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Leading Irish receiver Javon McKinley is making the most of this opportunity

| Friday, December 18, 2020

When you think of the phrase “Beast Mode,” only one player comes to mind: Marshawn Lynch. But for the Irish and Brian Kelly, their beast is not found in the backfield but rather through the air. Their “beast” is Javon McKinley.

The graduate student wide receiver has emerged as the top target for the Irish. And after their 42-26 win over Florida State where he racked up five receptions for 107 yards, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said he was playing with a “beast mentality” and that there wasn’t anyone who could cover him; he has not lost this mindset and this playing style since then. 

McKinley has not had much given to him throughout his life. But despite this fact he has stepped up into the limelight in his final season and has begun to shine as graduate student quarterback Ian Books go-to target. He is surely familiar with the phrase, “earned, not given.”

McKinley hasn’t followed the routine career path of your typical Notre Dame wide receiver. Sure, this is a receiver who followed in the footsteps of Chase Claypool (who is now putting on a show in the NFL in his rookie season), a receiver who took notes from Miles Boykin, too, but now in his fifth season he is finally beginning to dazzle. He is a true veteran and there is little he hasn’t seen. 

McKinley did not catch his first collegiate pass until last season. He came into South Bend as one of the most prolific wideouts in the nation but he broke his leg his freshman year and was subsequently sidelined the next year. After this injury McKinley struggled to get back onto the field and find his spot on the ever-fluctuating Irish roster. During this time McKinley ran into some issues away from the field and he was arrested after an out-of-character incident with campus police officers. McKinley didn’t lose all hope here, though, and neither did those who coached him day in and day out. The coaching staff allowed him back on the team and gave him a second chance and one he would take advantage of in every sense of the word. 

Through all of this adversity, McKinley said he remained poised, and, simply put, he kept his head in the game.

“I never really had a tipping point of realizing the impact I could have. I knew my capabilities, I knew my abilities, I knew I could play ball. It was just a matter of gameplanning and opportunity when I got to show that in a game,” McKinley said. “I always knew I was capable of the plays that I have made and I’m hoping to continue to do the same thing.” 

Though he has been putting up big receiving numbers this season, one thing was nagging at McKinley a bit: the fact that he had not caught a touchdown pass this season — up until their matchup against Syracuse last week when he nearly matched his 2019 season touchdown reception numbers in one meeting as he recorded three touchdowns, one shy of his season best of four last year. 

Observer File Photo
Irish graduate student wide receiver Javon McKinley makes a move downfield during Notre Dame’s 52-0 victory over Bowling Green on Oct. 5 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium. McKinley led the team in receiving with 104 yards and a touchdown on five receptions in the game.

“It was probably the most annoying thing I have ever experienced in my life to have all the catches and receptions and yards and not to have scored,” McKinley said. “But just to finally get a little taste of the end zone … reminded me of the love and the feel I have for the game when you get in the endzone and you hear the crowd roaring with what little crowd we had. It was still pretty loud. Then getting a few more it was good to showcase my ability and at least show it with me getting in the end zone rather than just around on the field.” 

In Notre Dame’s last five games McKinley has hauled down at least five receptions in each contest and has broken the 100-yard barrier in three of those games. He is coming into his own at an opportune time for the Irish who have the Clemson Tigers and another trip to the College Football Playoffs looming large on the horizon. McKinley said that his development as a player has kind of flown under the radar, and what has really helped him is fine-tuning little details and getting a little bit better everyday. 

“I definitely feel a little faster, about the same strength but it was more of an opportunity kind of thing,” McKinley said. “But being off the field and on practice squad, being more consistent and proving that I can make plays on a consistent basis and allowing me to do that in the game is where it came into me getting more playing time my senior year and then this year.”

And boy, are Brian Kelly and the Irish glad to have a threat that their seasoned quarterback can find through the air. McKinley is proving to be a threat downfield, making big plays and even as a blocker for the impressive Irish run game. In what will presumably be his final collegiate season, he is impressing NFL scouts, who will have certainly have a close eye on him this weekend in what could possibly be the second biggest college game this season.

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About Jimmy Ward

Jimmy is a senior at Holy Cross College, where he studies English and sports management. He is originally from Westfield, Indiana. Currently, Jimmy serves as an associate sports editor at The Observer. You can find him at @jimmyyward on Twitter.

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