Arguably the most critical part to the Irish’s ceiling in 2021, the Notre Dame wide receiver room, is clouded in mystery. A lack of returning contributors, health concerns, and questions about the Irish’s offensive style are among the key issues. Notre Dame lost two dependable receivers to the NFL in Ben Skowronek and Javon McKinley, leaving Avery Davis as the top returner (322 receiving yards). Davis is the only returning wide receiver with 100+ receiving yards. Braden Lenzy has flashed tantalizing potential and is in line to start, should he finally stay healthy. Notre Dame also hopes to see an overdue breakout season from Joe Wilkins to round out a promising but question-filled starting three. After that, it’s a mix of young talent and veteran receivers that should compete for snaps.
The (Potential) Starters
The modern era of college football has stressed the importance of explosive playmakers, something the Notre Dame wide receiver corps has lacked consistently. This season, the Irish are staring in the face of more limited wide receiver production, unless somebody steps up in a big way. The best bet for that would be Davis.
Recruited as a quarterback, Davis has 34 catches for 446 yards over his past two seasons and figures to be the #1 option in the Notre Dame wide receiver corps. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will likely utilize the speedy veteran as a dependable slot receiver for his new quarterback. Irish fans remember Davis fondly for his highlights against #1 Clemson in November. He had a long reception and game-tying touchdown catch in the final minute of the fourth quarter. Notre Dame will hope for those highlights on a consistent basis, as they break in a new quarterback.
Lenzy is probably the biggest x-factor on this Notre Dame wide receiver depth chart. In 2019, the former track star piled up 454 total yards on over 16 yards per touch with four touchdowns as a rusher and receiver. However, injuries limited the speedster to 71 total yards in 2020, so his skillset was never really used in Rees’ offense. Lenzy can be utilized downfield, on jet sweeps, or in the slot, and his ability to create big plays may define Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling.
Currently in line to be the third and final starting receiver is senior Joe Wilkins, who has been frustratingly inconsistent. In 2020, Wilkins notched four catches in the opener, but only three for 24 yards the rest of the season. Wilkins did not impress in the Spring game, reeling in only two catches and making a critical drop. Davis has been dependable, Lenzy has big-play potential, but Wilkins lacks those qualities. Wilkins is a good route-runner but does not have consistent snaps locked down in 2021.
Veterans Off The Bench
There are two names that populate this list, and both bring untapped potential to the table. First, the Irish certainly hope to receive contributions from senior Lawrence Keys III. Keys has a promising skillset, even if he’s slightly undersized, but his 2020 performance was wildly underwhelming. After 13 catches as a role player in 2019, Keys took a step back, notching five catches for 51 yards. Matt Salerno even took over most of the punt returns, leaving Keys a frequent bystander to the on-field action.
However, Keys impressed this past spring, and he showed out in the Blue and Gold game. Catching passes from Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner, Keys racked up five catches for 115 yards, leading all receivers from both teams. With the starting quarterback role up in the air, Keys’ early strong connection with two quarterbacks is promising. Reports and videos from Spring practice featured evidence of a similarly strong connection with transfer quarterback Jack Coan. If Keys continues his impressive offseason performance, Rees will likely get the senior on the field consistently.
The other veteran receiver to keep an eye on is the frequently unavailable Kevin Austin. The #14 receiver in his class, Austin flashed early promise with five catches for 90 yards in his freshman season. However off-field issues dogged Him. He failed to make two travel rosters in 2018 and received a four-game suspension in 2019, ultimately sitting out that season. A foot injury kept Austin sidelined for all but two games in 2020, with a broken foot ending his season. Austin has long had #1 wide receiver potential, and now in his senior campaign, the Irish hope he can deliver. If Austin is healthy and playing well early in the season, he’s a prime candidate to replace Wilkins as a starting receiver.
A consistent knock against Brian Kelly as a head coach has been his unwillingness to play freshmen, particularly at skill positions. With Notre Dame’s wide receiver depth extremely questionable, however, Kelly may turn to younger pass-catchers in 2021. Sophomore Xavier Watts was a highly touted recruit but largely sat the bench alongside five-star Jordan Johnson last season. He appeared in just two games, with zero catches, but this season, Watts is in an intriguing position. Watts is not immediately in line for consistent minutes, but the potential for snaps is there. There are few sure things on this depth chart, so if Watts impresses early, he could play meaningful snaps.
Arguably more intriguing than Watts is freshman Lorenzo Styles. Styles visited Ohio State five times, but Rees landed the sixth-ranked receiver. Styles did get some run in the spring game, snaring two catches. He’s not likely to be an immediate contributor, but if Styles learns the offense quickly, and other Notre Dame wide receivers struggle to elevate the offense early in the season, the freshman could play key snaps down the stretch.
Wide Receiver X-Factors
There are a lot of question marks that could be designated as X-factors with a receiving corps this mysterious. Here are the top three.
Braden Lenzy’s Health
Lenzy can impact the game in so many ways. In 2019, Lenzy broke off a bevy of big plays, with several big runs on jet sweeps. A major downfield threat in the Notre Dame offense, Lenzy’s health is the top X-factor for the Irish offense. With him on the field, the Irish have their top speedster and an electric playmaker. Without him, Notre Dame may have to lean on Avery Davis too heavily, or hope for an unexpected breakout performance.
Kevin Austin Staying On The Field
This X-factor is not designated strictly as a health issue, as off-field issues have plagued Austin just as much. Despite just six career catches, Austin still features the elite playmaker potential that Notre Dame saw when they recruited him. If he’s healthy, Austin and Davis become an exciting 1-2 punch.
Who’s Starting At Quarterback?
Yes, the young players getting their time in, or guys like Keys and Wilkins contributing are important. But if the other x-factors play out, Notre Dame has Lenzy, Austin, and Davis alongside their running backs and tight ends as weapons. Thus, the third X-factor becomes who is starting under center for the Irish. In the spring game, Lenzy and Keys had a great connection with Pyne and Buchner. Jack Coan relied on Davis as his go-to receiver. Buchner is the biggest dual-threat, so receivers that thrived with Ian Book’s scramble style may stand out. If it’s Coan, or even Pyne, the best route-runners (Wilkins comes to mind) could become top performers. Notre Dame has been run by dual-threat, scrambling quarterbacks for several years, and how the wide receiving corps adapts to a new style is critical to their 2021 success.
With a defense that should remain elite, one of the best backfields in the country, an A-1 tight end, the Notre Dame wide receivers, and their connection with the Irish’s new quarterback, will play a massive role in the heights this 2021 squad can reach.