Notre Dame’s receivers rising to occasion; Irish vaccines on the horizon

Braden Lenzy
Notre Dame Athletics
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As Notre Dame looks for answers at receiver, aside from fifth-year Avery Davis, the greatest question is consistency. The Irish know they have perimeter talent on the roster. Seniors Braden Lenzy (pictured above) and Kevin Austin have both flashed their tantalizing ceilings in brief moments throughout their careers; rising sophomore Jordan Johnson arrived last summer as one of the highest-rated receiving recruits in recent Notre Dame history; the trio of early-enrolled and incoming freshmen warranted their own headlines this past recruiting cycle.

But for all those moments of hype, the Irish were reminded of a cold hard fact of college football to start 2021: They need to score. Perimeter talent realized is the best chance to do so.

“We move into 2021 with less certainty on the offensive line, less certainty at the quarterback position,” head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday after the fourth of 15 spring practices and the first to include live tackling. “Now we know that we’ve got to score points. …

“This is about scoring. So we’re going to use this spring and preseason to kind of put that together.”

Davis will be routinely cited as the consistent, leading piece in the receivers room for the next 155 days, but one receiver does not make an explosive offense (Devonta Smith aside). That’s where Lenzy’s and classmate Lawrence Keys’ early impressions this spring give Kelly reason for hope. However, their previous three-plus years also give him reason for skepticism.

“Two guys who caught my attention — now, this is only practice four, so I’m going to put an asterisk next to it and they know why I’m putting an asterisk next to it — but Lenzy and Keys have been really good,” Kelly said. “Now, they have to be consistent because that has been the area that they haven’t been for us. They haven’t been consistent.”

If Kelly were levying those consistency criticisms at underclassmen, it could be rash or seem premature, but Lenzy and Keys have been in the program for long enough that they should be able to handle such pressure by now. For each, their on-field struggles have often tied to physical knocks (Lenzy, hamstring; Keys, concussion), but when a chance comes to produce, those physical struggles can be as problematic as off-field missteps. Either get it right or Kelly and his coaching staff need to look to the next option. (Speaking of where physical struggles meet off-field missteps, here is your reminder Austin will miss this spring while he recovers from a broken foot.)

In the most cliche of college football tropes, weight room work serves as both a malady for physical nuisances and a predictor of good things to come.

“They’ve made a commitment in the weight room that is different than what we’ve seen in the past,” Kelly said of Lenzy and Keys. “These guys have been outstanding in the weight room, and you can see it in the way they are translating that onto the field. They’re explosive, they’re running out, they’re breaking tackles.

“You can see it in the way that they’re practicing and playing.”

The spring headlines will want to focus on Notre Dame’s quarterback competition, but 2020 proved only so much can come from top-flight quarterback play without equal playmakers on the perimeter. (And though this headline may highlight the receivers, a piece is already planned for mid-week on Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan and rising sophomore Drew Pyne.)

Yet, those are the playmakers the Irish receivers are striving to replace, a challenge unto itself that Pyne has noticed his targets are acutely aware of.

“They’re more locked in than I’ve ever seen,” Pyne said. “They know we lost a few guys last year, some older guys. They’re locked in and they’re getting better.”

As Coan and Pyne split first-team reps in practice, the players on the other ends of their passes are impressing their quarterbacks and their coaches.

ONE SKILL POSITION PLAYER LESS
Kendall Abdur-Rahman has entered the transfer portal, he announced on Twitter on Friday afternoon. The former high school quarterback bounced between receiver and running back in his two seasons with the Irish, appearing in one game in 2020.

At running back, Abdur-Rahman was no higher than fourth on Notre Dame’s depth chart, behind stalwart junior Kyren Williams, speedy sophomore Chris Tyree and forceful senior C’Bo Flemister. In other words, Abdur-Rahman was looking at another season of little-to-no action.

He could return from the transfer portal, but given that depth chart reality — not even mentioning two incoming freshman running backs — consider that possibility unlikely.

REQUISITE Tyler Buchner UPDATE
Of course, Coan and Pyne are not the only quarterbacks partaking in Notre Dame’s spring practices. Early-enrolled freshman Tyler Buchner is apparently finding his legs after his first few practices in a year and a half.

“Today we started to see some of the rust come off Tyler Buchner,” Kelly said. “Today was a really good day for him. He was much more comfortable out there, threw ball with a lot more confidence. And I say this in that he hadn’t played football for a year, so it was nice to see him out there. He had a smile on his face, had some confidence.”

VACCINATIONS
Kelly said he has received two doses of the coronavirus vaccine, and the entire Notre Dame roster will have access to a first dose beginning next week, though no player will be required to get vaccinated. This timeline fits with the state of Indiana opening up vaccine eligibility to anyone over the age of 16 and the University’s intentions of opening a vaccination center on campus for its entire student body.

“We outlined some of the obvious advantages of having it,” Kelly said. “One of the big ones obviously would be that they could go home and not have to quarantine coming back. Others that are certainly on the horizon that have not been fully established, that would be smaller groups (with) no masks, the chance that we could potentially eat together in a sit-down meal which they haven’t done since December of ‘19.”

Kelly left out the advantage of being protected from a serious case of COVID-19, if not protected from the disease entirely, perhaps an advantage so obvious Kelly did not feel it necessary to point out.