When Joe Wilkins Jr. says his life has been hard, it’s not a request for sympathy.
Rather it’s a statement of fact he’s embraced through his 20 years of life.
Wilkins was born into unfair circumstances. His father, Joe Wilkins Sr., was murdered seven months prior to his mother giving birth. His mother learned she was pregnant less than two months after her boyfriend’s death. So she gave Wilkins Jr. his father’s name to forever be the legacy of a life lost too soon.
So while the first two years of his Notre Dame career didn’t go as Wilkins Jr. planned, the junior wide receiver kept his struggles in perspective.
“Patience is a virtue,” Wilkins Jr said. “My mom always told me that. I knew it was coming. I just had to be patient.”
What finally came for Wilkins Jr. last Saturday in the season opener against Duke was his first career catch in college football. Seven different players — three wide receivers, two tight ends and two running backs — from the junior class caught passes before Wilkins Jr.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Wilkins Jr. secured his first catch for a gain of four yards on a pass from quarterback Ian Book late in the second quarter. He entered the game only after starting wide receiver Ben Skowronek went down with a hamstring injury. Wilkins Jr. caught two more passes that drive alone, which ended with a 48-yard field goal to give Notre Dame a 10-6 lead at halftime.
Wilkins Jr. finished the game with four catches for 39 yards. It was far from an overwhelming performance, but he recorded two more receptions than any other Notre Dame wide receiver against Duke.
After playing in only eight games as a reserve and special teams player the past two seasons, any meaningful action was appreciated by Wilkins Jr.
“It’s been rough. It sucks just being on the sideline,” he said. “I just had to be patient while cheering for my boys: Braden (Lenzy), (Lawrence) Keys (III), Kev (Austin Jr.), everybody.
“I feel like that made it that much sweeter too. It’s humbling. It’s not for everybody. Everybody has their own journey in life and football.”
The entire class of junior wide receivers hasn’t been an overnight success at Notre Dame. Austin made five catches as a freshman, was suspended all of last season and started this season with a broken foot. Lenzy didn’t play as a freshman, showed flashes of brilliance as a sophomore with four touchdowns and missed the season opener with a hamstring injury. Keys (13 catches last season) was stuck behind Chris Finke at slot receiver and took a back seat to senior Avery Davis to start this season.
Micah Jones is the only junior wide receiver to not make a game day impact before Wilkins Jr.
“Obviously nobody had anything handed to them,” Wilkins Jr. said. “They worked for it. But when you feel like you can be out there, and you feel like you can make the same plays, you feel like you can contribute, you can play and you’re not — whether it be for this reason or that reason — it’s humbling. It’s hard.
“But my life has been hard. My whole life has been hard. It’s nothing new to me. I’m used to being an underdog. I’m used to having to grind through it. I’m used to having to work twice as hard just to get the same thing as the next man. So no problems.”
Toby Noland transferred into North Fort Myers (Fla.) High in the spring of his junior year. As a quarterback, he needed to form a fast relationship with Wilkins, the team’s best receiver.
Noland wasn’t greeted by the prima donna caricature often associated with the wide receiver position. Instead, he met a fun-loving, hard-working leader.
“I’ve never really seen him mad,” Noland said.
“During high school, I was with him almost every day. I saw all of it. But whenever we were around the team, he was always happy. Unless we were down in a game, then he wasn’t happy.”
The positive energy was infectious on the North Fort Myers team, Noland said. And Wilkins set the standard for work ethic too. Despite being the most talented player on the team, Wilkins worked harder than everybody.
Wilkins was bench pressing 315 pounds — a number Noland associated with high school linemen, not receivers.
“I’ve never seen a wide receiver work that hard in the weight room,” Noland said. “He was a seriously strong kid for his weight and size.”
Wilkins also caught bricks, and that’s not a dig on Noland’s passes. Literal bricks.
“He would stay after practice and catch bricks with our wide receivers coach in high school,” Noland said. “He literally did whatever he could to be the best on the field.”
The two created quick chemistry going into their senior seasons. Wilkins, who also played defensive back, caught 34 passes for 616 yards and six touchdowns that season.
Recruiting services didn’t fall in love with Wilkins and labeled him as a three-star recruit. Rivals left him off its list of the top 85 cornerbacks in the country and top 100 prospects in Florida for the 2018 class. 247Sports slated him No. 81 overall in the Sunshine State alone.
Notre Dame recruited Wilkins primarily as a cornerback with wide receiver as a possibility too. Noland was pretty confident he’d be successful either way.
“He made plays everywhere on the field — punt return, corner, wide receiver,” Noland said. “He’s a great player.
Joe Wilkins Jr. knew a mastery of the playbook would improve his chances of seeing the field.
That helped convince Notre Dame’s coaching staff to put him on the travel roster as a freshman in 2018, Wilkins said. He was even in line to see some playing time in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson that year, but a knee injury in practice wiped out that opportunity.
He was still waiting for his big moment last week. But that didn’t stop Wilkins from preparing as if he would be counted on against Duke. Though his reps were limited in practice behind Skowronek, he kept track of his responsibilities if his number was called.
“I’m literally just on the sideline watching,” Wilkins said. “I didn’t take my eyes off (Skowronek) at any period of time. I’m always watching him, listening to the play calls, looking at everything, looking at signals. I’m just studying — mental reps, mental reps, mental reps.”
That attention to detail paid off last Saturday. Wilkins drew praise in a meeting this week for successfully completing a play against Duke that he hadn’t even practiced.
“When I got in the game, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins remains at No. 2 on the depth chart this week for Saturday’s home game against South Florida (2:30 p.m. EDT on USA Network). But as the No. 2 option at both the boundary and field wide receiver positions behind Javon McKinley and Lenzy, respectively, Wilkins will likely see some more action.
Saturday will be a reunion of sorts for Wilkins, who was born in Tampa. His first scholarship offer came from USF when he was a freshman in high school.
But his focus isn’t to make a big splash against a team from his old stomping grounds. Wilkins hasn’t changed his outlook now that opportunities have finally been presented to him at Notre Dame.
“I want to help my team win,” Wilkins said. “I want to do whatever the coaches tell me. I don’t care about catches. I don’t care about receiving yards, touchdowns, nothing. I just want to help my team win.”
He has a more important legacy to carry on beyond the football field.
“I’m the last piece of (Wilkins Sr.) left,” Wilkins Jr. said. “One-hundred percent without a doubt, my first son is going to be Joe Wilkins III. It’s going to live on forever. Hopefully my son and his son will be the fourth and we’re going to keep it going. I love it.”