Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 18 Joe Wilkins Jr., senior receiver, team favorite

Joe Wilkins 2021
Notre Dame Athletics

Listed measurements: 6-foot-1 ½, 190 pounds.
2021-22 year, eligibility: A senior, Wilkins still has three seasons of eligibility remaining thanks to appearing in only two games as a freshman and then the universal pandemic eligibility waiver adding a season to his clock.
Depth Chart: Wilkins may end up starting for Notre Dame on Labor Day Eve (49 days) unless classmate Kevin Austin impresses in preseason practices. That is always the expectation of Austin, and for three years now, that expectation has fallen short thanks to traits, a suspension and a twice-broken foot. If Austin presents as the talent he is believed to be, then he should start on the boundary, but if not, then Wilkins will get the nod as a more consistent player.
Recruiting: Pursued as a cornerback, the consensus three-star prospect chose Notre Dame over offers from Louisville, Washington State and Michigan State, among others, in a wide-spread recruitment.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Wilkins’ Instagram bio indicates he has received some free gear from one sponsor, but let’s instead focus on this Mariners jersey, which has a significant backstory.

That jersey was originally Wilkins’ father’s, who died before Joe Jr. was born. He could not bring himself to wear it for most of his life. But at some point before last season, Wilkins figured, wearing the jersey would be better homage than leaving it permanently on a hanger.

When the video board in Notre Dame Stadium aired a brief clip of Wilkins discussing his father, that jersey and that decision, the entire stadium paused to watch, including some of his teammates on the field in the midst of a game against Louisville.

CAREER TO DATE
Wilkins moved to receiver before a single practice at the college level but then saw just limited action in his first two seasons, never catching a pass, before emerging as a reliable option during the pandemic, even if he still caught only seven passes.

That reliability factor stemmed from Wilkins jumping into the fray in the season opener against Duke after a couple balky hamstrings left Notre Dame increasingly shorthanded on the outside. Wilkins went from no career catches across two seasons to three receptions for 37 yards in the first half against the Blue Devils, finishing with four catches for 44 yards, both leading Irish receivers. In fact, outside of Wilkins, Notre Dame’s receivers combined for three catches for 30 yards in that opener.

That flash did not sustain, but Wilkins proved he could contribute when the Irish absolutely needed him to.

2020: 10 games; 7 catches for 63 yards and one touchdown.

QUOTES
Though not grouped with them in recruiting, Wilkins is a part of a class of receivers that has long been more hype than reality. Austin’s inability to get on the field has been matched by inconsistencies from Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy, while Wilkins has seen only a few opportunities. Altogether, the quartet represent what Notre Dame may have on the outside, or at least has on paper.

And while Austin was sidelined this spring recovering from foot surgery, the other three had their chances to elevate their games.

“Receiver, it’s really about, more than anything else, getting Wilkins, Lenzy and Keys at the next level,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in mid-April. “That’s where this really is about. … Those three guys are where this is at. They have got a sense of the championship level. They’ve been good, don’t get me wrong, they’ve been good.

“I need them to move to that great level, and they’re capable of it, and we’re seeing some signs, but this is all wrapped up in those three guys really taking that next step.”

2021 OUTLOOK
Much of the preseason will be spent building and rebuilding the hype around Austin, but a reasonable argument can be made that he should fall entirely in a “Believe it when we see it” category, and if granting that, then Wilkins’ viability becomes both more pertinent and more necessary for Notre Dame this year.

He has shown good hands and decent speed, but perhaps the part of Wilkins’ game that most sets him apart from the other Irish receivers is his run blocking. In the Irish offense, that alone can get a receiver plenty of playing time, especially in a season when Notre Dame may get away from using multiple tight ends as much as recent years.

The Irish leaned on Javon McKinley and Bennett Skowronek to clear the perimeter and distance the second level as run blockers in 2020. They were both much bigger than Wilkins, but receiver run blocking is more about want-to than anything else, and with that imposing pair gone, Notre Dame has a want-to vacuum, perhaps aside from Wilkins.

The Irish would rather Austin’s dynamic playmaking, of course, but if not taking that for granted, then Wilkins’ reliability and physicality would be a considerable backup option.

None of that may lead to massive receiving numbers — think in the range of 15-20 catches for a couple hundred yards — but Wilkins showed how just a few snags can propel an offense when his three first-half catches against Duke directly led to 10 points in a 27-13 victory.

DOWN THE ROAD
A trio of four-star receivers have arrived at campus to challenge those seniors, and all-told, the latter group has not produced that much more than the freshmen.

Combined with Lenzy, Keys and Austin all still having eligibility remaining, it becomes unlikely Wilkins returns to South Bend in 2022. His ceiling is the lowest of the group, even if his floor has proven to be higher.

But that should not be the end of his career. A contributor at Notre Dame will almost certainly be a starter at a solid Group of Five program, and Wilkins will bring two years of eligibility with him if he transfers after this year.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, early-enrolled freshman tight end, a former high school quarterback
No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon
No. 85 George Takacs, senior tight end, ‘152 years old’
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, sophomore tight end
No. 82 Xavier Watts, sophomore receiver
No. 81 Jay Brunelle, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 80 Cane Berrong, early-enrolled freshman tight end
No. 79 Tosh Baker, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 78 Pat Coogan, incoming freshman center
No. 77 Quinn Carroll, junior offensive lineman
No. 76 Joe Alt, incoming and towering freshman offensive lineman
No. 75 Josh Lugg, fifth-year right tackle, finally a starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, junior offensive tackle, possible backup center
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, early-enrolled offensive tackle, former Auburn commit
No. 70 Hunter Spears, junior offensive guard, former defensive tackle
No. 68 Michael Carmody, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 62 Marshall guard Cain Madden transfers to Notre Dame, likely 2021 starter
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive tackle
No. 56 John Dirksen, senior reserve offensive lineman
No. 56 Howard Cross, junior defensive tackle
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, the best Irish offensive lineman
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, junior defensive tackle
No. 54 Blake Fisher, early-enrolled freshman left tackle, starter?
No. 52 Zeke Correll, junior, starting center
No. 52 Bo Bauer, senior linebacker, #BeADog
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 44 Devin Aupiu, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 44 Alex Peitsch and No. 65 Michael Vinson, Irish long snappers, both needed
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, fifth-year defensive tackle, eventual record-holder in games played
No. 40 Drew White, fifth-year linebacker, three-year starter
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, fifth-year kicker, using the pandemic exception
No. 38 Jason Onye, incoming and raw freshman defensive end
No. 37 Joshua Bryan, incoming freshman kicker
No. 35 Marist Liufau, junior Hawaiian linebacker
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, junior defensive end
No. 33 Shayne Simon, senior linebacker
No. 29 Matt Salerno, senior punt returner, walk-on
No. 28 TaRiq Bracy, senior cornerback, possible nickel back
No. 27 JD Bertrand, junior linebacker
No. 26 Clarence Lewis, sophomore cornerback, second-year starter
No. 25 Philip Riley, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 25 Chris Tyree, speedy sophomore running back
No. 24 Jack Kiser, junior linebacker, onetime pandemic hero
No. 23 Litchfield Ajavon, junior safety
No. 23 Kyren Williams, junior running back
No. 22 Logan Diggs, incoming freshman running back
No. 22 Chance Tucker, freshman cornerback
No. 21 Lorenzo Styles, early-enrolled freshman receiver
No. 21 Caleb Offord, sophomore cornerback
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, senior running back, coming off an offseason with a smirch
No. 20 Justin Walters, early-enrolled freshman safety and likely early special teams contributor
No. 19 Jay Bramblett, junior punter
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, senior defensive end

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