Position Group Breakdown: Wide Receiver
Observer Sports Staff | Tuesday, April 21, 2020
There are question marks about the Notre Dame wide receiving corps heading into the 2020 season, as the Irish lost most of their top receivers from 2019. The depth chart appears to have plenty of talent, though, so if things play out right, the Irish could be looking at even more success next season.
Position Group: Wide Receiver
Depth Chart: freshmen Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts; rising sophomore Kendall Abdur-Rahman; rising juniors Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III, Kevin Austin Jr.; rising senior Avery Davis; graduate students Javon McKinley, Bennett Skowronek
Key 2019 Departures:
At many times last season, Claypool was the bread and butter of the Irish offense. Claypool arguably had as big an impact on offense as anyone on the team last season. Claypool appeared in all 13 contests last year and recorded 1,037 receiving yards on 66 catches (a stellar total of 79.8 yards per game). Claypool was also vital to the Irish offense in the red zone, as he tallied 13 touchdown catches on the year as well.
Although Claypool was never known for breakaway speed, he has a big frame for a wide receiver and is a superb route runner. There were many occasions last year where quarterback Ian Book would throw a bad pass, yet Claypool would still find a way to make the catch. Book will certainly miss his top target of 2019, and if the Irish are going to be successful in 2020, someone will have to fill Claypool’s shoes.
The 2019 captain was a key figure on the team during his time at Notre Dame. Finke originally joined the team as a walk-on, but over his time on the team he earned himself a scholarship and proved to be one of the main assets in the receiving game. Although Finke showed some statistical regression from his 2018 to 2019 season, he still finished second in yardage among wide receivers with 456 yards on 31 catches. Finke also tallied four touchdowns on the year and was a solid punt returner for the Irish during the 2019 season. Finke was a proven leader on and off the field, and the Irish will hope someone can fill his role in 2020.
Young was one of Notre Dame’s most highly touted wide receiving recruits of the class of 2021 and many expected Young to have a breakout season in 2019, but he surprisingly announced his plans to transfer from Notre Dame following last year’s Virginia game. In his sophomore season, Young had seven catches for 138 yards, but he only had six catches in the three games he played in during the 2019 season. Young was never used much by the Irish offense, but most people expected him to be the future of the Irish wide receiving corps by the time he was a senior. Young recently announced he plans to transfer to the University of Cincinnati.
Key 2020 Contributors:
Lenzy began to catch people’s attention last year following his 51-yard touchdown off of a sweep play against USC. As was apparent in that play and many others throughout the season, Lenzy has the breakaway speed that the Irish haven’t seen in years. Although Lenzy had limited opportunities last season, he made the most out of the chances he got. In 2019, Lenzy had 200 yards on the ground off of 13 carries and 254 receiving yards off of 11 catches. Lenzy also had four touchdowns on the year (two receiving and two rushing).
Lenzy will be an essential part of the Irish offense next year. Because of his speed, he will likely continue to be used on sweep plays, but with the departure of top receivers Claypool, Finke, and Kmet, there will definitely be more chances for Lenzy to have an impact in the receiving game. If Lenzy can be as explosive as he was last year with more carries and catches, his stats could explode in 2020.
Lawrence Keys III
Keys was a highly touted recruit in the class of 2022, as he was the 150-ranked overall player and 21st ranked wide receiver in his class per ESPN. Keys did not see any action during his freshman year, and although he saw limited action last year, can likely become a top wide receiver for the Irish in 2020. In 2019, Keys had 13 catches for 134 receiving yards and 46 rushing yards. In his limited action, Keys showed that he has the route-running skills and shiftiness to excel going forward. Keys battled an undisclosed injury during 2019 that held him back from his full potential, and if he can be healthy in 2020, he could be one of Ian Book’s top targets.
The Northwestern transfer was a huge pick up in the transfer portal for the Irish, as Skowronek will bolster the depth chart for the Irish at the very least. The 2019 Northwestern captain was injured after playing just three games for the Wildcats last year, preserving a fifth year of eligibility. In his sophomore and junior seasons with the Wildcats, he played in every game and tallied over 500 receiving yards each year. Skowronek also showed his ability to make sensational catches in Northwestern’s 2018 game against Iowa where he made a diving catch in the endzone to clinch the Big Ten West for the Wildcats.
Skowronek led the Wildcats on and off the field for Northwestern, and he will be a great addition to the Irish roster in 2020. It’s hard to tell exactly how Skowronek will be used, but he is a versatile player that will surely see a fair amount of playing time in some capacity.
McKinley missed all of his sophomore season, so he is eligible for a fifth year with the Irish. In 2019, McKinley caught 11 passes for 268 yards in nine games. The majority of McKinley’s yards came in the New Mexico and Bowling Green games last year, so it’s hard to know how McKinley will perform in bigger games. He did have two catches for 42 yards and a touchdown against Michigan last year, though, in an otherwise disastrous game for Notre Dame. If McKinley can put everything together in 2020, he could be an important part of the offense.
