Position Breakdown: Irish look to reload at wide receiver position
Observer Sports Staff | Tuesday, April 27, 2021
With some key departures in a position that was already questionable for the Irish, it will be vital for some new, young wide receivers to step up for the Irish in 2021.
Position Group: Wide Receivers
2021 Depth Chart: graduate student Avery Davis; seniors Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins Jr.; sophomores Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts and Jay Brunelle; incoming freshmen Lorenzo Styles Jr., Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas
McKinley was a backbone of the Irish receiving corps in 2020 with his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame making him especially effective for the Irish in press coverage. McKinley finished the season as the leading receiver for the Irish with 717 receiving yards off of 42 catches, which was good for an outstanding 17.1 yards per reception. McKinley also added three touchdown catches on the year— all of which came against Syracuse on senior day at Notre Dame Stadium. Although McKinley did see some action in 2019, this past year was the first season McKinley got meaningful playing time in big games. The Irish will look to replace the big frame of McKinley in 2021 and find a new receiver who is just as effective in press coverage.
The Northwestern graduate transfer made a huge impact in his only season for the Irish in 2020. Despite not participating in games against South Florida and Florida State, ‘Benny Skow’ finished second among wide receivers with 439 total receiving yards off of 29 receptions. Skowronek also led the Irish with five receiving touchdowns on the year. Skowronek played a great game against Georgia Tech, where he had two receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns. He had another breakout game against Boston College, where he hauled in three touchdown passes for 63 yards. Skowronek also had a crucial rushing touchdown off of a sweep play in Notre Dame’s 31-17 win over North Carolina.
Although Jones did not have a college reception to his name at Notre Dame, he had the potential to step up in 2021 to fill in for the departures of McKinley and Skowronek. Jones recently announced that he will be transferring to Illinois State. Jones only saw action in the regular season finale against Syracuse, but he definitely has the potential to excel at Illinois State. Like classmate Lawrence Keys, Jones was a highly touted recruit in the class of 2018, as he was the 69th-ranked receiver nationally by ESPN. It is possible Jones could have been a key part of the Irish offense in 2021 if he hadn’t decided to transfer.
Austin has been raved about in practice extensively during his three seasons at Notre Dame, but he has seen very limited playing time due to injuries and suspensions. In 2020, many expected Austin to become the top receiver for the Irish, but he only recorded one catch for 18 yards on the year due to a nagging foot injury that ended with him breaking his fifth metatarsal before the Pittsburgh game. His 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame is identical to Javon McKinley, making him a prime candidate to fill in for him as the leading receiver in 2021. If Austin can rewrite his unlucky narrative from his first three seasons with Notre Dame, he could be set for a big 2021 campaign.
Davis has had a very unique experience with Notre Dame so far, as he was recruited as a quarterback, then moved to running back, then cornerback, and finally to wide receiver. Davis showed promise in 2019 with 10 catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns, but not many expected Davis to have as good of a 2020 season as he did. Davis finished his senior season with 24 catches for 322 yards and two touchdowns. It was in large part because of Davis that the Irish were able to knock off then-No.1 Clemson 47-40 in double overtime. With the Irish down by seven and under 1:15 to go, Davis secured a 53-yard reception to get the Irish in scoring position. Davis would go on to catch the game-tying touchdown pass from Ian Book a couple of plays later to force overtime. Although Davis had moments like this in 2020, the Irish failed to utilize him on a consistent basis throughout the year. They will likely need to involve Davis a lot more in 2021 with the departures of McKinley and Skowronek.
Many expected Lenzy to be the top receiver for the Irish in 2020, but nagging injuries plagued Lenzy’s production throughout the majority of his junior season. Lenzy finished 2020 with just seven receptions for 63 receiving yards and one touchdown and only three rushes for eight yards. This was a serious decline from his sophomore season, when Lenzy had 254 receiving yards on the year and 200 yards rushing for four total touchdowns. At times in 2020, it appeared that the speedster was not able to reach the top speed he showed off during his sophomore campaign. Assuming Lenzy can be healthy for his senior season, expect him to be an integral part of the Irish offense, whether it be on sweep plays or in the receiving game.
Lawrence Keys III
Keys was another young receiver who many expected to be more involved in the Irish offense in 2020. Keys was a nonfactor for most of the year, however, as he only had five receptions for 51 yards on the season. Additionally, Keys struggled with punt returns. After a fumble against Florida State, Keys was not used as the primary punt returner for the remainder of the year. The highly touted class of 2018 recruit was the 150th ranked player and 21st ranked wide receiver in the nation per ESPN. It is apparent that Keys has a lot of talent, but he has been unable to put everything together in his first three years. If Keys can improve his route-running ability and stay healthy (he had an undisclosed injury after his sophomore year), he could be primed for a breakout senior season.
