Kevin Austin continued a recent trend for Notre Dame wide receivers at the NFL Draft Combine by turning in an incredible all-around performance. Austin’s metrics and rankings among other receivers were as follows: 4.43 sec 40-yard dash (9th), 39-inch vertical (3rd), 6.71 sec 3-Cone drill (1st), 4.15 sec 20-yard shuttle (2nd), and turned in an 11-foot broad jump (5th). All things considered, this was almost exactly what Austin needed to do to bump his draft stock after a fairly non-descript Notre Dame career. However, this performance, along with recent performances by Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, continues to chip away at the myth that Notre Dame does not/ did not possess enough elite playmakers to compete with the yearly national title contenders.
The common refrain from Brian Kelly and the national media had been that Notre Dame simply did not have the horses to run with the upper echelon teams in college football. The offensive numbers would back that up with point totals of 19 (Georgia 2017), 8 (Miami 2017), 3 (Clemson 2018), 17 (Georgia 2019), 10 (Clemson ACC Championship 2020), and 14 (Alabama 2021) over the past few seasons. Rarely do teams with elite wide receivers, think Alabama and Ohio State, turn in such consistently poor offensive showings in big spots like Notre Dame has of late. I bought into the myth as well, bemoaning our lack of ability to recruit difference makers at the position. However, what is becoming increasingly apparent is that the issue was not so much the talent at the position but rather the coaching that directly and indirectly impacted the position.
Yes, Notre Dame still needs to improve the caliber of player and overall depth at the wide receiver position to consistently compete with the embarrassment of riches at other major programs. However, when a team has players that run a 4.42 (Boykin) and 4.43 (Claypool and Austin), the issue isn’t necessarily the lack of athleticism. Heck, Claypool currently is one of the best in the NFL at completing acrobatic catches. One of the biggest issues in the recent past has been receivers consistently winning at the line of scrimmage. If a receiver is able to consistently and efficiently do this, the offense will simply flow better as the quarterback can trust that a receiver will be where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there. The type of speed Notre Dame has had with the aforementioned players, not to mention current players such as Braden Lenzy and Lorenzo Styles Jr., lends credence to the belief that Notre Dame offensively should be able to create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. However, if players aren’t taught and drilled routinely on the finer points of route running, getting off the line of scrimmage, etc. they are going to be ineffective players once the lights come on. The person most directly responsible for this issue was Del Alexander. It took Claypool and Boykin both three years to develop into a consistent weapon on offense. Austin was also only able to turn in one productive season before declaring for the NFL draft, albeit his case is a bit different due to off-the-field issues and injuries. Furthermore, Brian Kelly’s refusal to directly deal with this problem is also troublesome. At a program, the caliber of Notre Dame, recruiting and coaching mediocrity should not be tolerated, yet that is exactly what Kelly did in the case of Alexander. Instead of objectively looking at the results on the field and on the recruiting trail, Kelly time and time again deflected blame away from Alexander. At some point, there has to be accountability within the program.
There were other factors at play when considering the lack of production from Irish wide receivers. It has not been a secret that Notre Dame has lacked dynamic play at the quarterback position for many years. Moving forward, the staff must bring in recruits that have the ability to complete consistently accurate throws at all three levels of the field, something Notre Dame has lacked since Jimmy Clausen. Additionally, the tendency to play conservatively in big moments needs to rapidly change. With Kelly out of the mix, Tommy Rees is squarely under the spotlight to perform. The reports about Kelly influencing offensive game planning are entirely believable under Rees. However, the handcuffs should be off, and it will be interesting to see what direction Rees is able to take this offense. The fact that Rees received interest from NFL teams this offseason should lend credibility to his ability as an offensive coordinator. Based on the one-game sample size of Oklahoma State, the offensive play-calling should be a lot more aggressive and imaginative than in the past number of seasons.
All in all, Notre Dame wide receivers succeeding at the Combine and in the NFL are an extremely positive thing for the program. This type of success helps draw in higher caliber recruits, which feeds into the cycle of NFL success. It is simply frustrating considering the lack of production from such a string of talented players during their college careers. Here is to hoping Chansi Stuckey is able to make an instant impact on the Irish receiver room moving forward.