If I asked the average fan who follows Notre Dame football year round to list the young players at receiver they were excited about, I think the names would be fairly predictable.
I’d expect to hear about Miles Boykin, who had a big spring. Chase Claypool would come up as the athletic marvel who was itching to break out (in fact an incredibly brilliant writer has already bought a ticket on that hype train). Everyone loved what Kevin Stepherson displayed as a freshman last season, and he brings a speed aspect unlike the others. And these are all good players with a lot of potential for strong careers in South Bend.
One name I wouldn’t expect to hear is Javon McKinley, the former four star receiver out of Corona, California. Surprising because he arrived with the most fanfare–he’s actually the highest rated receiver on the roster. Unsurprising because a somewhat slow start, coupled with a broken leg he suffered in late October, put other players in the headlines and McKinley unable to make his mark in practice or on the field.
For his part McKinley made a nice recovery from his broken fibula and was able to participate in spring drills, even catching a couple of passes in the spring game, albeit with a red, no-contact jersey. But, his limited reps and again lack of an opportunity to be completely full-go allowed others to shine and steal some headlines. Can McKinley, now fully healed and with an off-season to get back into form, breakthrough the depth chart and make a mark on 2017?
McKinley Has Pedigree
Sometimes we forget about what we were getting from a high school player once they are on campus and have completed a freshman season. I think the thought is, it doesn’t matter what they did, they are here now and none of the high school stuff matters. It’s not a bad argument actually, but sometimes we do need to take a look back, especially when it comes to an injury stunting a career early on.
This is a player who caught 97 passes for 2,062 yards and 25 touchdowns with another two touchdowns on kick returns as a junior in high school, for the #1 team in the state of California. (Note: Max Preps lists lower numbers for McKinely’s junior campaign but they do not include playoff totals). Corona Centennial plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation year after year and McKinley ripped them apart. His numbers dipped as a senior in terms of volume, but not in terms of efficiency.
He caught 56 passes for 1,173 yards and 13 touchdowns, with an identical 21 yards per reception from his junior season, as his team utilized more of a running game on their way to a state championship.
Simply put, you couldn’t have put McKinley in a position to face tougher competition than the one he was in and he dominated. That projects very well to how he will fare against the level of competition he’ll face week to week at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame’s Most Complete WR?
Generally, we put players into categories, it’s just something we like to do as human beings. Stepherson is a speed guy. Boykin, Claypool, and Equanimeous St. Brown are tall, so they are jump ball guys. Sanders and Finke are smaller, they are slot guys.
McKinley isn’t small, he’s listed at 6’2 on the Notre Dame roster, but he’s not necessarily big either. He’s not a speed guy, and he’s certainly not considered a slot guy by traditional standards. So what is he? I think the answer is he’s a good receiver who can do lots of things.
For example, he’s not a “speed guy” but then he was taking screen passes 88 yards, and returning kickoffs 91 yards for touchdowns in state championship games. And while he’s not a giant a la Boykin or St. Brown, at 6’2 he is still big enough to use his body to his advantage and do the jump ball thing.
The good news about all of this is McKinley doesn’t need to be pegged into any one spot. He can be effective outside, as he was in high school. He can also be effective in slot, where he played in the spring game, due to his unique shiftiness for a 22o pounder and his versatility as a player.
Effective As A Blocker
Probably the most overlooked aspect when evaluating receivers is their effectiveness as blockers. It’s interesting because it’s something that always come up when evaluating their play, but not when evaluating potential. McKinley has always been a physical player and hasn’t shied away from contact.
Consider that he was an all-state receiver on the #1 team in California, and a top 5 team in the nation, and he is routinely running down on kickoff coverage. And when watching his tape, down field blocking is something he took pride in, and given his size and strength, he was excellent. In fact, his first contribution to the Notre Dame team was on kickoff return, as a blocker for CJ Sanders.
McKinley isn’t alone in this area. Boykin and Claypool also have the body type and have shown to be willing blockers. But, this is a plus for McKinley, and if playing time comes down to him and say someone like Stepherson who isn’t as physical, his blocking ability may be the deciding factor.
I see McKinley closer to Jeff Samardzija type skill with Rhema McKnight’s body type. The thing about McKinley that also stood out about Samardzija was their long speed. Neither has very impressive burst, but they gather speed and hold it, allowing them to create separation late in routes. Samardzija was also very good with the ball in his hands and could work from multiple positions on the field.
I’m not predicting that kind of production from McKinley at this point, we do need to see him on the field. But, I do predict that he will not be left out of any “wide receiver at Notre Dame” discussions beyond this summer.