It is becoming an annual cycle for Notre Dame: Enter a season without an established receiver. Enjoy a stellar season from one target in particular. Watch him go to the NFL. Lament the lack of experience entering the next season. Repeat.
Following 2017, the early departure for the NFL draft by Equanimeous St. Brown left the Irish with a total of 72 catches among four returning receivers. Chase Claypool’s 34 career catches led the group.
Then Miles Boykin broke out in 2018 and turned that into hearing his name in the third round of the draft, leaving Notre Dame with only two receivers with more than a dozen career catches.
Claypool didn’t flinch, becoming just the sixth Irish receiver to reach both 1,000 yards (1,037) and 10 touchdowns (13) in one season. His dominance, along with Chris Finke’s general reliability in his final year, leaves Notre Dame with little returning production once again.
On the flip side, the Irish have talent at receiver. The real question is not will someone fill in for Claypool, but who will?
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
If this cycle is to repeat anew, the emerging receiver should make himself apparent sooner than later, just as Claypool did in the spring (and Boykin did before that). Talk of Claypool becoming the ninth Irish receiver to reach 1,000 yards in a season was in full swing during the summer. He fulfilled those expectations in every way and in a few unforeseen (leadership, mental and physical toughness, continued special teams success).
Finke did not necessarily deliver as resoundingly, done in for much of the season by nagging injuries. But come November, Ian Book’s strong finish coincided with one from Finke, the latter catching 20 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns in four games before a hamstring injury held him at bay at Stanford.
Without sophomore Kevin Austin the entire season due to a silent suspension, it took a while for Notre Dame to lean into another receiver as a consistent threat.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Once the Irish did work sophomore Braden Lenzy into the game plan routinely, his impact was undeniable. Lenzy finished the season with 454 total yards from scrimmage with four touchdowns, highlighted by 254 yards and two scores on 10 touches in the regular season’s final three games.
In other words, it took 22 games for Lenzy to gain his 201st yard, and then he gained 254 in just three weeks. That wait began with being undersized as a freshman — “I probably came in at a mean 160,” Lenzy said after the Boston College victory. — and continued when he suffered a concussion before the trip to Georgia. Lenzy then also missed the trip to Duke due to fatigue issues.
Then came the impact.
“I’ve definitely found a role within the team,” Lenzy said after taking one carry for a 61-yard score against the Eagles. While that role needed to be more than just as a speed demon, that talent was and will be his calling card. In Lenzy’s mind, it serves as much to complement the rest of the offense as to break big plays like that one when two tight ends opened up a wide seam for him to dash through.
“Of course it feels great, it’s cool,” Lenzy said. “That’s what I have to do for us. Just a slight hesitation, you can get those speed motions. If the safety peaks at me, fake it and [Claypool] is over the top, touchdown. I think the most effective thing about it isn’t the plays that I get, but how it affects the other plays. That’s college football. You take a slight hesitation, that’s a touchdown.”
Lenzy felt those same thoughts apply to classmate Lawrence Keys, who took 19 touches for 180 yards and a score in 2019. Both figure to be in the starting conversation moving forward, along with Austin should everything go well.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek will also be in that competition to start. Some of that thought process will be framed by how newly-named offensive coordinator Tommy Rees opts to align the receivers. The last three years have featured a big-bodied, multi-dimensional receiver isolated on the boundary, a technically-sound receiver on the wide side and a prototypical slot receiver. There is no guarantee that remains the status quo.
If that does remain the status quo, Austin, Lenzy and Keys could fill out the starters’ roles on their own, respectively. If Rees opts to lean into size, though, then the 6-foot-4 Skowronek could impress enough in the spring to become a front-line factor.
Or, less likely, Javon McKinley could produce against genuine competition in his fifth season, which the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James reports is an increasing possibility. To fill out the talented possibilities, five-star incoming freshman Jordan Johnson will arrive in the summer.
Someone will inevitably step forward this offseason; that has become too predictable the last few years. Austin’s year in purgatory may make him a trendy projection, but Lenzy’s 183-pound frame and springtime focus — “Track is over.” — could make him more of a likelihood.
“The way I look at it, last year was very difficult for me to even go with the 2s,” Lenzy said. “From a football standpoint, I wasn’t ready, clear-cut and dry. Now I stand out in the game. For me, it’s just come everyday and work hard. I would love to see my progress there.”
Lenzy puts the "speedy" in @blspeedy21 😱
His 70-yard reception from @Ian_Book12 is our fourth passing TD of the day.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) November 16, 2019