SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame had only one spring practice before everything was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. So where do these cancellations leave coach Brian Kelly’s squad? Let’s take a look at each position and see how the Irish fare heading into the summer.
So far, the quarterback and running back positions have been examined. It’s now time to look at the receiving options quarterback Ian Book will have to throw to in 2020, both at the wide receiver and tight end positions.
The top three receiving options for Book last year — wide receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke and tight end Cole Kmet — are all in the NFL now. Those three players represented 61.2% of the receiving yards for the Fighting Irish in 2019, leaving a lot of production to be replaced.
In terms of receiving yards, the top returner is graduate senior Javon McKinley. He had 268 yards receiving, but the majority of those yards came against inferior opponents or late in blowout games.
For many observers, the top returning receiver for the Irish is redshirt sophomore Braden Lenzy. Used in a variety of ways in 2019, Lenzy finished with 254 yards receiving, 200 rushing and four total touchdowns. The 5-foot-11 wideout was a “home-run hitter” for Notre Dame, using his speed to score on plays of 22, 51, 61 and 70 yards. The question with Lenzy now is if he can develop into an every-down receiver for the Irish and not just be usable for a few plays a game.
The other returning wide receiver from last year is redshirt sophomore Lawrence Keys. Like Lenzy, Keys is known for his speed. Like McKinley, though, Keys was used sparingly. His best performance came when he had three catches for 35 yards against Georgia. Keys was used as a kick returner at times in 2019, which could be a role for him now that Finke has graduated.
The top returning tight end is redshirt sophomore Tommy Tremble. He made a big impact in his first collegiate game, catching a 26-yard touchdown pass in the season-opening win over Louisville last year. Once Kmet came back from injury, though, Tremble moved back into a backup role. He wound up appearing in nine games, recording 16 receptions for 183 yards and four touchdowns.
NEW RECEIVER FACES
There are three new notable additions to the Notre Dame wide receiver roster that could make an impact in 2020.
Redshirt sophomore Kevin Austin, who sat out last year due to an unannounced suspension, was getting a lot of first-team reps in the one spring practice the Irish had in March. At 6-2 and 210 pounds, he could fill the size void left by Claypool. Austin played in four games in 2018, recording five receptions for 90 yards.
Graduate transfer Ben Skowronek joins the roster after was injured three games into the 2019 season at Northwestern. In 36 total games for the Wildcats, the Fort Wayne native tallied 110 receptions for 1,417 yards and eight touchdowns. The senior also is a big player, standing 6-2 and weighing 224 pounds.
Finally, an incoming freshman to look out for is Xavier Watts, a four-star recruit from Omaha, Nebraska. A 6-1, 191-pound wideout, Watts could make some noise once he enrolls in classes in the summer. In high school, Watts recorded 161 receptions for 2,978 yards and 37 touchdowns.
TIGHT END VOID
After Tremble, the tight end depth chart is thin.
Brock Wright returns for his senior season. Known more for his blocking abilities, Wright has only four career receptions for 57 yards and a touchdown. He’ll most likely be the backup to Tremble, meaning he’ll need to become more of a receiving threat come the fall.
Another notable tight end is redshirt sophomore George Takacs. He caught a touchdown pass against Duke last season in one of the highlights of the year for the Irish but finished the season with two receptions for 12 yards. At 6-6 and 245 pounds, he’s a potentially big target for Book to throw to in 2020.