This offseason, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish receiving corps is losing a transcendent playmaker in Chase Claypool and a reliable security blanket and team leader in Chris Finke. Luckily, there are a lot of talented players who can fill in the gap they leave behind; so many, in fact, that I’m not even going to attempt to list them in depth chart order because, beyond the first three or four guys, I really have no idea where they rank relative to each other. They will be listed in the order in which their names pop into my head.
We’ll examine each of these guys and make some entirely uncertain, very-possibly-wrong hot-take predictions about them in this week’s edition of Rees’s Pieces.
The use, or lack thereof, of Lenzy has been an enigma for the last couple years, as we watched a team that desperately needed speed refuse to use the fastest offensive player on its roster. The reasons given - fatigue, injuries, learning the nuances of the receiver position, etc. - were understandable, but frustrating nonetheless.
Lenzy finally overcame these various challenges in the back half of 2019. He took on a starting role and commenced absolutely torching opposing defenses, establishing himself as the most fun Irish player to watch. When he gets into the open field, no one can catch Lenzy. Even more importantly, we started to see him as more than just a guy who could run deep (although he did do that, and it was glorious); he was running more complex patterns, making more difficult catches, and showing he was a multi-faceted playmaker.
With another offseason to him to keep learning and getting stronger, I think we will witness the firepower of a fully armed and operational Lenzy in 2020. That’s going to be beautiful, especially if Ian Book continues to get more consistent and accurate on downfield throws. Fans who are fortunate enough to remember Rocket Ismail should expect goosebumps.
Perhaps the only player whose stalled arrival on the field has vexed Irish fans more than Lenzy’s is Austin, who, despite being probably the most college-ready player in the 2018 receiving crop, has been held out for large stretches of his young career due to off-field concerns. He missed all of 2019 for an unspecified violation of team rules.
It is a shame that Austin has had such a difficult time keeping his off-the-field situation above board, because in the limited time he saw in 2018 he showed great speed, strong hands, and ideal size, traits that could make him both a genuine deep threat and a chain-moving security blanket - a true number-one receiver.
Notre Dame desperately needs a player like this to step up in 2020. Assuming he stays on track off the field, there’s no reason Austin can’t be that guy.
Lawrence Keys III
Keys saw significant minutes in 2019, catching thirteen passes for 134 yards in a rotational role (he did not score a touchdown, narrowly missing the first of his career against Boston College). A fast, shifty receiver with strong hands, Keys has all the makings of an ideal slot receiver.
Keys missed the middle stretch of the season with due to injury, but when on the field he brought in some tough receptions (especially against Georgia, where he made a critical catch to extend the drive that gave the Irish a halftime lead). He also showed he could be dangerous on sweeps and reverses out of the backfield.
Keys’ visibility on the field in 2019 waxed and waned in tune with his own health, the availability of Michael Young and the performances of Braden Lenzy and Chris Finke. With Young’s transfer, Finke’s graduation and Lenzy solidifying his role on the outside, expect Keys to start in the slot in 2020.
McKinley is the leading returning receiver for the Irish, edging out Lenzy with 11 catches for 268 yards and four touchdowns. Javon had a feast-or-famine season, dominating one week and then disappearing the next. The highlight was undoubtedly his Marshawn Lynch/Greg-Jennings-in-a-video-game-style touchdown in the home opener, in which he ran through every football player from the state of New Mexico for a 65-yard-touchdown and threw down an emphatic spike in the end zone.
It was a brilliant, triumphant moment for a guy who had a tough road to the field. One of the more-heralded members of the 2016 recruiting class, McKinley suffered a broken leg in his freshman season and then was buried on the depth chart before a drunken altercation with police threatened to derail his career for good in the spring of 2019. McKinley got a second chance and took it, and you love to see a guy come back from that kind of adversity.
How much McKinley will contribute in 2020 is hard to say. At the time he was recruited, he had all the tools to be a number-one receiver; four years and a broken leg later, he doesn’t have quite the same speed, but he still has excellent size and strength. He showed last year that he could make contested catches when called upon. Expect to see him on the field situationally as a possession receiver and red-zone threat.
Like Chris Tyree at running back, Johnson is an elite prospect whose readiness to play will have an impact on every other Irish receiver. Johnson has great hands and ball skills, genuine deep-threat speed, and an ability to navigate the sidelines and end zone that is well beyond his years.
Whether Johnson takes on that role in 2020 depends on a couple factors: his own readiness (which I believe is there) and the availability of Kevin Austin. The two are similar prospects, but Johnson doesn’t have quite the size or strength of Austin (both players are 6’2”, with Austin checking in at 209 pounds and Johnson at 182). That said, if Austin continues to struggle off the field and/or does not perform well in games or in camp, Johnson could absolutely step into the number-one role. I am certain we will see Johnson on the field - and I can’t wait to see what happens.
Skowronek is an incoming fifth-year senior from ChIcAgO’s BiG tEn TeAm who made the eminently wise decision to transfer to Chicago’s actual favorite college football team for his final year of eligibility. I was a little surprised to learn of his transfer given Notre Dame’s depth at the position, but I’m not complaining; a 6’4” receiver with great hands and a ton of experience is always welcome. Prior to missing most of 2019 due to injury, he caught 90 passes for 1,206 yards and eight touchdowns in his career at Northwestern, with his best seasons in 2017 (45 rec, 644 yds, 5 TD) and 2018 (45 rec, 562 yds, 3 TD).
