For the first time as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, Ian Book may not have a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver next season.
In Book’s first season as the starter last year, former Irish receiver Miles Boykin emerged as his top option. Boykin caught at least one touchdown in six consecutive games before departing early for the 2019 NFL Draft (third-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens).
Chase Claypool switched to Boykin’s former outside boundary receiver position in the offseason and is on pace to outmatch the latter’s 2018 production. Claypool’s four touchdowns against Navy last week brought him to nine on the season — one more than Boykin’s eight last year. He also has 49 catches for 768 yards.
With Claypool’s eligibility expiring following this season, along with graduate senior receiver Chris Finke, none of Notre Dame’s returning receivers have more than 11 receptions through 10 games. Claypool mentioned sophomores Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III as receivers primed for a massive jump in 2020.
Then he named Kevin Austin Jr., out this season with a suspension.
“People don’t talk about him, but he’s a special talent,” Claypool said. “He has really good speed and really clean cuts. He’s a crazy athlete. He’s still learning, which is kind of scary. Once he gets the full knowledge and understanding of the playbook, he’ll be very good.”
The next two recruiting classes figure to provide the Irish what they need at receiver. Notre Dame landed commitments from Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts and Jay Brunelle in the 2020 cycle and earned pledges from four-star receivers Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles Jr. in 2021.
Johnson looks the part and fits the prototype of a No. 1 receiver. Below is a breakdown of Johnson and his fellow 2020 receiver commits.
• Jordan Johnson, 6-2, 195; St. Louis DeSmet Jesuit
247Sports ranking: Four stars, No. 12 WR, No. 61 overall.
Rivals ranking: Five stars, No. 4 WR, No. 21 overall.
Senior stats: 24 catches for 503 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games.
Position projection: outside boundary receiver.
Up next: DeSmet (12-0) faces Raymore-Peculiar in the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 6 semifinals on Saturday. Johnson comes to Notre Dame in June.
Analysis: Johnson does not look like a five-star receiver on paper. His stats don’t jump off the page. He runs an estimated 40-yard dash of 4.6 seconds.
But there are a few other factors to consider with Johnson. DeSmet’s offense relies heavily on a ground game featuring three running backs primed to play Division I football: Taj Butts, Rico Barfield and Darez Snider. The Spartans also have not been passing much because of blowouts. All but one of their 12 wins — a 32-31 victory over Chaminade on Oct. 4 — have been by a margin of at least 21 points.
Johnson has produced at an elite level during important moments. He caught a game-winning 32-yard touchdown to defeat Chaminade. In a Sept. 20 game against Christian Brothers, which aired on ESPN, Johnson recorded three receptions for 58 yards and a score.
“He didn’t have any glaring weaknesses where you said, ‘Hey, I really want to see him do this as a senior,’” said Allen Trieu, 247Sports’ Midwest recruiting analyst. “You wanted to see him take everything up at least half a step, and I think he’s done that.”
Johnson does not possess the size of Boykin (6-4, 220 pounds) or Claypool (6-4, 229 pounds). Yet his skill set seems to fit the mold of Notre Dame’s outside boundary receiver. That position requires a physical, towering receiver that can fight through tight coverage and haul in 50-50 balls with frequency.
A stopwatch can’t quite illustrate Johnson’s ability to create separation. His route-running prowess has been lauded within the recruiting industry. Trieu compares Johnson to Los Angeles Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, who is among the best in that respect.
“His ability to catch contested passes is really strong,” Trieu said. “His ability to do that in the back of the end zone and along the sidelines, he makes next-level type catches with defenders on him while keeping his feet inbounds. It’s the type of body control and polish there that I think is important.
“In college, you aren’t going to be necessarily creating yards and yards of separation. I think he’s also a little underappreciated after the catch.”
Josh Helmholdt, Rivals’ Midwest recruiting analyst, attended DeSmet’s 50-7 week-two victory over Rock Bridge. That game started Johnson’s streak of scoring at least one touchdown in six straight contests. He recorded four catches for 94 yards and two scores in limited action.
Helmholdt contributed to Johnson being bumped to five-star status just months before. His Rock Bridge performance only confirmed Helmholdt’s belief of Johnson’s potential.
“He’s well ahead of the curve developmentally — both physically and fundamentally,” Helmholdt said. “So I expect him to be able to contribute right away year one assuming he has that ability.
