In his first interview with reporters since suffering a broken collarbone in August, Michael Young couldn’t help but smile and crack jokes.
The Irish football wide receiver had plenty to be happy about. In Young’s first game back last Saturday, Notre Dame defeated then-ranked No. 18 Virginia 35-20.
“I can’t even explain how I felt,” said the junior, who recorded three catches for 19 yards in the win. “I was literally overwhelmed with emotion. I was so hyped, so amped. I really had to calm myself down.”
That feeling lingered for Young, who knows what his return could mean. Now that Young has shaken off the rust, he can play a key cog to correcting the inconsistencies plaguing the Irish offense.
No. 9 Notre Dame looks to feed off Young’s resurgence against Bowling Green (1-3) this Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).
“Now I’m really in the routine of things,” Young said. “I feel like (Virginia) was the first stepping stone in getting back into the swing of things.”
Fellow receiver Chris Finke returned to his more natural position in the slot last week. Finke struggled to provide production while filling in at Young’s outside position on the wide side of the field. That played a role in the Irish offense having a boom or bust dynamic.
Of the 46 possessions for Notre Dame’s starting offense this season, 20 of them resulted in a touchdown or a made field goal. The 26 unsuccessful possessions comprised 19 drives that gained just 21 yards or fewer, including 12 three-and-outs. A turnover ended four other drives.
“It’s a little bit of coaching,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got to put ourselves in a better position. Then, it’s a little bit of trusting what you see and your teaching. I think a lot of that has to do with developing 11 guys coming together each and every week.
“We’re four weeks into it, obviously we’re getting better. But we’re not there yet. There’s some good things that we saw out there. We’re playing really physical and that’s a good place to start, but the execution has got to be at a higher level.”
In the week leading up to the UVA game, offensive coordinator Chip Long approached Young about his return. Long wanted to know if Young preferred a specific play to help ease him back. He figured a quick pass or screen play would quell any lingering anxiety.
A passing play was far from Young’s mind, however. He wanted to block.
“He just started laughing and said, ‘OK, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,’” Young said. “But I was 100 percent serious. I needed to get that first hit out of the way.”
Young’s first dose of hard contact happened to come at the expense of his left collarbone area. He leaned into safety Brenton Nelson with his left shoulder from the side. The collision resulted in an illegal blindside block penalty at the end of the first half, though the Cavaliers declined it.
In his days at Destrehan (La.) High, Young was required to block fearlessly. His offensive coordinator, Greg Boyne, often repeated the same message: if you don’t block, you don’t play.
“Michael has always done a tremendous job of doing that,” said Destrehan head coach Stephen Robicheaux. “There’s a lot to be said about him and the guys that do it, because they are the glory guys. They are the guys that run down, catch the ball and score a touchdown.”
Part of Young’s confidence also came from watching Cole Kmet pick up from where he left off. The starting tight end recorded a combined 13 receptions for 173 yards and a touchdown in his first two games back. Kmet suffered a broken collarbone in an Aug. 8 preseason practice.
By the time Young sustained his Aug. 17 injury, Kmet was already catching passes. Young initially thought the injury could be season-ending.
“He doesn’t know this, but he was actually motivating me to go harder with the rehab and physical therapy,” Young said. “I was making sure I was doing everything right leading up to when I could come back. He was inspiring me the entire time.”
Before Young landed wrong in that one-on-one drill, he felt he had been playing his best football. Watching Kmet’s progress lifted his spirits, and the two soon conditioned together during practices.
“Running with a shirt and shorts on is nothing compared to running with pads on,” Young said. “That first day back, I have to admit it, I was dead. I was so dead. I fought through it. I knew I was exhausted, but I was so excited to be back.
“It was like, ‘If I die today, it happens. Because I’m back.’”
The Irish looked to ease Young back to the starting rotation against the Cavaliers. Notre Dame’s first-team offense included backups in tight end Tommy Tremble and receiver Javon McKinley. Young came in for Notre Dame’s sixth offensive play. That’s when he caught a seven-yard out route to convert a third-and-7 for the Irish.
Now Young figures to receive a larger workload going forward. Young returning to form may be Notre Dame’s missing piece for reducing its busted possessions.
“That first drive, we drove all the way down the field,” Young said. “If we can continuously do that, yeah, I think this offense is just — I can’t even explain it. It’s giving me chills because it’s really exciting.”
Those chills were displayed throughout Tuesday’s interview session. Young often answered questions with enthusiasm — and smiled while doing so. That attitude hardly seemed to elude him during his five-week hiatus.
“Every time you see him, he’s smiling,” Robicheaux said. “He’s just an upbeat kid. I’ve never seen him down. Never seen him down at any time. He’s got that infectious smile that always seems to be there.”