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Could Notre Dame Football Wide Receivers Have ‘Transformational’ Season?

Pick any word to describe Notre Dame’s wide-receiving corps.

Unproven? Perhaps. Concerning? Probably. Enigmatic? Without a doubt. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly wouldn’t use any of the three to paint the picture of what his wideouts were up to this offseason, though.

He picked a much more flattering term.

“Transformational,” Kelly said on Saturday. “Transformational, and I underline that word.”

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It might not be time to put it in bold print and up the font size so it stands out, but Kelly sounded more than cautiously optimistic about the Irish’s wide receivers after the first practice of fall camp.

He’s flat-out, 100%, purely sanguine about the situation.

“I know that sounds strong when I use a word like that, sometimes it’s hyperbole, but these kids have changed their body, their commitment level, what we’ve asked them to do — they’ve taken it to heart,” Kelly said. “Now, they have to go make plays. I get that. But they understand how important they are to our success, and they look it.”

There has been tangible evidence to prove Kelly might be onto something. Senior wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr., who took first-team reps Saturday, was the top points-getter among wide receivers and tight ends in an offseason workout challenge. Kelly said Wilkins Jr. was in the bottom third of his position group in the same competition last year.

Seniors Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy have asserted themselves as the likely starters in the slot and at field receiver, respectively. They worked with the ones on Saturday too.

Davis had a relatively productive junior season, but there is plenty of room for him to improve upon it. Lenzy has a long way to go in terms of staying healthy enough to be a regular contributor. He only played in six games last season, but even when he was on the field he wasn’t making much of an impact. He had seven catches for 63 yards and a touchdown at the end of the year.

Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. hopes to finally stay healthy and be a go-to target for the Irish.
Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. hopes to finally stay healthy and be a go-to target for the Irish. (Chad Weaver)

Senior Kevin Austin Jr. is another case study in staying healthy. Kelly said Notre Dame is still being “very careful” in allowing Austin Jr. to get back to football shape coming off his season-ending foot injury last fall. Austin Jr. ran with the second-team on Saturday, and the 6-2- 215-pound boundary receiver looked like he’s prepared to be the difference-maker the Irish thought he would have already become by now.

Some transformations, though, take longer to materialize than others.

Kelly believes this group’s is taking place before his eyes. If it is, it could totally change the trajectory of Notre Dame’s season. Kelly endlessly praised Wisconsin graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan on Saturday. Coan could be named the team’s starter as soon as Thursday. But even someone as experienced as Coan needs help in the passing game. He’s not throwing the ball to himself, after all.

Wilkins Jr., Austin Jr., Davis and Lenzy have to be just what Kelly said their summer has been: transformational. Throw senior Lawrence Keys III, sophomore Xavier Watts and freshmen Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie into the conversation too. Together, they have to take Notre Dame’s passing attack to a level that allows them to compete blow for blow with the powerhouses in today’s game.

That’s the essence of transformation; “a thorough and dramatic change in form” according to the Oxford dictionary.

Notre Dame’s wide receiving form last year? Middling. Mediocre at best. Only two true wideouts had 65 or more receiving yards over the course of the entire season, and two of them — Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek — have moved on from the program. Davis is the only one who has returned. That’s a group in desperate need of reshaping.

A transformation, if you will. Kelly can feel it transpiring.

“There is a lot of optimism about where that group is and where they can go,” Kelly said.

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