Brian Kelly wanted to be clear. While Notre Dame has many questions at linebacker, it has just one at receiver. The latter position is not a foray into the unknown like the defensive middle tier is. The Irish know rising senior Chase Claypool and fifth-year Chris Finke will start at the boundary and slot positions, respectively.
In the search for a third starter, along the wide side of the field, some wonder does persist.
“You have some established players that can play at a high level with Claypool and Chris Finke,” the head coach said Tuesday. “… The third receiver doesn’t have that kind of production, but I think we’ve got a number of guys.”
Kelly then listed off four different options, not including rising sophomore Kevin Austin, more likely an exclusion due to Austin complementing Claypool at boundary than one meant to signal Austin has fallen off the radar. Even as he battled the maturity issues innate to one’s first year in college, Austin showed enough last fall to protect against being written off after only four spring practices, finishing with five catches for 90 yards in 10 appearances.
Kelly did mention Austin’s classmates Joe Wilkins, Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys, as well as rising junior Michael Young (pictured above).
“Certainly a number of guys that we think can give us the kind of play that we need out on the perimeter.”
That perimeter aspect was missing in 2018, despite Claypool’s overall athleticism. Notre Dame lacked outside speed, the type that forces a secondary to worry about its back line as much as the sideline. Such speed is only useful when accompanied by enough strength to work through press coverage without being knocked off one’s route, the type of physical development offseasons are made for.
“When we got back from the bowl game, I always tell our guys, our offense starts in the weight room,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said two weeks ago. “Those guys, the way they have transformed their bodies, it’s been awesome. Those young wideouts, Michael Young — I think Michael is up to a little over 190 and hasn’t lost a step. That added armor helps you get off press.
“It’s what helped [former Notre Dame receiver Miles Boykin] take his game to another level, Chris Finke take his game to another level.”
Long then indicated similar thoughts applied to Keys and Lenzy, in particular, with Lenzy receiving specific praise for his start to spring practice.
“Just seeing that progression this early, tells you these guys are going to be ready to play by the end of fall camp to me.”
Such will be necessary for the Irish passing game to develop past its lack of explosive plays a year ago, a season which saw only three passes gain 50 yards, all more a credit to the receivers’ efforts after the catch then beforehand.
The question of who will get the first, and the most, crack at those deep balls will last into the preseason, with Lenzy and Young the most likely candidates, especially as Keys spends time learning the slot behind Finke, per Kelly.
But, make no mistake, that is the only question at receiver.