Joe Wilkins Jr.
Wilkins was a complete non-factor for the Irish in his first two seasons, as he only appeared in eight total games in 2018 and 2019 with no total catches. Although Wilkins was not a major target for Ian Book in 2020, he did receive significantly more action in his junior season, finishing the year with seven receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown. If Wilkins is able to improve significantly again this season, he could be one of the top receivers for the Irish in 2021.
Jordan Johnson / Xavier Watts / Jay Brunelle
Although these three players did not record any receptions as freshmen, look for all three to make a stride forward in their sophomore season. It is likely that Johnson will be utilized significantly more in 2021. Johnson came in as a five-star recruit, the 25th-ranked player nationally and the third-ranked wide receiver in the class of 2020, per Rivals. Although Johnson was not ready for the college level in his freshman year, expect the speedster and talented young route-runner to get some action. Watts and Brunelle were both three-star recruits in the class of 2020 and excelled in high school. If they are able to develop and make strides in the offseason, they could be involved in the offense as well.
Lorenzo Styles Jr. / Deion Colzie / Jayden Thomas
Styles likely has the best chance to make the biggest immediate impact out of this freshmen trio. He comes into Notre Dame as a four-star recruit and was an explosive kick returner in high school, an area the Irish have struggled to get production from in recent years.
Colzie is another big-name 2021 recruit for the Irish. The four-star is the 10th-ranked wide receiver nationally per ESPN.com. Colzie was explosive in his senior year, recording nearly 600 receiving yards off of 31 receptions. Thomas is also a four-star recruit per Rivals and ESPN. Like his freshman counterparts, he was very successful in high school and appears to have a bright future in college even if he does not see much action during his freshman season.
Nate Moller ― Sports Writer
There are a lot of question marks surrounding the wide receiving corps heading into the 2021 season with the departures of key wide receivers Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek. While there are a lot of players that could step up and make an impact this season, there is a lot of raw talent that at this point has not translated into success on the field. I expect Braden Lenzy to play a large role in the offense, but it might be more off of jet sweeps and other plays that will utilize his speed, rather than a traditional wide receiver role. Avery Davis will also likely have a large role, but he will need to take a step forward from 2020 if he is going to assert himself as one of the team’s top receivers. Even if Lenzy and Davis can find success, there will certainly need to be a taller receiver that steps up for the Irish. I will make the bold prediction and say Kevin Austin finally gets some solid playing time. Overall, there is a lot of potential for success, but there are just too many question marks at the moment to be confident in the wide receiving corps.
Position Grade: C+
Hayden Adams — Senior Sports Writer
It feels like we’re right back where we were just over one year ago: with me and Nate grading out Notre Dame’s wide receivers in very different fashion. For the record, his grade is the same, and I’m not going to be as naive now as I was then (fool me once…), but still slightly more optimistic. The thing about this position is that it’s the key to unlocking the whole offense. That was clear in the ACC Championship Game and Rose Bowl this winter, when Notre Dame’s receivers accounted for just 17 of 48 total completions (eight catches against Alabama, nine against Clemson). Balance is great and all, but when it’s producing ZERO passing touchdowns and 24 total points in two postseason appearances against top-5 teams, some change needs to be made.
I’ve come around to accepting the reality that with virtually no spring practice and an abbreviated fall camp, first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees simplified the offense and leaned on his strengths in 2020 — namely by running the damn ball. And he’s said all the right things this spring about next season’s offense not looking like last year’s because of the wildly different personnel strengths. But the Irish are still losing the relative dependability of Skowronek and McKinley while banking on the flashes of potential they’ve seen from perpetually unavailable Kevin Austin, perpetually injured Braden Lenzy and perpetually lacking in muscle Lawrence Keys and Joe Wilkins. Position coach Del Alexander, for his apparent inability to get underclassmen receivers ready to play, seems to get one receiver to click in their senior campaign every year, so here’s to hoping it’s former top-100 recruit Austin if we only get to choose one (because it’s usually only one).
There’s a lot to work with in terms of potential, and yet there’s a lot of prior evidence suggesting this position group will underwhelm, whether it be because of coaching decisions, injuries or players simply not living up to the hype. But like I said, I’m being slightly more optimistic than Nate. Ever so slightly…
Position Grade: B-
P.S. Brian Kelly, play Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts!!!