Skowronek projects as a “W” receiver, the big-guy boundary spot in Notre Dame’s offense. His strong hands, speed, and experience will serve him well in that role, but he will face stiff competition from the likes of Austin, McKinley, and others I haven’t even gotten to yet.
Similar to McKinley, I expect to see Skowronek a lot in third-down and red-zone situations. The two of them will likely be battling on a weekly basis to crack the two-deep at the W behind Austin.
Wilkins was a two-way player and classified as a cornerback out of high school, but has played receiver since arriving at Notre Dame. A smooth and shifty runner with quick feet and good acceleration, he has impressed out of the slot in practices and spring games, and will likely start out as the #2 at that position behind Lawrence Keys.
The problem with being the number-two slot receiver is that a lot of players besides slot receivers get lined up in the slot - tight ends, bigger receivers in red-zone situations, etc. - so you don’t see as much action as the number-two receivers on the outside. For that reason, you might not see Wilkins on offense that much outside of garbage time.
Where Wilkins really has an opening - and where he has seen the most game action so far in his career - is on special teams. With Chris Finke graduating, the position of punt returner is up for grabs. In the past, Brian Kelly has generally shown preferences for reliability and shiftiness in punt returners rather than straight-line speed; that’s Wilkins to a T. There will be a lot of competitors for that spot, but I think Wilkins is your day-one starter. If he proves to be a playmaker, he may force his way onto the field at receiver as well.
Micah Jones is a big dude. How big? If 247 Sports is to be believed, 6’5” and 206 pounds. That’s Chase Claypool/Miles Boykin territory. With Claypool and Boykin out clowning defensive backs and ripping down contested balls for the last two years, Jones has had plenty of time to fill out his big frame and become a more polished, well-rounded receiver.
However, he still faces an uphill battle for red-zone and third-down reps, with more experienced players in McKinley and Skowronek ahead of him. This doesn’t have to be bad news. The player Jones is most frequently compared to is Miles Boykin; Boykin himself took a long time to develop and didn’t get a starting role until his senior year, but things turned out alright for him. You may not see Jones a lot in 2020, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see him soon.
Another former defensive back, Robertson has moved around quite a bit at Notre Dame, going from safety to rover to receiver. The fact that he was slated to play rover indicates serious strength, which means Robertson is likely competing for snaps as a boundary receiver. He doesn’t have the size, at 6’1”, or the experience or the playmaking ability to indicate that he will compete for a starting role, or even a spot in the two-deep.
Despite this, Robertson may well play a crucial role this year. One of the many, many talents of Chase Claypool was his unparalleled skill as a gunner on the punt coverage team. Claypool frequently brought down return men immediately after the catch and, on two separate occasions in 2019, made crucial fumble recoveries to give the Irish momentum. Most of Robertson’s time on the field has been on special teams, and he has impressed at times; with Claypool gone, there will be a need for special teams players to step up and make plays. Robertson could be a guy to watch in those situations.
A rising sophomore who took a redshirt year in 2019, Abdur-Rahman is a former quarterback who was recruited to play receiver in college. Here’s what Brian Polian had to say about the position switch:
“(Abdur-Rahman) runs away from everybody. He has great spatial awareness. He makes people miss. We know he can catch the ball, we’ve seen enough of him in person.”
Abdur-Rahman is a very fast and shifty runner who will be deadly in space, especially on slants and crossing routes. He is also a great potential weapon out of the backfield on jet sweeps and reverses, where his history of running as a quarterback will help him immensely.
What’s in question is whether we will see that potential manifest in 2020. There are likely reps to be had out of the slot behind Keys, and Abdur-Rahman will compete with Joe Wilkins and others for them. What may be the determining factor for him is how much he has progressed in terms of route-running. He will also be one of a number of players competing for playing time as a kick and punt returner. No matter where it is, don’t be surprised to see him making plays sooner rather than later.
Like Abdur-Rahman, Watts is a fast and shifty receiver and a playmaker in space. However, unlike his former-quarterback counterpart, Watts is already a polished and precise route-runner. He should be ready to compete alongside Abdur-Rahman and Wilkins for reps in the slot right away.
A player with Watts’ speed and route-running ability has the potential to leave defenders in the dust. Irish fans should not be blamed for dreaming dreams of Will Fuller; Watts absolutely can have a similar impact. Like Fuller was in his freshman year, I’d expect to see Watts used situationally in 2020 before growing into a more regular role in the future.
Brunelle is a 6’2”, 200-pound receiver who will likely play the X, or field, position. A fast, physical player, Brunelle has a bright future at Notre Dame. I’d be shocked if he didn’t take a redshirt year in 2020 as he is behind a logjam of experienced players, but that’s not to say he won’t be making an important contribution.
Brunelle lit up Notre Dame’s summer recruiting camp in 2019, giving the Irish no choice but to make him an offer. A freshman who competes that hard day-in and day-out and has the physical tools to challenge front-line players is an invaluable asset on the scout team, and is also the kind of guy who forces himself onto the field eventually.