Muscular injuries were and should be expected early in this unique season. Even though Notre Dame’s football players were back on campus in July and working out largely nonstop since then, “that does not mean they are all 100 percent in football shape just yet, given they missed spring practice, offseason conditioning and portions of preseason practice.”
That quote comes from preseason prediction No. 8 in an example of a blind squirrel finding a proverbial nut.
The No. 7 Irish (1-0, 1-0 ACC) expect to be without graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek this weekend due to a hamstring injury suffered in the season-opening 27-13 win against Duke on Saturday. In his place, Notre Dame will start junior receiver Braden Lenzy after an unexpected absence against the Blue Devils due to … a hamstring injury.
“You can’t take a guy like Braden Lenzy, who is a speed guy, and have him not 100 percent healthy,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “It looks like he’s going to be healthy for us, and if he is, he’s going to be able to help us. We all know what kind of speed he has.”
While there may be cautious merit to letting another slight injury heal this week (see Kyle Hamilton news below), Notre Dame will be eager to reincorporate Lenzy given the passing struggles against Duke. The Irish can likely handle South Florida (2:30 ET; USA Network) without Lenzy, but fine-tuning his chemistry with fifth-year quarterback Ian Book is a process not to delay, particularly given the Skowronek injury.
The Northwestern graduate transfer spent parts of his summer flying to California to work out with his new quarterback. In a receiving corps returning essentially nobody of consistency, that time equity positioned Skowronek as a new safety valve.
“Ben had probably the most consistent offseason, and now Ben will probably be out this week with a hamstring (injury),” Kelly said. “It’s been kind of an in-and-out situation and we’ve just got to fight through that situation relative to the reps and gaining that confidence that [Book] knows where his group is going to be.”
Ian Book and his receivers appear to need some time to develop chemistry. Fortunately for #NotreDame, a combination of its schedule, a typical Clark Lea defense and two emerging RBs should be able to handle things in the interim — https://t.co/BtFD5DNw9w
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 13, 2020
Junior Joe Wilkins replaced Skowronek this past weekend and soon thereafter notched the first reception among Notre Dame receivers with 50 seconds left in the first half. By the end of the drive, he had caught two more passes to help get the Irish within field-goal range just before the break. Finishing with four catches for 44 yards, Wilkins finally showed on a gameday some of what earned him practice hype.
“He made some big plays for us,” Kelly said. “I hope his confidence is up that he can do that on a consistent basis for us.
“We’ve got to all stay healthy and stay in the lineup, to build that consistency and build that sixth sense in terms of that quarterback-wide receiver relationship.”
Maybe two hamstring injuries will be the extent of the early-season wear-and-tear among the receivers, giving those relationships a chance to build, but the pulls and strains on the roster are not likely done just yet.
KYLE HAMILTON UPDATE
The sophomore safety sprained his ankle Saturday after making seven tackles and breaking up one pass. Kelly offered optimism about Hamilton’s prognosis.
“He’s in a walking boot. He had a scan that came back clean. We’ll keep him in a walking boot until Wednesday. Our team doctors feel like he’s day-to-day.
“This is a matter of pain management and how he feels. We’ll get him out of the boot mid-week and start moving him around and see how he feels. Kyle wants to play on Saturday. We’re not going to rule him out. We’re going to let him dictate where we go.”
All due respect to Hamilton’s natural competitive instincts, his playing against South Florida is less vital for Notre Dame than Lenzy’s. Working out the passing game kinks is a forward-thinking approach, as might be resting Hamilton and letting a lower ankle sprain fully heal before 2020’s competition begins in earnest.
To be clear, this is speculation. The Irish very well may start Hamilton against Charlie Weis Jr.’s offense, but there would be reason not to, as well.
SPEAKING OF INJURY UPDATES …
Kelly slipped one in that had escaped at least this space’s notice. After sophomore running back Kyren Williams’ impressive starting debut and freshman Chris Tyree’s complementary role, a third piece may join the blossoming backfield this weekend.
Junior C’Bo Flemister is coming back from a collarbone injury, and Kelly expects him to be at 100 percent this week after being in a red jersey in practice last week.
“[Flemister] arguably had as good a preseason as any of our backs,” Kelly said. “… I still think it’s important that those other guys get touches because they can help our offense.”
@NDFootball @Kyrenwilliams23 is first ND player with at least 90 yards rushing and 90 yards receiving in same game since 1983 Air Force game when Allen Pinkett had 5-93 receiving and 27-197 rushing. Irish had 514 yards and lost to Ken Hatfield's Falcons 23-22 on Senior Day.
— Tim Bourret (@TimBourret) September 14, 2020
Amassing 205 total yards last week will earn Williams plenty of work moving forward, but the more Notre Dame can get from Flemister, junior Jahmir Smith and senior Jafar Armstrong, the better chances it can avoid one of those aforementioned muscular injuries.
“All those guys are going to be integral and important to our success moving forward.”
ON KELLY’S CONTRACT EXTENSION
Miscommunication within the media relations staff cut short Kelly’s postgame Zoom conference on Saturday, and thus he was not asked about his three-year contract extension announced during the Duke game.
If he indeed coaches through 2024, Kelly will have lasted 15 years at Notre Dame, surpassing Knute Rockne’s 13 seasons as the longest-tenured Irish head coach.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “I’m blessed that the University has given that trust in me to continue to lead this program. I feel blessed to have that opportunity, obviously, knowing the great history and tradition of Notre Dame football. To be entrusted with that, I take that quite seriously.
“When we discussed this, I needed to have the energy, the enthusiasm and the want-to to continue to lead this program and really feel like there was more to accomplish, which I do.”