Already lacking depth at receiver, Notre Dame loses Joe Wilkins for the spring

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Notre Dame entered this spring with only six healthy scholarship receivers, an absolute bare minimum to get through practices, especially amid a nominal starting quarterback competition that requires enough receivers to run routes for two primary passers.

The Irish now have only five healthy scholarship receivers after fifth-year Joe Wilkins suffered a broken foot, a Lisfranc injury, last week, head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday. Wilkins had surgery on the foot Friday.

A meniscus injury cost Wilkins most of the 2021 season, but he looked to be full-go to start spring practices last month. Instead, he will miss the rest of spring action and most of summer workouts. Freeman said he expects Wilkins will be cleared before Notre Dame heads to Ohio State on Sept. 3.

“We expect him to be back for fall camp, ready to go,” Freeman said. “Surgery went great.”

Wilkins caught four passes for 61 yards and a touchdown last season, part of 11 career catches for 124 yards and two scores. He has two years of eligibility remaining thanks to playing in only two games as a freshman and then the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.

Without Wilkins for the next three weeks of spring practices — Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game is on April 23 at 1 ET, available exclusively on Peacock, NBC’s streaming app — the Irish have few remaining options.

Fifth-year Braden Lenzy leads the way both on and off the field, and he is increasingly used to being one of few options. When Notre Dame had only four available receivers in the Fiesta Bowl, Lenzy and classmate Kevin Austin ran routes on a school-record 70 pass attempts. In January, Lenzy admitted that workload left him “exhausted.”

Sophomores Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas round out the expected receiver corps, though Colzie suffered a concussion earlier this spring, illustrating the fragility of this lack of depth. Former walk-on Matt Salerno is the fifth healthy scholarship receiver available. He has one career reception.

“It goes to no one guy is bigger than the group,” Irish receivers coach Chansi Stuckey said Saturday about moving forward without Wilkins. “We’re all together. Everyone is making plays. No one is bigger than the group.

“Joe is a great guy, we love him, a very good addition to our team, but it’s that next-man-up mentality while he does his thing.”

Along with Wilkins, sixth-year Avery Davis is also sidelined, coming back from an ACL torn in November.

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If both Wilkins and Davis are 100 percent headed to Columbus, and incoming freshman Tobias Merriweather proves ready to play from the outset, then the Irish will have eight receivers, including Salerno. A modern college football offense typically needs about 10 receivers to get through a season, to compensate for both general fatigue and likely injuries.

At the least, five of those receivers will be used to the extensive work that they will probably need to offer again in the fall.