What To Make Of The Notre Dame Wide Receivers' Quiet Debut
One position group’s stat line from Notre Dame’s season opener was similar to its production in The Michigan Game.
Parallels to The Michigan Game are bloodcurdling.
In that 45-14 obscenity last October, Notre Dame wide receivers caught four passes (of a mere 11 Irish completions), two of them on a garbage-time scoring drives. They were far from the only reason Notre Dame lost.
Saturday, an overhauled group of Notre Dame receivers had seven receptions for 74 yards. In quarterback Ian Book’s 24 career starts, only that loss at Michigan has resulted in fewer catches and yards from wideouts. The difference, of course, is the Irish won 27-13 and threw for 265 yards, lessening the reaction to the lack of receiver production from outright panic to concern.
Book and his receivers looking like exactly what they were: a group of new faces at less than full strength that had less time together than normal, namely missing 14 spring practices. Notre Dame hopes that solvable discord is the extent of the issues. If not, the offensive ceiling lowers considerably, and the concern lies there.
“Those are important reps you wish you had,” Book said after the game. “Every day counts especially with quarterback-receiver timing. It’s huge. Chemistry is everything. It’s trust. When you miss those days, you lose them. But I’m excited with the way guys wanted to put in work.”
It’s too early to proclaim the position a lost cause, especially when two of its dynamic difference-makers, Kevin Austin (not a surprise) and Braden Lenzy (surprise) were out injured and intriguing but unknown five-star freshman Jordan Johnson has yet to play. Lenzy missed the Duke game with a hamstring injury and is expected back against South Florida on Saturday.
USF represents a chance for the receivers to get right, but the Bulls are not the level of competition against whom they will be judged or must beat to take Notre Dame where it wants to go. Ideally for Notre Dame, even Duke’s respectable secondary would have been overmatched.
Starting wide receivers Bennett Skowronek, Avery Davis and Javon McKinley were targeted a combined four times against Duke. Skowronek, the owner of 110 career receptions in the Big Ten, was catch-less before injuring his hamstring in the second quarter. McKinley was target-less. Davis caught both of his targets for 26 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown. Book threw just 11 of his 31 pass attempts at wide receivers.
All told, it’s a group that needs to get healthy, stay healthy and be a source of explosive plays. Notre Dame’s offense survived without much from them against Duke thanks to eight catches from tight ends and running back Kyren Williams’ impressive debut. But the goal is to thrive.
“We have to all stay in the lineup to build that consistency and sixth sense in quarterback-wide receiver relationship,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
Notre Dame’s receivers’ yards per route run best illustrates the absence of impact. The stat is a strong indicator of receiver production, efficiency and explosiveness. Yes, it’s a small sample, but here’s where Notre Dame’s receivers stand among the 237 qualified wide receivers in Pro Football Focus’ national yards per route run leaderboard:
-T-99: Joe Wilkins Jr. (1.86 YPRR, 21 routes)
-137: Davis (1.24 YPPR, 24 routes)
-199: Lawrence Keys III (0.27 YPPR, 15 routes)
-T-205: Skowronek: (0.0 YPRR, 15 routes run)
For comparison, a 1.86 YPPR over an entire season would have ranked 152nd nationally in 2019 among wide receivers with at least 50 targets. Chase Claypool, last year’s leading receiver, ranked 53rd nationally with 2.48 YPPR.
Until Austin returns, Notre Dame has to make it work with the current group. The Irish aren’t likely to face a top-flight defense its first three games, after which Austin may be back. Right now, they’ll require more from the receivers and Book to handle even the decent defenses. There are indeed some options to find more.
Tactically, there was a shortage of one commonly used play type. Notre Dame attempted only six play action passes against Duke, which per Sports Info Solutions’ database, was lower than all but one of Book’s 2019 starts. Those six passes averaged 10.8 yards. The play action rate among Power Five teams in 2019 was around 25 percent. Something to con the defense and assist in creating space over the middle would help a receiving corps that had difficulty separating.
Regarding the receiver personnel itself, gaining Lenzy’s speed and open-field ability is an easily attainable step. So is continuing to find ways to use Wilkins, last week’s revelation. He entered the game in place of Skowronek and caught four passes for 44 yards, including three receptions on a field-goal drive before halftime. With Skowronek likely out with the hamstring injury, more opportunity is present.
Before the outburst, Wilkins was known only to those who had seem him flash in practice when he was actually available. With practice closed this year, no one had any physical evidence he was ready to contribute. Asked Tuesday how many reps he had with the first-team offense, he called it “50-50.” Yet he was prepared as anyone when he entered.
“Watching Ben, I’m on the sideline and I didn’t take my eyes off him,” Wilkins said. “I’m watching him, listening to the play calls, looking at everything. I’m just studying. Mental reps, mental reps, mental reps. Coach applauded me in our meeting because one play, I didn’t take a rep with that play all week. But my mental reps, I’m always watching and paying attention, so I when I got in the game, I knew exactly what to do.”
Added Kelly: “I hope his confidence is up that he can do that on a consistent basis.”
Kelly’s Monday comments suggested Johnson is further away from contributions, noting his zero snaps against Duke “isn’t just about football” and has development to do with “traits.” Same time, Kelly hinted there’s opportunity if not need for someone else to jump in the rotation.
“We have to get a young guy ready,” Kelly said. “Someone has to step up and accelerate their growth.”
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