If ever there was a time to describe a receiver corps as inexperienced but talented, this is it. Notre Dame lost its two leading receivers, and one of the leading returnees has 11 catches in his career, and he might not actually even be returning.
As much as boasting a third-year starting quarterback can embolden a quarterback, Ian Book’s success will hinge heavily on the chemistry he can build with an entirely new set of receivers.
Spring roster, in order of eligibility remaining:
— Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek
— Fifth-year Javon McKinley, potentially
— Isaiah Robertson, a former cornerback who did not play in 2019.
— Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, Kevin Austin, Joe Wilkins and Micah Jones, all rising juniors with up to three seasons remaining.
— Kendall Abdur-Rahman, who spent 2019 learning the intricacies of the position as a high school quarterback.
— Early-enrolled freshmen Jay Brunelle and Xavier Watts, though the former will be out of action this spring after winter shoulder surgery.
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It is never appropriate to vault an incoming freshman too high into a depth chart before practicing even once, but wondering if Jordan Johnson might not make it off the third-team in August stems more from the broad depth above than it does from such precautions. If McKinley is granted a fifth year (something worth assuming at this point, though no word has yet been offered), if Austin steers clear of any additional disciplinary issues and if Skowronek fits in with the group, then it is easily conceivable the only backup role unclaimed could be at the slot, where Johnson is not inherently a fit.
By no means will that stop him from playing in 2020, but it may mean Johnson has time to get up to speed once he gets into practice, perhaps best serving as fresh legs later in the season.
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Depth Chart Possibilities:
Notice the introductory paragraph read “inexperienced but talented” and not “unproven but talented.” Lenzy and Austin have, to limited extents, proven themselves. The issue is simply those limited extents.
Lenzy should be the clear-cut field (wide) starter, while Austin may compete with Skowronek to start along the boundary in the mold of Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool. If Skowronek ends up the starter, his 110 catches for 1,147 yards and eight touchdowns while at Northwestern suggest he could also fill in after Claypool.
That leaves Keys as the likely slot starter, someone who has shown moments of talent but ones kept to a minimal impact given Chris Finke’s prevalence. Wilkins could challenge Keys, but there is plenty of reason the latter caught 13 passes last year while the former has not logged a single career catch and appeared only in garbage time. The same can be said of Jones.
On the whole, opportunities are at hand for Watts and Abdur-Rahman, not to mention Johnson, behind Keys at the slot and behind Lenzy — and maybe McKinley backing up him. It is too quick a trigger to already look to them and past Wilkins, Jones and Robertson, but those three have not made tangible headway in their time; with newcomers around, that stagnation may turn into a drop down the depth chart.
2019 statistically speaking:
Chase Claypool: 66 catches for 1,037 yards and 13 touchdowns
Chris Finke: 41 catches for 456 yards and four touchdowns
Lawrence Keys: 13 catches for 134 yards
Javon McKinley: 11 catches for 268 yards and four touchdowns
Braden Lenzy: 11 catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns
Michael Young: Six catches for 21 yards before a midseason transfer
While Finke’s final season was done in by a myriad of injuries, most effectively a plaguing rib issue and most notably a hamstring tweak that kept him out of the offensive game plan at Stanford, Claypool’s final go-around could not have earned more praise.
He was, quite simply, a man on a mission and one he largely capitalized on. The only fathomable way it could have been more impressive would have been if he had managed to plant a foot before going up to catch Book’s last pass at Georgia. If he had, Claypool likely would have out-jumped the two closing defensive backs and Notre Dame would have been yards away from a Playoff-driving victory. Alas, Book could not buy that extra half-second, through little fault of his own.
The question moving forward is how much Claypool can improve his draft stock, where he is still projected as a late-round draft pick despite the dominant season. That is in part because this year’s receiver class is deep and talented and in part because Claypool does not have elite speed or agility. Some, in fact, consider him more of a tight end prospect than a receiver.
So when Mark “Ham” Herman asks, “As I consider Claypool to be as much, if not more, of a freak athlete than Miles Boykin, I’m curious what his combine numbers will be, relative to Boykin’s showing last year. Does he get draft helium like Boykin did?” … the answers are not as positive as Ham expects.
Boykin tested well across the board, most notably with a 4.42-second 40-yard dash and a 43.5-inch vertical jump. These tests can be trained for, and Claypool undoubtedly is focused on them, but he is unlikely to match either number. His best skill is the more intangible aspect of body control. There is no distinct way to measure a player’s ability to tap a toe while extended three feet past the sideline, let alone two toes, but that skill is already on film for Claypool. Yet, he remains a late-round thought for many, meaning that may not change after next week’s combine.
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