Wilkins healthy, ready to contribute after injuries
Aidan Thomas | Friday, September 18, 2020
Joe Wilkins has overcome a bevy of injuries and obstacles to be in a position to contribute to the Notre Dame offense as a junior wide receiver. But these odds were nothing new to Wilkins, who has faced a tough climb all his life.
For Wilkins, the first reminder of that is with his name. He was named after his father, Joe Wilkins, who he never met. Wilkins’s father was tragically killed when he was 21 years old before he even knew his girlfriend was pregnant. Wilkins. was born seven months later and took the namesake of his father. He said he considers it an honor to bear his dad’s name.
“Mom gave me that name because it was a blessing,” Wilkins said. “She didn’t even know she was gonna have a kid. So when my father passed, and a couple months later she found out she was pregnant, and she just thought I am this extension of him. I’m the last piece of him left. One hundred percent, without a doubt, my first son is going to be Joe Wilkins III, and it’s going to live on forever hopefully. I love it.”
Wilkins’s background means he is always playing for something more than football, allowing him to maintain a calm sense of patience when it came to earning time on the field. He knew his time as a contributor would come, despite battling knee and hamstring injuries during his first two seasons with the Irish.
“I knew it was coming,” he said. “You know, patience is a virtue. My mom always told me that, you know, I knew it was coming. I’ve worked on everything — my releases, my speed, flexibility. I’ve worked on things in film. I’m studying defense coverages, rotation, stuff like that.”
Wilkins preparation was obvious from the moment he stepped on the field on Saturday, as he helped spark a sluggish Notre Dame offense in their season opener, raking in four catches for 44 yards. He did most of his damage in a single drive at the end of the half. With Notre Dame up 7-6, the Irish got the ball at their own 46 with a minute and 13 seconds to play. Ian Book went 3-5 on the drive, and all three completions found Wilkins, for a combined 32 yards and two first downs. Wilkins’ contributions got Notre Dame into field goal range, giving them some much-needed momentum entering the half.
“Listen to the play calls … looking at signals and I’m just studying mental reps,” Wilkins said of his ability to stay in tune, despite often not always practicing with the first-team offense. “One of the plays, I didn’t take one rep at that play all week, but my mental reps kicked in — I’m always watching, I’m always paying attention. So when I got in the game, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do.”
With graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek out again this weekend, Wilkins is listed as a second-string wide receiver, backing up both junior Braden Lenzy and graduate student Javon McKinley. He will almost certainly be getting meaningful reps against the Bulls, and his knowledge and football IQ will be a valuable asset for an Irish offense trying to mesh together into a lethal unit. Getting reps Saturday will bring things full circle for Wilkins as he works his way onto the field with Irish — back in his freshman year of high school, the Fort Myers product received his first offer from the Bulls. As such, Wilkins is familiar with several members of the USF roster, including running back Darrian Felix, who went to Fort Myers High School.
But for Wilkins, playing USF is just another step on the way to bigger goals. He’s overcome too much at this point to get bogged down about a single play, or a game with potential emotional value. His goals remain team-oriented.
“I just want to help my team win games,” he said. “No specific goals. I don’t care about catches, reception yards, touchdowns, none of that. I just want to do whatever the coaches tell me and help my team win.”