By the end of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant, Notre Dame senior receiver Braden Lenzy was worn out. The Irish had only four scholarship receivers ready for that game, a folly due in part to injuries and in part to years of roster mismanagement. As Jack Coan attempted a Notre Dame-record 68 passes, Lenzy was running downfield on each one of them.
“I was exhausted,” Lenzy admitted nearly two months later.
If injured players return healthy, then the Irish might skirt that worry in 2022. If not, then Lenzy’s intent to become a better technician on the field this offseason may need to be supplemented by a long-distance running regimen.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Entering 2021, the Irish thought they would be alright at receiver. The position group was not as deep as would be preferred — a modern offense should start the season with at least 10 available receivers — but what it lacked in depth, it made up for with experience.
Lenzy, Kevin Austin, Avery Davis, Joe Wilkins and Lawrence Keys had all spent at least four years in the program. But then Keys opted to transfer shortly after the season began, Wilkins suffered a meniscus injury in early October, and Davis’ ACL gave way to start November.
By season’s end, Lenzy and Austin were all that remained of that experience, and neither had exactly been the bastion of consistent availability in their careers before 2021.
Lorenzo Styles impressed quickly in his debut campaign, but there was only so much the freshman could do as the personnel numbers dwindled. Hence Lenzy’s understandable exhaustion.
Kevin Austin: 48 catches for 888 yards and seven touchdowns.
Braden Lenzy: 32 catches for 350 yards and three touchdowns.
Avery Davis: 27 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns.
Lorenzo Styles: 24 catches for 344 yards and one touchdown.
Joe Wilkins: 4 catches for 61 yards and one touchdown.
Deion Colzie: 4 catches for 67 yards.
Matt Salerno: 1 catch for a loss of four yards.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Neither Wilkins nor Davis should be counted on for much, if anything, this spring, but both are likely to be healthy by September. There may be a silver lining to that timetable, in that it will force Styles, Colzie and fellow rising sophomore Jayden Thomas into more prominent roles this spring, and for the Irish to have success in 2022, those three will need to play distinct roles.
The depth remains the driving concern. If every scholarship receiver is healthy and full-go, Notre Dame still has only eight receivers, and that includes a former walk-on in Matt Salerno and a freshman who will not arrive on campus until the summer in Tobias Merriweather.
Lenzy toed the party line, insisting on optimism, and that claim will undoubtedly arise aplenty in the next six months, but it should be met with skepticism.
“I’m very excited,” Lenzy said. “Anytime you see a coach throw the ball in such a high-level game 68 times when you’re not a pass-heavy offense, (it) shows there is belief and commitment in the group. I’m excited. We’ve taken strides this past year, and I think this next year, you’ll see even more.”
The Irish certainly hope so, but that will need to be more with even fewer receiving options.
A UNIQUE DYNAMIC BETWEEN NEW RECEIVERS COACH Chansi Stuckey AND VETERAN AVERY DAVIS
Davis, of course, first arrived at Notre Dame as a quarterback before bouncing around a few positions until he found a home at receiver. Stuckey followed a similar path, and he sees that as an advantage in coaching.
“Change isn’t always bad,” Stuckey said last month. “We think, as young people, we have this vision and if anything deviates from that, my world is over. I can tell them that’s not true. Look at the change I did.
“You have a lot of kids who played quarterback in high school and then they want to move to receiver. That’s great. Let’s look at the positive sides of this, and that can happen in other situations with family and school.”