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Adams: Why is it so hard to get Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts on the field?

| Wednesday, February 17, 2021

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — On Jan. 2, 2021, University of Kentucky redshirt freshman guard Dontaie Allen hit seven three-pointers in a 78-73 overtime win over Mississippi State.

No, don’t go anywhere. You’re in the right place (assuming you’re here for a Notre Dame football discussion). The reason I bring up that Kentucky basketball business is to draw an analogy that will become apparent shortly. But first, a little backstory.

See, Kentucky head coach John Calipari is about as stubborn as they come. He has these preconceived notions about how a team is a “fraud” without a legitimate interior presence — a belief that doesn’t totally track with modern basketball in the age of the three-pointer — and he has certain entrenched biases that lead him to favor five-star recruits over everyone else.

That philosophy led Kentucky to start the season 1-6 while posting some of the most abysmal shooting numbers in school history because only one guy in the rotation could shoot. However, there was hope, and it just so happened to be sitting on the Kentucky bench. That hope’s name is Dontaie Allen, a homegrown, three-star Kentucky product who is a pure shooter, and when he got his chance, he led the Wildcats to a win.

The reason I just dedicated 200 words of this piece to Kentucky basketball is that I’m trying to draw a parallel between the Dontaie Allen-John Calipari dynamic and the Jordan Johnson-Brian Kelly dynamic.

That’s right, Jordan Johnson. The (borderline) five-star freshman wide receiver out of St. Louis for whom fans and media alike were clamoring to make an appearance this past season, especially when Notre Dame’s passing game went stagnant (as it did far more often than it should have for a College Football Playoff team in the year 2020).

Johnson became the poster child and, apparently, the answer to all the complaints Irish fans and media have with the way Brian Kelly runs the Notre Dame program, and more specifically the Irish offense. Why? Well, it has to do with a (somewhat inaccurate) belief that freshman skill players don’t contribute much at Notre Dame and a (very accurate) belief that freshman wide receivers seldom contribute to the Irish. After all, here are the combined totals of every true freshman wide receiver to record a catch under Brian Kelly at Notre Dame:

80 receptions, 1338 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 seasons.

There have been four years — 2011, 2014, 2019 and 2020 — in which no freshman wideouts recorded a reception. If you take out the receiving statistics for T.J. Jones in 2010 (23 catches, 306 yards, 3 TDs) and Kevin Stepherson in 2016 (25 catches, 462 yards, 5 TDs), then you’re left with 32 receptions, 507 yards and two scores.

With all due respect to Brian Kelly, that’s absolutely ridiculous, because it’s not like the passing game has been stocked with multiple elite upperclassmen every single season. And that’s the problem. The reality of college football in the year 2020 is that elite offensive play — specifically from the wide receiver and quarterback positions — is a prerequisite to being a legitimate national championship contender.

Part of the issue at wide receiver is recruiting. Per 247Sports Composite, Notre Dame’s roster currently lists only two wide receivers that were top-100 recruits —  Kevin Austin and Jordan Johnson, with Deion Colzie coming in next season. That’s not great, especially considering Austin (injuries/suspension) has been perpetually unavailable.

I’m not so blind to reality that I believe a true freshman Johnson would make up the difference between the Irish and other CFP teams from a receiving standpoint. However, I think he — and fellow freshman Xavier Watts — could have made some difference, even if only slightly, if they had been allowed to get on the field and get meaningful reps of in-game action throughout their freshman campaigns.

I’m not saying Johnson and Watts should have been starting over Skowronek, McKinley and Davis. But they should have been worked into the rotation early in the year so that they could have the confidence and experience to be complementary rotational pieces by the end of the year because they present dynamics that can confound an opposing defense in ways the three starters can’t.

Ian Book obviously played conservatively at times, and there was debate over whether or not his receivers were actually getting open for him in the ACC Championship game. If they were, it clearly wasn’t enough for Book’s liking, so maybe Johnson and Watts can create more separation than those ahead of them? Just a thought…

However, when we get down to it, the fact of the matter is that this Notre Dame offense is not receiver friendly. Just ask current junior Joe Wilkins. Wilkins is a member of the five-man wide receiver recruiting class of 2018 — along with Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and ex-Irish transfer Micah Jones — that was supposed to present game-changing potential but through three years has combined for just 49 catches, 673 yards and four touchdowns.

“Definitely a difficult offense; we got a lot of plays, lot of different formations, same play out of different formations. It’s a lot to it,” Wilkins said during a weekly media session following the season opener against Duke. “Coming in as a freshman you’re thrown this huge playbook and you gotta know it. And it’s rough, it’s definitely rough, learning the plays. But you know, you’ll get it…

“I feel like I’m very smart. That’s one of my biggest strengths. I’m not the biggest, not the fastest, not the strongest, but I’m a smart football player. So, picking up plays has always been something that, it’s not easy, but not the hardest thing in the world for me. And that’s kind of how I got to try my freshman year because I was knowing the plays.”

