During the 2020 season, a very loud and vocal narrative formed on message boards and Twitter that Brian Kelly won’t play freshman wide receivers after former 5-star receiver Jordan Johnson spent the year on the sidelines without recording a catch. That narrative is about to be put to the test in 2021 with early enrollee Lorenzo Styles.
”Styles is coming. He’s coming,” Brian Kelly said earlier this week when asked about the freshman wide receiver. “I think he’s starting to find a comfort zone now; we’ve got him out at the ‘X’ receiver position. He’s starting to play faster,” he added later.
The calls for Brian Kelly to play freshman wide receivers grew to a roar last year when injuries ravaged the wide receiver room between Kevin Austin’s foot injury and Braden Lenzy’s hamstring that essentially cost both of them the vast majority of the season. Add in Lawrence Keys’s injuries and COVID protocol absences and Notre Dame needed more athleticism on the field at receiver. Javon McKinley and Bennett Skowronek played well but both were essentially the same receiver and the Irish passing game did not put much fear into defenses for its verticality.
Kelly has played freshman wide receivers in the past though he has shown that freshman receivers do need to meet a certain standard in order to see the field. TJ Jones played a huge role in 2010. Chris Brown had limited production but played an integral role as Notre Dame’s lone deep threat in 2012. Will Fuller and Corey Robinson saw lots of action in 2013. Kevin Austin played early in 2018 too but was relegated to sideline duty after his four-game window closed.
The reality is that if a freshman meets the standards of the staff, they will play. If they had some sort of aversion to playing freshmen, true freshman Blake FIsher would not be locked in as the starting left tackle heading into the season. True freshman starting along the offensive line is a whole other beast, but Kelly made it clear this week that Fisher is the best option they have so he’s going to play. The same applies to the receiver position.
Styles will really test the “Brian Kelly won’t play freshman receivers” narrative. That narrative became particularly ridiculous last season when true freshmen Chris Tyree and Michael Mayer both played very prominent roles as the Irish cruised to a perfect regular season. The premise that Kelly would play true freshmen at some positions, but not others – including ones more physically demanding than receiver – already shot a lot of holes in that theory, but it still persisted.
Enrolling early helped Styles’ case as he adjusted to the college game. “It’s been slower probably for him than he would like – slowed with injury, but he’s such a detailed guy that it sometimes gets in the way of him playing free,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to free him up a little bit; he’s probably his own worst enemy at times in that he wants to be perfect. So we try to get perfect out of the way first couple periods and start working.”
While Styles wasn’t as highly rated as Johnson was, he was still a very highly rated prospect at #114 overall in the country. It hasn’t taken long for that talent to be recognized by the Irish coaching staff. “He’s going to be really good,” Kelly said. “Sometimes it just takes getting out of your own way a little bit, in a positive way. He’s just so conscious of every little detail, but progress is really coming.”
Not all players – and certainly not all fans – can show the patience needed for things to align for them. Johnson decided to transfer immediately following spring practice instead of continuing to fight his way up the depth chart. That’s not a knock on Johnson either. That is just the reality of the situation. Coming out of the spring, it seemed clear that Johnson was in the “next group” of receivers after the senior five (Austin, Keys, Lenzy, Wilkins, Davis).
No one is expecting Styles to challenge for a starting role with the senior wide receivers hopefully healthy, but it seems pretty clear that a role will exist for him. He’s been getting locked at on punt return, and a limited role in the offense similar to Fuller or Robinson in 2013 does not seem out of the question. Neither Fuller nor Robinson put up huge numbers that year, but they gained some valuable experience with the reps they got as true freshmen to springboard their way to starting roles as sophomores.
To a lesser extent, Deion Colzie has also been grabbing people’s attention in the open practices Notre Dame has had. Colzie’s path to playing time is a bit more complicated without the benefit of a full spring like Styles, but he might be the closest thing to filling the “Kevin Austin” role among the younger receivers. Styles and Colzie have a bit of a Fuller/Robinson combo similarity, with Styles being the smaller, faster receiver and Colzie being the larger receiver for the boundary.
Regardless of the role Styles ends up playing this year, the way Brian Kelly is talking about him already is very encouraging compared to how he’s talked about some past receivers who he spoke of needing to meet standards and display the right traits necessary to see the field. He didn’t mention anything like that for Styles which would suggest the path for playing time is there for the talented freshman.