Notre Dame receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. undergoes foot surgery, due back for the season

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame junior Joe Wilkins Jr., believes he and the entire group of Irish wide receivers have something special in store for the 2021 college football season.

SOUTH BEND — Senior wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. underwent surgery on Friday to repair a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said.

Wilkins, who is expected back for the season, had to leave practice on March 26 after colliding with a fallen teammate. Wilkins’ career has been slowed by a series of leg injuries, including a torn MCL against Cincinnati that required season-ending knee surgery last October.

Wilkins has 11 career catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns. 

“You hear about the injuries he’s had,” Freeman said. “What a tough kid. I met with him (Friday) at the hotel. He’s gone through a lot in his life. He can overcome adversity. He’s in a good mindframe.”

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Joey Tanona, an early-enrolled offensive lineman from Zionsville, remains out following a concussion suffered early in spring camp. 

“It was a pretty bad concussion,” Freeman said. “He was out of class for a couple of days. He’s a young kid. He’s supposed to be in high school. With him it was, ‘Let’s be cautious in terms of bringing him back.’ He hasn’t done anything physical yet. It’s good to have him back. He wasn’t even out here for a while.”

Super senior safety Houston Griffith (groin) should return by midweek after leaving practice on March 26 with a right leg issue. 

Greg Mattison stops by 

Greg Mattison, the well-traveled defensive coordinator who retired after the 2020 season at Ohio State, attended Saturday’s practice as an observer. 

The 72-year-old Mattison, whose long career includes eight seasons at Notre Dame (1997-2004), spent time during the open portion of practice watching defensive line drills conducted by his former Buckeyes staffer, Al Washington. 

“I’m trying to talk him out of retirement but I haven’t been able to convince him to do that,” Freeman said jokingly. “He’s somebody that I’ve known and respected for a long time. I’ve always said, ‘Hey, Matt, anytime you could come over here and be an eye for me, it would be great.’ He doesn’t want to do that. He just wants to enjoy practice.”

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Mattison, who has a home in the area, worked in South Bend under a pair of first-year Irish coaches: Bob Davie in 1997 and Tyrone Willingham in 2002. That gives him a unique perspective in what it takes to pull off a smooth transition. 

Davie, in fact, was the last Notre Dame coach elevated from an assistant’s role before Marcus Freeman was promoted to replace Brian Kelly in December. 

Saturday marked the first practice out of eight this spring that Mattison has been able to attend. He recently returned from vacation in Florida, Freeman said. 

“I said, ‘Take some notes and give them to me,’ but I don’t think I’m going to get any,” Freeman said. “He’s awesome. Just to have a guy of that level, that caliber, that intelligence, (who’s) done this for so long, to have him as a resource has been really beneficial for me.”

Mattison’s resume includes stops at Michigan (2011-18, 1992-96), the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens (2008-10) and Florida (2005-07). After the 2006 season, Mattison helped former Notre Dame assistant Urban Meyer lead the Gators to a national title win over Ohio State in the BCS Championship game. 

Freeman was a standout linebacker for the Buckeyes from 2004-08. 

Kyle Hamilton and Kyren Williams, in town as they train for the upcoming NFL Draft, watched Saturday’s practice from the sidelines as well. 

Sharing the load

Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph spent all of Thursday’s practice working with the second-team defense, but defensive backs coach Chris O’Leary cautioned observers not to read anything into that. 

“Nobody's a starter; they know that,” O’Leary said of the safety group. “We’ve got four guys that go with the 1s and the 2s. We go to the spring game, it’s going to be the same thing. Nobody’s starting right now. We go to fall camp, I anticipate it being the same.”

One of the deepest position groups on the team features returning starter DJ Brown along with Griffith and in-season converts Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson. Redshirt freshman Justin Walters is also battling for practice repetitions. 

“Sometimes I’ll put you with the 3s, and the quarterback with the 3s better be shaking his head saying, ‘Why the (heck) are you out there vs. the 3s?’ That’s the mindset. They understand that.”

As he mixes and matches on the back end, O’Leary also is keeping his safeties on the same side of the field for now. So if a player lines up as the boundary safety and the next snap is from the opposite hashmark, his next rep will be as a field safety. 

“What it builds is the understanding that all you guys are going to play and we need everybody,” O’Leary said. “That unit strength that we’re looking for, that’s how we’re starting to build that.” 

High marks for TaRiq Bracy

Super senior TaRiq Bracy’s return was a boon to the secondary in general. Bracy figures to be the starter again at slot cornerback, but his versatility gives new defensive coordinator Al Golden plenty of options. 

“(Bracy) had a great season last year: he played nickel, corner and safety against Virginia Tech,” O’Leary said. “I told him he just needs to send that (tape) right to the NFL scouts. I’ve never seen a guy do that. He did that for us.”

At 5-10 and 177 pounds, Bracy has the physicality required to thrive in press coverage. O’Leary, who has been on the Notre Dame staff since 2018, praised Bracy for “making the decision to come back this year and the focus that he’s shown and his professionalism.”

As returning starter Cam Hart recovers from offseason surgery, younger cornerbacks are getting a chance to expedite the learning process. 

“We’ve got a lot of growth to go,” O’Leary said, “but this should be the deepest secondary that we’ve had maybe since I’ve been here, top to bottom.”

Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com. Email him at mberardino@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.