No position group looks as good on paper as the Notre Dame wide receivers. They boast three top 100 talents, six four stars, and diverse skill sets. There is so much to work with and the early returns on this group in the spring have been positive.
But, when digging into the position, it is ripe with risk and downside. It is a group without any juniors and plenty of injury history. The potential star of the group, Kevin Austin, has played in two games since 2018 due to suspension and multiple breaks in his foot. Braden Lenzy has dealt with hamstring issues as well as concussions, and Lawrence Keys fell victim to COVID protocols last season. Those are three players in the 2018 class, all of whom are vital in 2021, as well as full of talent, but as you can see an uneventful 2021 is not a great bet for any of them, from an injury point of view. After seniors Joe Wilkins and Avery Davis, it’s all underclassmen with little to no experience.
What is there to make of this group? Why can they be successful in 2021 and where are they vulnerable? And how much hinges on Kevin Austin?
These Wide Receivers Present Big Problems For Defenses
Again, this gets back to what’s on paper. Notre Dame has size, they have route running, and they have speed at receiver. Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, and Avery Davis have all gotten touches on either jet sweeps, reverses, or flip passes. They’ve combined for 330 rushing yards, which would be more if little flip passes were logged as runs. The point is, these guys can hurt the defense without any work having to be done to get them the ball, you just hand it to them.
It is these three who would especially benefit from the RPO quick game that Tommy Rees hinted was coming and that we’ve seen in the videos from practice. Getting the ball out quickly to players who are good at running after catch best utilizes their skills while punishing the defense for loading up on the running game.
Kevin Austin, Jordan Johnson, and Xavier Watts all have that combination of size and speed that makes defending them difficult. They are big enough to handle press, fast enough to get behind the defense, and good enough route runners to work all over the field. Notre Dame can screen to them, throw them jump balls, dig routes, stop routes, everything. They aren’t pegged into any one thing, and the types of receivers I liked covering the least because there was so much to be concerned with.
Where It Can Go Bad
Brian Kelly likes to do this thing where he mocks reporters for being obsessed with Jordan Johnson, the five star freshman receiver who was not an impactful player in 2020. Which is all well and good, some reporters have been unreasonable when discussing his role within the team. But, the thing is, whether it’s Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts, or Jay Brunelle, Notre Dame really needs to accelerate the development of those players. For whatever reason, they didn’t play much last year. Quibbling over whether they should have isn’t important. What’s important is Notre Dame has five senior receivers–Avery Davis, Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, and Joe Wilkins–with no receivers left from the 2019 recruiting class. (Cam Hart is now a defensive back, and Kendall Abdur Rahman transferred.) As referenced above, three of those seniors have had big issues staying in the lineup. As it relates to Austin and Lenzy, those injuries can very easily come back and it would not be surprising if they did. The prospect of either of them missing time is pretty high. Keys has been generally banged up and isn’t the biggest guy, which leaves Wilkins and Davis as the most durable of the five. Not the greatest situation.
So whether Johnson et al are five stars, four stars, three stars, no stars, Notre Dame cannot get nothing out of them in 2021. They have to be ready to play winning football come the fall and at the moment the jury is very much out. Johnson and Watts haven’t been shown catching passes, or in some cases not even receiving reps, in the highlight clips over the last 4-5 practices. For Brunelle’s part, we really have no idea where he is in his development.
If that trio isn’t ready to go and there is attrition with the seniors, we’re counting on freshmen Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie, and Jayden Thomas to be the fourth or fifth receiver. Realistically we should only expect Styles to have a shot, just playing the odds here, but it would really be a failure if the 2020 class was not heard from in a serious way next year.
Kevin Austin Has Outsized Importance
We’ve all seen or heard the way current players, former players, and beat reporters discuss Austin and his talents. They expect stardom. Whether that’s fair or not I’m not sure, but they made the quotes so it is what it is. Of the five seniors though, he’s the only one who fits the mold of a “go to” type of player. The others have their skills and roles, but Austin is the 60 catch, 1,000 yard type. As of today it doesn’t look like Johnson or Watts is ready to be that type of player. An offense doesn’t need that of course, but it would really help this one, as it would enhance the entire unit. A dangerous Austin helps the running game, the quarterbacks, Michael Mayer, everything. He’d effect everything, and he’s likely the only one on the 2021 roster ready to be that. There is a reason it was really bad that he went down last year. There is still time for someone like Jordan Johnson to ascend, but it’s not something I’d bet on.
So in summation, if you told me this group would be healthy for the most part all season, I’d say this group was onto something serious. They’ve got everything you’d want and the compliments at running back and tight end to go with it. But, if two or three of the five seniors goes down, which would not be surprising, then there are a ton of questions with a good amount of downside. Ah, the problems of spring.