The Notre Dame football team was not very good through the air in 2017. A lot of that had to do with the inconsistent play of the quarterbacks, although the receiver position was also plagued with unsteady play. That problem looked to be made worse by the departures of arguably their two top wideouts, Equanimeous St. Brown (NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (suspension). They also saw kick returning stalwart CJ Sanders move on following the season, seeking greener pastures elsewhere. With the losses at receiver, plus an unsteady quarterback situation, concerns surrounded the Irish passing game heading into the spring.
However, the reports coming out of spring practice, which is about halfway finished, have brought hope and optimism to Notre Dame air assault.
Miles Boykin Is Building Off Of His Bowl Heroics
Everyone knows what Boykin did at the end of the dramatic bowl victory against LSU, but that could have easily been dismissed as a brilliant fourth quarter that didn’t lead to much else. Instead, Boykin has used it as a catalyst to take the next step in his development. Brian Kelly has lauded him for his winter conditioning efforts, and listed him as one of the main beneficiaries of Matt Balis’s workout program, noting gains in his explosiveness. He has been consistently good in spring practices, using his excellent size and newfound strength to gain advantages on a seasoned secondary. Also notable has been the chemistry Boykin has developed with Brandon Wimbush. The Irish signal caller never seemed to develop any kind of comfort with anyone last season. Something of a go-to guy would be a welcome change in 2018.
Most passing games like a #1 guy at receiver, and people around the program wondered who that person would be. It’s looking like Boykin is poised to undertake that role.
Javon McKinley Is Making A Move
There is a player every year who becomes the darling of spring ball. We all know it’s going to happen, and that player very often makes little contribution in the fall. However, that person generally isn’t a former top 100 player like McKinley, who has reportedly been displaying some excellent ability all spring. So, hooray, I’m caught in spring fever once again.
The biggest key for McKinley seemed to be getting his body right. He broke his leg early in his freshman season, and lost some fitness as a result, and he opted to redshirt in 2017. There were rumblings of a transformed McKinley throughout the winter, and that came to fruition at the opening a spring practice.
McKinley also seems to have been spurred on by the opportunity in front of him with the departures of those seemingly ahead of him. For some players, a clear path to the playing field makes a big difference. Let’s be honest, with St. Brown and Stepherson ahead of him, time on the field would have been limited. It’s not like those guys weren’t going to play, had they been available. No longer obstacles, the clarity seems to have done McKinley some good. He’s reportedly been one of the best workers so far, and oh by the way his pedigree is not to be overlooked. He put up some huge numbers in high school, against the best the state of California has to offer. McKinley isn’t some kind of under the radar, late bloomer.
I’ve most often seen Miles Boykin compared to 2005 Maurice Stovall, but I think McKinley is the better comp for him. Stovall famously lost some pounds and put up a monster season in 2005. I could see McKinley having a same impact, although minus the numbers, due to the nature of the offense.
Options Abound Elsewhere
Even with the departures, Notre Dame has a wealth of talent at its disposal. Soon to be sophomore Michael Young has looked nothing short of dynamic so far with his explosiveness and route running. An indication of the type of player Young can be is the staffs willingness to put him on the outside, instead of solely in the slot. They clearly feel he can get open against any one, and like what he brings regardless of where he plays. He’s been running with the first unit consistently so far.
Chase Claypool is also still a factor, with his effort being the bugaboo of the staff. Claypool is the most accomplished of the returning players at the position, but his numbers were modest last season. Perhaps he is still favoring his shoulder injury. He’s been running with the second team so far, perhaps an indication the staff feels he’s getting out worked. That said, his talent is undeniable, and we’ve seen him make plays in real games.
Jafar Armstrong has been an x-factor so far, seemingly in a Theo Riddick 2012 type role, and Chris Finke has consistently been a factor in the slot. And then there is the incoming freshmen arriving in the summer, Kevin Austin, Lawrence Keys, and Braden Lenzy. Who knows what those guys will bring at this point, but I’d be shocked if Austin didn’t make some noise in the fall. He’s got Michael Floyd type of ability.
It’s tough to say what the ceiling might be for this group. Claypool’s ability seems to be endless, but there isn’t a ton of evidence to show he’s ready to become a star. They have some deep threat options, but those options are mostly on paper at this point. They have a nice mix of big, physical targets, and some quick, smaller athletes. The Irish might struggle on offense for various reasons: quarterback play, new offensive line, new running backs, but I don’t foresee the inability of the receivers to make plays to be high on the list. Too much talent, and too many options. Given the losses at the position, not being a weakness would be an excellent result.