“Wide receiver is one of those positions that has the shortest learning curve, so you see a lot of freshmen playing right away in year one. Jordan has those tools to be able to step into the receiving corps and immediately be an asset for the offense.”
• Xavier Watts, 6-1, 187; Omaha (Neb.) Burke
247Sports ranking: Four stars, No. 42 WR, No. 250 overall.
Rivals ranking: Three stars, No. 100 WR.
Senior stats: 61 catches for 1,072 yards and 13 touchdowns; six carries for 85 yards and a touchdown; 68 tackles, three tackles for a loss, seven pass breakups, three interceptions and two pick-sixes in 11 games.
Position projection: inside slot receiver/defensive back.
Up next: Watts will enroll in January.
Analysis: When Jeff Watts accompanied his son, Xavier, on visits to South Bend, the Irish coaching staff would make known their differing opinions.
Offensive coordinator Chip Long and wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander project Watts as a receiver. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea and defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph hope Watts receives a look at safety.
“He’s going to do whatever for the team,” Jeff said. “He pretty much prefers wide receiver. But I know if he got there and told them he would play defense, they would take him with open arms.”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly ultimately has the final say on Watts’ position. The plan for now is offense. Boasting a 4.49 40-yard dash and shiftiness in the open space, Watts has the look of an inside slot receiver.
Further evaluation and how the roster unfolds would dictate Watts switching to defense. That’s how freshman Cam Hart moved to cornerback from receiver this season. Hart played both ways in high school, impressed at cornerback in practice and the Irish needed bodies at that position.
Safety became a lower priority for the Irish after they landed Ohio State graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor. Cornerback has emerged as the highest priority for Notre Dame heading into 2020. Whether Notre Dame eventually evaluates Watts at cornerback remains to be seen.
Burke High head coach Paul Limongi unleashed Watts this season after losing a handful of stars from last year’s state championship team. What Watts flashed as a two-way player in 2019 and previous seasons intrigued the Irish.
“Notre Dame has mentioned to us that they like the fact that he’s a tough, physical kid,” Limongi said. “Whether he plays defense or not, that really made him an attractive prospect to them. Because of his physicality.
“Saying he’s just a great wide receiver is an understatement. He’s a great football player.”
• Jay Brunelle, 6-2, 200; Shrewsbury (Mass.) St. John’s High
247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 121 WR, No. 765 overall.
Rivals ranking: Three stars.
Senior stats: 42 catches for 992 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games (missed one contest with a knee bruise).
Position projection: outside boundary/field receiver.
Up next: St. John’s High (8-2) will challenge Central High in the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 3 semifinals on Friday. Brunelle will enroll in January.
Analysis: Had Notre Dame landed top receiver targets A.J. Henning or Jalen McMillan, Brunelle would have likely committed to Michigan.
But the Irish still favored Brunelle over four-star receiver Michael Redding III — now committed to Miami. That’s saying something when considering Redding ranks more than 400 spots higher overall on both 247Sports and Rivals.
Notre Dame offered Brunelle a scholarship after he impressed at its Irish Invasion camp in June. He clocked a 4.48 40-yard dash in the rain and out-shined more than the dozens of other Division I prospects present.
“His size, his ball skills, his ability to get off coverage and get in the open and make catches in traffic is going to really be his big advantage,” said St. John’s football coach John Andreoli. “He does that very well. When he gets in the open field — he gets by people when they are in man coverage.
“He’s got that extra gear that he can just go get the ball once it’s up in the air. He’s got great body control.”
Brunelle still has the most to prove among Notre Dame’s five receiver commits, however. The competition spike is expected to be an adjustment since he rarely faces Division I talent in Massachusetts. Brunelle also must compete with Johnson and Colzie — two outside receivers ranked among the top 100 overall players in their recruiting classes.
Those two look like locks to develop into boundary receivers. Brunelle also brings a skill set for that position but may find more opportunities as an outside field receiver.
These perceived challenges are a reason why Brunelle will enroll early. Becoming a midyear required a grueling process that consisted of adding four more classes to Brunelle’s schedule this semester.
“We’ve never had a student-athlete that has gone onto graduate early from St. John’s,” Andreoli said. “They’ve been full-year, full-time kids. This was something that involved a lot of time and effort.”