Braden Lenzy convinced himself he wasn’t tired.
Lenzy just finished the most active game of his two-year Notre Dame football career. He started at wide receiver in the 45-24 Irish victory over Stanford, recorded two catches for 48 yards and four carries for 48 yards, and ran out fakes on several more occasions.
The feeling of being physically exhausted sure beat the embarrassment he felt after the season opener at Louisville.
“It was cool,” Lenzy said. “I just remember at the end of the game, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, you’re not really tired. At Louisville, you couldn’t even get on the field.’
“‘Now you’re thinking: Man, I’m really tired. I played the whole game.’ I just kind of thought, ‘Yeah, you’re not tired.’”
In the span of one season, Lenzy went from not playing a single snap in the opener at Louisville to a starting role in Notre Dame’s highest-scoring offense of head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure. Lenzy should be featured in the starting lineup again for AP No. 14/CFP No. 15 Notre Dame (10-2) in Saturday’s Camping World Bowl against Iowa State (7-5).
The Irish will likely need Lenzy’s playmaking ability to beat the Cyclones in Orlando, Fla. (noon EST on ABC). He’s come a long way from the sideline of Cardinal Stadium.
Lenzy was happy that Notre Dame started its season with a 35-17 victory over Louisville. But the fact that he didn’t play at all after his family members made the trip from Oregon, New York and Indiana, didn’t sit well with him. He couldn’t even look his parents in the eyes before boarding the team bus.
“It was kind of embarrassing,” Lenzy said. “What do you tell them? ‘Darn, sorry about those couple hundred bucks. Hope you had good seats.’
“What do you tell them? I just gave them a hug and walked away. I didn’t even say any words.”
Lenzy was busy talking to himself.
“I was like, ‘All right. Not again. This needs to stop,’” Lenzy said.
In a movie script, what would come next for Lenzy would be a montage of endless workouts, a breakout performance the next week and a path to stardom. In modern college football, what could have come next was a trip to the NCAA transfer portal.
But Lenzy’s story doesn’t fit the well-worn narratives. Sure, he worked hard to be in his current position. And yes, big plays eventually came. The path just had more turns and twists of fate.
In the next game, Lenzy made a splash in garbage time against New Mexico. His first career catch came on a 52-yard pass from backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec. He later scored his first career touchdown on a 22-yard pass from third-string quarterback Brendon Clark. Lenzy even ran for 14 yards in the 66-14 blowout.
Then all Lenzy’s hopes for a bigger role were wiped away by a concussion sustained in practice. Lenzy didn’t make the trip to Georgia a week later. He missed the following game against Virginia too.
A 51-yard touchdown run on an end around in Notre Dame’s 30-27 win over USC weeks later seemed to be Lenzy’s star turn. But even then he slipped back into relative obscurity. He made his first career start in the rain-soaked loss at Michigan in which he registered only a one-yard carry. He caught two passes for 25 yards in the Virginia Tech game the following week. Then Lenzy didn’t make the trip to Duke a week later with what Kelly described as fatigue issues.
But in the final three games of the regular season, Lenzy wore out opposing defenses. He caught a 70-yard strike from quarterback Ian Book in the Navy game. He took a jet sweep against Boston College for a 61-yard touchdown. Then came his workmanlike performance at Stanford.
What changed? In Lenzy’s mind, the recent production is the result of a shift in the mindset from Notre Dame’s coaching staff. With wide receiver Michael Young leaving the team to transfer, the Irish needed a playmaker.
No longer was Lenzy limited by what he couldn’t do and asked to fit into the prototype of a W receiver, an X receiver or a Z receiver. Instead, he was utilized for what he does best.
That’s running. And running fast.
“We weren’t going to try to expect me to do what (wide receivers Lawrence) Keys (III) and (Chris) Finke do. I can’t do that,” Lenzy said. “Similarly, there are a lot of things that they can’t do that I can do. We just decided we’re not going to make it like W, X and Z. We’re going to make each player do what they do to their strengths. That’s where I’ve really flourished and gotten my role.”
Now the coaching staff has confidence in a confident Lenzy.
“Like most players, what you’re looking for is how do they handle the adversity that was in front of them in terms of whether it be an injury or a setback,” Kelly said. “Did they come back stronger? He came back stronger.
“Sometimes you wonder, will they regain the level of confidence that they were building? He’s gained even more confidence. Now, you can argue that you make a couple plays, confidence grows in you. He came back with a sense of ‘I’m a good player and I’m going to go prove it’ more so than, ‘I’m going to feel my way around here.’ That says a lot about his internal motivation to want to do well.”
Catch and run
Not many players on Notre Dame’s roster can catch Lenzy in a foot race.
He self-reported a 40-yard dash time of 4.4 seconds in April. At Tigard (Ore.) High School, Lenzy was a decorated track runner. He set school records in the 100-meter dash (10.62), 200 (21.34) and 400 (47.52).
But Lenzy discovered a crucial flaw in his freshman season at Notre Dame. He couldn’t catch. At least not with any consistency.
“When I came in, I couldn’t even catch half the balls,” Lenzy said.
Not exactly a good trait for a wide receiver. That’s how the former four-star recruit failed to see the field last year as a freshman.
Lenzy still has room for improvement as a pass catcher. He dropped a pass early in the first quarter against Stanford. But he’s starting to gain trust from Notre Dame’s coaching staff.
Matt Balis, Notre Dame’s director of football performance, gave Lenzy a list of workouts he could do to improve his forearm strength. That has allowed Lenzy to become better at squeezing the football upon arrival. Lenzy catches passes before and after practice, but he credits his mindset for the improvement as much as his physical gains.
Lenzy simply tells himself that he can’t drop the ball.
“I think about it when we have individual drills and tempo. I think about the fundamentals: look it in, tuck.” Lenzy said. “We’re not doing anything really live. It’s on air. So that’s where I’m working the fundamentals so then it becomes natural.
“So when I’m doing 7-on-7, I don’t have to think ‘OK, you need to catch this.’ No. It’s just catch, tuck, run.”
For all the hype that came with Notre Dame landing a wide receiver with Lenzy’s speed, the development he has required didn’t surprise the Irish coaching staff.
“We knew that we had a young man that was going to need to be developed from a technical standpoint,” Kelly said. “He was very raw. He played a lot of defense. The offense was one where it was going to have to come over time.
“Where he’s really improved is catching the football. We thought in his first year that that could be a struggle for him. He’s done a really good job of becoming OK at that. He has a chance to be a really solid ball catcher.”
OK still isn’t good enough for Lenzy. Yet he’s put together a season with 10 carries for 188 yards and two touchdowns and 10 catches for 247 yards and two touchdowns.
The Irish have made the best out of a skill set that still needs seasoning. He has scored once for every five touches this season.
They’ve found ways to let him do what he does best.
“My strength is once I have the ball in my hands,” Lenzy said. “Once I can just have the ball, everything changes. I just need to have the ball.”