller’s departure to the NFL draft.
Unfortunately for Mckinley, that’s not quite how the situation unfolded. McKinley was beaten out by some pretty solid players named Equanimeous St. Brown (2016-17), Miles Boykin (2018), and Chase Claypool – all players receiving NFL paychecks currently. He really didn’t even touch the field until last season where he had just 11 receptions total.
Some off-field issues plagued McKinley, particularly an incident involving an altercation with two University of Notre Dame Police Officers that led to his arrest.
Brian Kelly suspended McKinley indefinitely, and his future was very uncertain. He was eventually welcomed back to the team after missing a few practices in the Spring.
One Last Shot in 2020
There was a time when Mckinley didn’t know that he would return to Notre Dame for his fifth year or if he was even welcome to. After talking with the coaches last October, McKinley decided he would be around for 2020.
His ultimate motivation: to get a shot at the NFL. Once a highly-touted recruit, McKinley still believed he had the talent to play on Sunday, and discussions with the coaching staff have helped him keep that mindset.
The 2020 Notre Dame team certainly had high expectations going into the season with superstar talent all over the defense, a great offensive line, and a veteran QB. There were, however, some question marks at the wide receiver position.
The Irish had lost it’s two best pass-catchers from the year before in Claypool and Cole Kmet, and a lot of the returning players had been somewhat inconsistent.
As the season has unfolded, this group of receivers has been a pleasant surprise, and Book is getting some help from more than one of them.
Bennett Skowronek, a grad-transfer from Northwestern, became a redzone monster. Freshman tight end Michael Mayer has done quite well filling in for Kmet as a chain-mover. Avery Davis provided sparks when the Irish have needed it – see the end of regulation versus Clemson.
Perhaps no one has contributed more than the all but previously forgotten Javon McKinley. The 5th year who had been mostly written off, leads an undefeated Notre Dame team in receiving yards and receptions.
McKinley has made big play after big play all year, including a few crucial catches in Notre Dame’s upset of Clemson – 5 receptions for 102 yards. Despite his success this season, McKinley hadn’t found the endzone in 2020.
That changed on Saturday when Mckinley woke up a sleepy Notre Dame offense. Notre Dame was about to head into the half only up three against a 1-9 Syracuse. But then Ian Book connected with McKinley on two 20+ yard TD passes in the final 2:00 of the half. Irish fans could breathe a sigh of relief.
McKinley added another TD in the 2nd half as Notre Dame pulled away from Syracuse, and he capped off his best day in a gold helmet with 3 TDs and 111 yards on 7 catches.
On the season, McKinley leads Notre Dame with 37 receptions and 660 yards. His three touchdowns on Senior Day moved him into second place on the squad behind Skowronek. He is surging at the end of the season too. Over the final five games, he’s averaged 5.6 receptions for 97.8 yards a game. That came after averaging just 1.8 receptions for 34.2 yards a game.
What’s Next for Javon McKinley?
As many people are aware, Notre Dame has a pretty big game in a few weeks when they will get back together with Clemson for the ACC Championship. The Tigers will have a few key players back, and the Irish will be missing a few who helped in the last matchup.
Notre Dame will need guys to make plays, and I’m sure taking some shots to McKinley will be a part of the game plan. As mentioned before, he was crucial in the first game.
McKinley will have a few games in primetime to prove to NFL scouts that he is worth a gamble. Another stellar performance against Clemson, and hopefully an appearance in the College Football playoff, could move McKinley up the draft boards.
Currently, Javon is not projected to be drafted by most pundits, but even if he isn’t, an NFL team would be crazy not to bring him after seeing his potential this year.
There is also the possibility of returning to Notre Dame in 2021 in light of the NCAA’s decision to give every student-athlete participating in fall sports a free year of eligibility. McKinley could, in theory, return for yet another season next fall to build on his breakout performance and increase his NFL chances all the more.
Either way, we will be rooting for a guy who has contributed a lot to a memorable season.