McKinley’s most memorable play of last year was arguably his 65 yard TD catch against New Mexico, in which he eluded six defenders on his way to the endzone. While this was a great play, if McKinley is going to be a great player, he is going to have to be able to make plays like this against great opponents like Wisconsin and Clemson.
The incoming freshman is a four-star recruit per 247sports, and he has the skill and talent to make a huge impact for the Irish fresh out of high school. Johnson is head coach Brian Kelly’s highest ever wide receiving recruit, and he is the second-highest wide receiver recruit in history for the Irish only behind Michael Floyd. The St. Louis native, tallied 29 receptions for 587 yards and 9 touchdowns during his senior season, and it appears the sky’s the limit for Johnson during his career at Notre Dame. If summer practice is cut short due to COVID-19, Johnson will probably not be used as much during his freshman season, but if he can prove himself before the season starts, expect Coach Kelly to use Johnson right away.
Kevin Austin Jr.
Austin is somewhat of a mystery heading into the 2020 season. Austin did not see playing time in 2019 due to a violation of team rules. In his freshman season, Austin caught five passes for 90 yards, and many expected Austin to play a big part in the Irish offense in 2019 before his suspension. Austin has impressed coaches and fellow teammates in practice, and it is clear that he has the potential to make an impact this coming year. It is possible that Austin fills Claypool’s shoes and becomes the top receiver for the Irish, but he will have to clean up his issues off of the field if that is going to be remotely possible.
There are a slew of other players who could make an impact for a wide receiving corps that is filled with uncertainty. This includes freshman Xavier Watts, positional Swiss army knife and 2019 receiver Avery Davis and rising sophomore Kendall Abdur-Rahman.
Watts is a three-star recruit with a high upside, and many around the Irish program believe his recruiting rating is laughable. Although he has not received much publicity compared to classmates Jordan Johnson and Chris Tyree, Watts had sensational high school stats and could definitely see action in 2020.
Avery Davis made the switch from running back to wide receiver to help shore up the depth in 2019. Although no one is quite sure where he will play in 2020, it will likely be in a dual rushing-receiving capacity. He had 10 catches for 124 yards and 2 TDs last season, so he has some experience that could help him rise on the depth chart in 2020.
Abdur-Rahman was redshirted during his freshman year in 2019, and not having spring practice hurts his chances of seeing significant action in 2020. Despite this, the three-star recruit showed in high school that he is a versatile player with great talent, and if things work out right in 2020, Abdur-Rahman could get his chance.
Hayden Adams — Sports Editor
To paraphrase the terrible — so, typical — M. Night Shyamalan movie “Signs”: “Swing Away, Brian Kelly and Ian Book.“
You see what LSU and Joe Burrow did last year after so many offensively stagnant seasons? You can do that too!
My goodness, man. You‘ve got a bevy of talented receivers at your disposal and all of them should have gotten more reps at key moments last season. Don‘t get me wrong, Chase Claypool makes for a fantastic parachute, but a lot of the guys who will lead this group — namely Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys — don‘t have the level of experience you would like from your main guys. Then again, neither did Miles Boykin before 2018, I suppose.
Lenzy is lightning fast; Skowronek has great hands; McKinley looks like a watered-down Claypool; Keys is a more athletic Chris Finke in the slot; and, you‘ve got two freshmen receivers who, barring injury, should not be four-year guys. Plus, from everything I hear, Kevin Austin is the second coming of Michael Floyd, but his career is looking like Kevin Stepherson‘s: underachieving because of off-the-field issues. You‘ve got all the potential in the world in this depth chart, and here‘s hoping and praying that grad student quarterback Ian Book doesn‘t regress in his third year as a starter. Oh, and maybe, just maybe, He starts taking some freaking shots (à la 28 yards to Keys at Georgia, and 70 yards for a TD to Lenzy against Navy). A-
Nate Moller — Sports writer
There is so much uncertainty surrounding the wide receiving corps ahead of 2020, but luckily the Irish have lots of players who could step up. While no one can say for sure what will happen, I am confident that Lenzy will get a lot of touches, but it is hard to know how much of that production will be in the passing game. If I had to pick one guy to jump onto the scene in 2020, I’d have to go with Keys. If he is fully healthy, I think he has the route-running skills and talent to at least partially fill the gap Claypool left. Ben Skowronek will almost surely be used as well, and his leadership could prove vital.
I think the Irish can make a combination of wide receivers work in 2020, but I am concerned that they will not have one guy they can count on in crunch time moments. Are any of the players mentioned above really ready to be as successful as Claypool was? The talent is present, but the experience is just not quite there yet, and for that reason there could be a big hole in the wide receiving corps in 2020. C+