Good on Wilkins, but to me, that’s a problem if mastery of the scheme is so important that it prevents guys like Johnson and Watts from seeing the field as freshmen.

Now, I’m not saying Johnson doesn’t share some responsibility for his particular situation. Apparently, he had some academic issues in his first semester. At least, that’s what can be inferred from the buzzword Brian Kelly loves to throw out as a blanket excuse for why reportedly talented players don’t see the field: “traits.”

And don’t get me wrong. “Traits” are an important part of why the Irish have turned the program around after 2016. But don’t try to confound Johnson’s struggles picking up the playbook with the struggles he may — or may not — have in the classroom.

If we’re taking Wilkins at his word, it’s pretty clear that the playbook is far too convoluted for every wide receiver, especially when several young pass-catchers — a few of whom eventually became great players such as Will Fuller, Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool — have struggled so mightily to get on the field before later seasons.

Bryan Driskell, the publisher at Irish Breakdown, loves to make this point, and I think it holds a lot of weight: In 2017, Notre Dame lost to Georgia 20-19 in a game in which graduate transfers Freddy Canteen and Cam Smith and former walk-on Chris Finke played over 100 combined snaps at wide receiver; meanwhile, then-junior Miles Boykin, then-sophomore Chase Claypool and then-freshman tight end Cole Kmet played a combined 12 snaps.

I’m not saying Johnson and Watts should have been starting this past year. But you’re telling me they don’t know five routes to run? You’re telling me they couldn’t be trusted to step out on the football field against USF (outside of garbage time), Pitt (if Johnson had actually traveled with the team), Georgia Tech or Syracuse and actually get a target?

If the staff didn’t think the five-star Johnson and underrated three-star Watts would pick up on the playbook as freshmen — which I don’t think they could reasonably assume considering their track record — and they refused to play Johnson and Watts because they didn’t have enough of a hold on the offense for their liking, then I can’t help but see that as a failure of coaching, developing and/or recruiting evaluation.

This brings me back to Dontaie Allen. John Calipari has refused to adapt to modern basketball and has made his own bed with a team likely to record the worst record in program history. That’s pretty much all because he didn’t recruit enough shooters and didn’t play the best one on his roster soon enough.

The kicker? Everyone said he needed to play Allen and he refused to listen to them as long as he could. Fans and media are usually a bunch of blowhards who don’t know what they’re talking about, but that was the once-in-a-blue-moon instance where everyone around Kentucky was right and Calipari was wrong.

I have to believe this is another one of those instances because all the evidence points to the fact that Notre Dame’s offense is what is holding them back on the national stage. At this rate, the Irish are never going to crack the top tier of college football occupied by Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State so long as Brian Kelly keeps doing what he’s been doing in South Bend.

And, to be clear, the point of this piece is not to make Jordan Johnson or Xavier Watts into some sort of savior; that would probably just be setting the guys up to fail (and a savior isn’t what Notre Dame needs because they shouldn’t be at risk of another 2016 season). In fact, it’s more about saying Kelly needs to start working future elite wide receiver recruits — like Colzie and Lorenzo Styles Jr. — into the offense early on in their careers.

But Johnson in particular, whether he wanted to or not, became the go-to reference for griping about the Irish offense because he is the most prominent symptom yet of a clear problem with Kelly’s offensive philosophy.

Of course, assuming change will actually happen with Kelly’s offensive philosophy at some point, the key question here is if Johnson and others like him will be on the roster when it does. If you saw Johnson’s Dec. 19 tweet — sent less than three hours before kickoff of Notre Dame-Clemson pt. 2 in the ACC Championship game — in which he said, “Mane I jus wanna play,” don’t tell me you didn’t have an inkling that he might be considering a transfer after one year riding the bench. And could you blame him?

Why would someone like Johnson wait around? Why, when he had offers from Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State, Texas A&M, LSU, Florida, Auburn and Alabama, would he expect to be redshirting for non-medical reasons as a freshman at Notre Dame? Unless all the ratings services just made a HUGE error with Johnson, I have to believe that, barring injury, a borderline five-star player isn’t meant to be a four- or five-year ‘project.’

And why would Johnson be OK with waiting around for three or two or even just one season without doing anything of consequence, not knowing when or even if the coaching staff will make the arbitrary decision that he finally has enough of a grasp on the playbook to be thrown out on the field? I’m sure the archrival USC Trojans, who also offered Johnson, would be glad to have his services.

So, in summary, I’m not at practice. Brian Kelly knows far more about his roster and the game of football than me. But it seems evident to me that the product he is throwing out on the field every year consists of championship-caliber defense and an offense that all too frequently leaves that defense out to dry.

Maybe the answer isn’t Jordan Johnson or Xavier Watts. But those guys are emblematic of a commitment to prioritizing veteran wide receivers over younger ones that, at least to me, seems to be part of the reason why this offense hasn’t tapped into another gear against premier competition.

And, for all the people — this coaching staff included — who lament the fact that the Irish need to do better on the recruiting trail, Kelly and co. may damage their prospects with future elite playmakers if they continue to undervalue the ones they already have.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden