The most frustrating thing for many fans of college football is the highly rated freshman talent that doesn’t see the field. It bubbles over even more when we watch young players at other schools flourishing (Pittsburgh freshman receiver Jordan Addison, as a for instance) while your five star isn’t even dressing. Answers are then demanded. “Why can their lower rated player be made ready to play and our top 100 guy is not?”
Even more frustrating is when the answer for the absence is something ambiguous like “traits” a damning term to hear from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. What does that mean, traits? Is it work ethic? Is it grades? Is it off field shenanigans? Do they not know the play book? The answer is likely “yes” to some of it or all of it, or none of it. No one knows what it means, except for Kelly and the player, and maybe not even the player.
Kelly started with the traits talk following the 2016 season. He kicked himself for playing talent over those who showed the proper traits day in and day out, and he vowed not to do it again. Various players have been given the traits label over time, many at wide receiver: Kevin Stepherson, Chase Claypool, Kevin Austin, Michael Young, and one Javon McKinley. Brian Kelly threw out the word in regards to McKinley prior to his redshirt sophomore season in 2018. He went on to catch no passes that season.
Some of those players over this time have made good (Claypool, McKinley) one has been bitten by the injury bug (Austin) and two left the program through transfer and dismissal (Young, Stepherson), but over that span Notre Dame has accrued a 43-6 record and two undefeated regular seasons. There is no right way or wrong way to handle players who aren’t showing the type of attitude/effort a coach is looking for, but Brian Kelly’s chosen path has found success on the field for his team and credibility in his message.
Javon McKinley and Jordan Johnson
Brian Kelly’s message the last four seasons has been simple: if you do things right on the field and off, you’ll see the field on Saturday’s with earned playing time. If you are not doing the right things, you won’t, regardless of your talent and star ranking.
It’s not secret fans wanted to see five star freshman receiver Jordan Johnson on the field and making players, especially early in the season when the passing game wasn’t exactly clicking. Other teams play freshman at receiver, why not us? WHY NOT US? And then Brian Kelly stepped to the podium and said it: traits. And everyone knew what that meant, he won’t be out there, and he is not to be counted on.
But, because of what we’ve seen from McKinley this season, that doesn’t meant the talent isn’t there, he’s just got to start doing things the way Kelly wants them done. It was a lesson McKinley had to learn and boy has he learned it.
McKinley has gone from no receptions his first three seasons, to a bit player his fourth season, to receiver 1A in his fifth and presumably final season, putting up numbers in the final eight games of 2020 that rival the production of Miles Boykin in 2018 and Chase Claypool in 2019.
Javon McKinley made good on his potential out of high school and Brian Kelly made good on his philosophy: McKinley started doing things right and he was rewarded for it. Because when it came back around and the hot shot freshman receiver Johnson came in, Kelly kept McKinley in the lineup and Johnson had to turn things around. He’s got to earn it, the same way McKinley did. That’s how a coach builds credibility in the program and that’s how you get buy in from your team. He walks the walk, even when it looks like it could hurt him in games, and he’s been rewarded by his players with their play on the field, because he’s rewarded the work they’ve put in.
Is Johnson Getting It?
For what it’s worth, Kelly has been much more positive regarding Johnson the last few weeks. He’s gotten in games as a blocker and has run a few routes, most recently in the blowout against Boston College. He was not traveling on road trips early, he’s traveling now. Ian Book had some positive things to say about him a couple weeks ago in a recent presser.
And I noticed something in the game against Syracuse that may be nothing, but I at least thought was meaningful. When Ian Book scrambled for Notre Dame’s first touchdown to put them up 10-7 late in the second quarter, there was a shot of Jordan Johnson, hands on knees, clearly engaged in the play, and when it was clear Book had a path to the end zone, Johnson put his arm up and started jumping up and down in excitement.
Johnson does not have to do that. It would have been very easy for him to be down in that moment; not playing in the final home game, it’s cold, the team is struggling, no energy in the stadium. He could just be standing and watching and no one would think anything of it. But, he was engaged and he made his own energy. To me, it was a player buying in to his team and his teammates. And that’s what the whole traits thing is all about and learning from those who are above you. And it’s hard to argue with the results of that system. As much as we hate it, Brian Kelly and his traits have worked out quite well.