Notre Dame’s receivers seem to be a concern for everyone except the Irish. No podcast or radio interview previewing Notre Dame’s 2021 is complete without wondering about the supposed lack of known playmakers, clearly a key factor of why the Irish season win total over/under remains at 8.5.
Despite the praises from Notre Dame’s preseason practices of senior Kevin Austin’s long-awaited arrival and classmate Braden Lenzy’s improved strength bettering his consistency, not to mention Irish head coach Brian Kelly calling senior Joe Wilkins’ offseason “transformational,” worrying about Notre Dame’s unproven receivers has become the most common talking point with less than two weeks until Labor Day Eve.
They all overlook something: The Irish are better off than they were a year ago.
Heading into the 2020 season, Notre Dame had five receivers with double-digit catches the year before. One, Javon McKinley, capitalized against inferior opposition in 2019. Another, Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek, lost much of his 2019 to injury. The remaining three — Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and Avery Davis — seemed to be competing for the same job as slot receiver.
The Irish had no surefire perimeter player to rely on, and they also did not have any reliable passing-game options at tight end or running back. At least, as of the preseason.
Keys: 13 catches for 134 yards.
Skowronek at Northwestern: 12 catches for 141 yards.
McKinley: 11 catches for 268 yards and four touchdowns.
Lenzy: 11 catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns.
Davis: 10 catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
Yet, Notre Dame threw for 237.4 yards per game with 7.9 yards per pass attempt in a season that reached the College Football Playoff.
Compare that to now, though Davis stepped forward in the biggest moment last year, the Irish still do not have a surefire perimeter player to rely on, August hype aside. They do, however, have sophomore tight end Michael Mayer and junior running back Kyren Williams. They combined for 77 catches for 763 yards last year; both are first-team preseason All-Americans.
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Notre Dame unquestionably has more known offensive commodities than it did last year, so when Tim Murray of the Vegas Sports Information Network spent part of a Friday night interview rattling off what the Irish lost from a year ago, he should have spent that time noting how much more they brought back than usual.
Last Friday night on #TheNightCap @1TimMurray, @realshaunking, and @D_Farmer debated whether they think Notre Dame surpasses their projected win total of 8.5 this upcoming season with a new look at quarterback. pic.twitter.com/AG5BwJzx8K
— VSiN (@VSiNLive) August 23, 2021
For that full interview, hop to the final 15 minutes of this clip, featuring noted Notre Dame fan Murray and “Inside the Irish’s” own Douglas Farmer.
Of course, Notre Dame would like to quickly establish a perimeter weapon or two — maybe not ones that would compare with Alabama’s in the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl, but a step toward closing that gap, nonetheless.
While Austin remains the most-anticipated senior receiver to have only six catches in his career, Lenzy’s encouraging preseason may hold more tangible weight, given what he has shown in years past, particularly 2019. Yet, Lenzy understands that is not the greatest priority.
“I think I could be very dangerous, I have the tools to be an elite receiver,” Lenzy said last week before proving the broader point here, that it is not as much about Lenzy as it is about the offense as a whole. “A lot of that will happen because the [offensive line] has a good block, the quarterback puts it in a good spot, and such-and-such receiver, whoever it is, or tight end runs a good route to pull the safety off me.
“I’m doing well, but a lot of it is as an offense collectively, we’re doing such a good job. It’s kind of giving us all the one-on-one (matchups) because no one could really know where the ball is going.”
The Irish lacked that certainly entering the 2020 season. Williams had emerged in the preseason, but not yet as a pass-catcher. Mayer still needed to face an opposing collegiate defense. Tight end Tommy Tremble was Notre Dame’s surest thing downfield, and he was best-known as a blocker.
The Irish are at a better place when considering all offensive skill positions than they were entering a season that ended in the Playoff, even if that conflicts with the current talking point.
“The receivers are making plays,” senior receiver Joe Wilkins said. “The tight ends are making plays. Backs are making plays out of the backfield and in the slot.”
It does not matter what the roster says regarding positions. If a running back catches a pass downfield, it gains just as many yards as if a receiver does.
While no receiver may be proven beyond a doubt, Notre Dame has some depth there. Four seniors and a fifth-year captain will all demand playing time. Freshmen Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie could find situational opportunities, the former in the open field and the latter near the goal line.
“It’s been fun seeing everyone fly around,” Lenzy said. “We have Kevin back, we have Keys, Avery, Joe, me. I’d say us five are rolling together.
“It’s like hockey rules, we all know every position so if you get tired, someone else goes in. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s great to be healthy, playing ball with your best friends.”
The Irish defensive line has worked in a hockey line-shift manner for a few seasons now. Doing so with the receivers would be even more intriguing.
Sincerely, @thorku is better at this than most of us. I mean, our employer pays him for a reason, I think. Then again, they pay me, too.
But anyway, when he lumps Stanford in with Wisconsin, North Carolina and USC this year, I have to hesitate and say, ummm, bud? https://t.co/CdP7J3alYc
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) August 20, 2021
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Hi how are you good morning it’s the last Saturday without college sports to bet on for the next 7 months.
— Stuckey (@Stuckey2) August 21, 2021