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Young receivers provide reason for Notre Dame optimism

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Shall we rewind to a month before Notre Dame began spring practice, to the last mailbag in this space? “The question has been asked before. It will be asked again.”

Though with different phrasing, that time has come.

What has to happen this spring to keep the optimism alive or raise the optimism of the fans knowing this is only 15 practices and a dozen or so new bodies are arriving this summer? — don74

The January version of this inquiry wondered about who might jump to big-time contributor from the previous ranks of hardly-established starter, if starting at all. Then, the answer was junior-to-be running back Jafar Armstrong. While he does not repeat now, do not take it as a note of concern. Rather, Armstrong has been what the Irish expected this spring, buoyed by the consistency provided by rising senior Tony Jones. The wintertime thought was more predicted on already-existing expectations than it was a bold foresight.

The development to now spark optimism comes at another offensive skill position: the young receivers.

Notre Dame needs progress from the quartet of Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, Kevin Austin (pictured above) and Joe Wilkins before they enter their second season. Along with rising junior Michael Young, they will be the complement to starters Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, but unlike 2018, the Irish cannot rely on only three receivers to get through the season.

Doing so saps legs, it limits the playbook, and it lowers the offense’s ceiling, troubles survived on the way to the Playoff.

“We’ve been really happy with them all,” head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “They’ve all shown the ability to make plays.”

Lenzy and Keys, in particular, represent a dynamic missing a year ago. Yes, quarterback Ian Book struggled to throw the deep ball, but he also did not have many chances to do so with that receiver corps. As fast as Miles Boykin ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, he rarely got the accompanying separation. Not that he never did, even against Clemson there was a moment, just rarely.

Lenzy could not break into that role due to his slight build, an issue the 5-foot-10, 172-pound Keys will still have to work through for his entire career.

“We like [Lenzy’s] toughness,” Kelly said. “He’s shown that play-in and play-out he’s going to stick his nose in there and get some tough yards for us.”

Don74 wants reason to be an optimistic Notre Dame fan. Finding receivers with downfield abilities, be it straight away via Lenzy or in a variety of packages (possibly including jet sweeps) in Keys, should give him such.

“These are all kids that consistently, practice after practice, have made plays,” Kelly said.

Now to temper that optimism … Arguably the receiver with the most talent is Austin, combining a 6-foot-2 frame with speed not quite of Lenzy’s quality, but of note, nonetheless. His raw abilities got him onto the field in 10 games as a freshman, catching five passes for 90 yards.

His raw maturity, or lack thereof, also cost him the chance to even travel to New York City or Los Angeles to close the season.

“He’s very talented,” Kelly said. “Extremely talented player. I don’t think you leave any practice and not say he’s extremely talented, but I think you all know that there’s more than just talent in this evaluation process of guys that are going to play. He needs to bring more to it than just talent.”

If that sounds like the descriptions of springs past of Claypool, then keep in mind Claypool has emerged as a possible No. 1 receiver. It just took him until the latter half of his junior season to prove that consistency. Such a timeline with Austin would frustrate the Notre Dame coaching staff and fans alike, but it is also somewhat natural of 19- and 20-year-olds.

Until then, if then, the praise heaped on Lenzy and Keys could be a precursor of a multi-dimensional offense, one that has only existed in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s two years for a brief moment in 2017, when Kevin Stepherson finally reintegrated himself into the game plan in the final weeks of the regular season (seven catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the final two games).

Since that flash, Irish receivers have hardly stretched opposing defenses, be it vertically or horizontally. Lenzy and Keys, respectively, may be the key to doing so moving forward, and given time, Austin may be the every-down target needed to sustain a drive.

Now then, keep sending in the questions. Appreciated in advance — insidetheirish@gmail.com