Analysis: Notre Dame football's men of mystery this spring

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — His only statistic of sorts in two seasons at Notre Dame is a modest 121 high score in bowling in a charity event last June.

Getting on a roll on the football field has been a bit more of a challenge for Javon McKinley, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior-to-be and the highest-rated wide receiver prospect to sign with Notre Dame (No. 11 receiver nationally in 2016, No. 59 player overall) since all-time leading Irish receiver Michael Floyd did so in 2008.

It hasn't been so much a lack of production for McKinley as it has been the lack of good fortune.

He suffered a broken left fibula in practice midway through his freshman season, underwent surgery shortly thereafter on Halloween 2016, wore a no-contact red jersey throughout last spring and redshirted last fall to give him a chance to get back up to speed.

McKinley's still-intriguing upside, paired with the long layoff from meaningful reps and a grounded perspective when it comes to how hard he must work to play catch-up, puts him at the top of the list of Notre Dame football's men of mystery this spring.

The common thread among them is promise, coupled with adversity that must be overcome. Sometimes that comes in the form of blocked opportunity. In some cases, it's a chronic state. And in some, it's self-inflicted.

The Irish, with two non-padded practices in the books last week, resume Tuesday from their post-spring break hiatus with session No. 3 of 15 this spring. It will also be the first of the spring in full pads.

What might a healthy McKinley look like in the workouts moving forward?

“From an athletic standpoint, he's amazing,” said Matt Logan, McKinley's coach at Centennial High in Corona, Calif., where he amassed the third-highest career total for receiving yards (3,752) in CIF Southern Section history.

“He could be that big type of receiver who's also explosive. I hate to compare him to pros, but it gets us all on the same page. He could be like a Larry Fitzgerald or Terrell Owens — a bigger-body receiver who's also super athletic.

“He loves to block. He loves to be on kickoff and return teams. He's not afraid to get dirty. So toughness is there. For him, it's just a matter of being healthy. He wasn't super healthy his senior year and then obviously had the issue his freshman year. Now, hopefully, with a full year of recovery and training, he's ready to go.”

So too, though, are Citrus Bowl MVP Miles Boykin, leading returning receiver Chase Claypool, early enrollee Micah Jones and, in June, vaunted freshman Kevin Austin — all of whom have similar size and skill sets to McKinley. The dire need is at the open-field outside receiver position, vacated by exiled sophomore Kevin Stepherson.

Sophomore Michael Young and incoming freshman Braden Lenzy would seem to fit that stretch-the-field position best.

Perhaps offensive coordinator Chip Long will recalibrate the Irish offense with more big receivers. Perhaps not. But in any event, McKinley isn't counting on his lofty recruiting rep to factor in.

“I felt like when you get to college, everybody starts over,” McKinley said, back in 2017. “It doesn't matter what you did in high school. You've got to prove yourself all over again. I'm eager to do that. I want to show that I can perform at a high level.”

• Shaun Crawford: The 5-foot-9, 178-pound senior cornerback had a productive 2017 season, with 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble to go along with 32 tackles while playing the nickel in ND's defense.

The most significant number for him? Zero surgeries.

His junior season was the first at Notre Dame in which he made it through the month of September without crutches. But after ACL surgery in 2015 and a procedure for a ruptured Achilles tendon 13 months later, Crawford came into training camp last August still trying to recapture the top-end speed he had pre-surgery.

The cornerback position group was ND's deepest on either side of the ball heading into spring, with juniors Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr., topping the depth chart, and Nick Watkins, Donte Vaughn and early enrollee Houston Griffith being joined by three more freshmen in June.

Crawford's physical burst started to come back somewhat in September, but there seems to be another gear out there for a player whose mental toughness and X's-and-O's knowledge has continued to grow dramatically in the meantime.

• Asmar Bilal: The 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior is in the mix to become the starting rover, with the ability to play some inside linebacker as well.

But sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6-2, 210) is surging in the rover competition and June-arriving freshman Shayne Simon (6-3, 212) figures to do the same in August.

It's a familiar refrain for Bilal.

The former outside linebacker spent the spring of 2016 as a guinea pig, moved inside to weakside linebacker as an experiment to see if his speed and freaky athleticism would translate to All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith's old position.

His competition for that spot, Te'von Coney and Greer Martini, were each recovering from surgery that spring, so Bilal had a clear path to become a front-line player. Both players eventually passed him on the depth chart.

Then in 2017, Bilal had a modest 18 tackles in a backup rover role.

The knock has always been that he's raw, and perhaps the scheme change in 2017 made him a 'tweener, a player without a true position. But if Bilal can hone in on the nuances of the game and diagnose plays faster, he has the skill to finally break through.

• Liam Eichenberg: Midway through the Cleveland, Ohio, product's redshirting freshman season, Irish head coach Brian Kelly marveled at Eichenberg's advanced precision and technique for such a young player, adding “he can play any position he wants.”

A year and a half later, Eichenberg is still searching for that opening.

The 6-foot-6, 303-pound junior may push his way into the mix this spring … but at tackle, at guard?

He was in the mix last offseason for the starting right tackle spot that eventually became a tag team of classmate Tommy Kraemer and then-true freshman Robert Hainsey last fall.

Hainsey is now the No. 1 candidate to lock down former All-American Mike McGlinchey's old left tackle spot. Sophomore-to-be Aaron Banks was backing up Hainsey during the first practice of the spring last week.

Eichenberg, meanwhile, was backing up Kraemer at right tackle to start the spring.

Eichenberg could move inside to guard, where there is a vacancy on the left side in former All-American Quenton Nelson's wake. Sophomore-to-be Josh Lugg is the early favorite to land the starting assignment there.

New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn wants to look at different combinations early in the spring and plans to do so with an open mind, so Eichenberg will have a chance to impress.

• Alizé Mack: The 6-5, 244-pound Las Vegas product is coming off a suspension for the Citrus Bowl and a late-season production slide in which he amassed all of two catches for 12 yards over ND's final seven games of 2017.

He does have 32 career catches, not too far off what eventual second-round draft choice Troy Niklas produced in two seasons at tight end for the Irish. But Mack's modest 11.1 yards per catch and one career touchdown are a byproduct of him getting in his own way more often than not.

And now Mack, a senior, has two surging sophomores, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, with the talent to overtake him if he doesn't bring more consistency to his game.

“I think a lot of things were areas that he had to clean up off the field, which he has,” Kelly said at the onset of spring practice. “He has not been on any lists. I'm really proud of him and what he's done. But he knows he's got to go prove it now. He's got to be consistent as a ball-catcher. He's got to be great in line as well as detached.

“He's got some good players around him that he's got to go and beat out, because he's coming off of a suspension. He's very humble. Like I said, he's done all the little things the right way for us off the field. His attention to detail has been great. Good for him. Now he's got to go put that together.”

Wide receiver Javon McKinley (88) runs drills during Notre Dame football spring practice on March 6 inside the Loftus Center. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)