Notre Dame WR coach Del Alexander evaluates ND's rising wide receivers

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

The question is not “if.”

It’s “when.”

Because, make no mistake, the end is coming — for Notre Dame wide receiver Miles Boykin, for Chris Finke, for Chase Claypool and Michael Young. One day, maybe soon, their starting job will be someone else’s starting job. Their reps will be the next guy’s reps.

Their moment will be swept away by someone else’s.

The goal, Irish wide receivers coach Del Alexander said on Tuesday, is not to ignore their fate. It’s to acknowledge it … and then fight it for as long as they possibly can.

“There’s a saying in my room. They may not like it, but everyone in that room will be replaced one day,” Alexander said. “They decide how soon. Same with me. Every one of us will be replaced, so they see the tags (of the incoming freshmen) on the board. They know they’re there. They’re in a bright color on the board.

“They know they’re there, but at the same time they’re not concerned with those guys because they know when (the freshmen) walk in the door, they know absolutely nothing.”

They may know nothing now, but don’t tell that to Notre Dame’s incoming freshmen wide receivers — Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and the recently enrolled Micah Jones. Austin and Lenzy are both consensus four-star recruits, while Jones was also deemed a four-star prospect by Rivals. Their ceiling, to quote Michael Jordan, is the roof.

And their confidence is nearly as high.

“I know that those guys — from our conversations here in the spring — they’re eager,” Alexander said. “They have iPads. They have the (playbook) information. I’m getting questions back from them.

“They’re confident. They’re confident right now, and they haven’t taken a snap.”

But what about the guys that have taken snaps? What about Notre Dame’s more veteran wide receivers that are working this spring to solidify starting positions?

Here’s Alexander’s input on the individual pieces of Notre Dame’s unproven, but improving, wide receiver corps.

Chris Finke — Senior, 5-10, 179

Two years ago, Finke was probably best known for being high school teammates with Irish safety Nick Coleman and former quarterback Malik Zaire.

Since then, he’s earned a scholarship, caught 16 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns … and gradually worked his way to the top of the depth chart.

“Chris had the least amount of (missed assignments through five practices),” Alexander said. “So at this point in the game, Finke knows everything. I think I can move Finke anywhere. I can beat Finke up. I can get him in front of blockers. We’re doing so many little things with Finke that help him have a knack for the game outside of the playbook. That’s his spring, because he understands exactly what we want.

“He knows the playbook. But at the same time, we’re talking about leverage. We’re talking about using his height to his advantage, using his quickness, timing on breaks and anticipation of the people around him. So with Finke, we’re doing some things that help you play for a long time.”

Chase Claypool — Junior, 6-5, 229

Claypool’s physical tools are undeniable. The 6-5, 229-pound junior is a more imposing force than any of his fellow Irish receivers, and through two seasons, that frame has yielded 34 catches, 483 receiving yards and a pair of scores.

But what does Claypool — who is working in a limited fashion with the starters while recovering from a December shoulder injury — need to do to turn his potential into production?

“(His ceiling) is through the roof. It’s unlimited,” Alexander said. “I’ve mentioned that Chase is an angry and physical blocker. He’s an emotional player. So we have to channel that emotion into, ‘Hey, take this right step here.’ He’s like, ‘I just want to make the big play.’

“But even with his size, speed and strength, it is difficult for him to free himself up if you’re playing against an All-American cornerback, if you’re playing against a guy that’s been playing for four years and really understands where you’re aligned and is anticipating what you’re doing. So we really need to focus on Chase and his football IQ so that he can use his talents.”

Photo sequence of Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool (83) as he celebrates a touchdown with teammates during the Notre Dame-Wake Forest NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

Michael Young — Sophomore, 5-10, 192

Young’s freshman season was maddeningly uneven.

The 5-10, 192-pound speedster impressed in fall camp, only to fade in the regular season, then secure the first touchdown of his career in the 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over LSU.

It added up to four catches for 18 yards in 13 games.

That, and one considerable crossroads.

“He showed his talents early in camp,” Alexander said. “Sometimes it’s hard to understand the drive and the grit to get to the end of the season. He was able to kind of self-evaluate, take a good look in the mirror and say, ‘I have more. I’m capable of doing this.’ He was able in the second half of the season to push again and find opportunities.”

This spring, Young is making another push. The Saint Rose, La., native is taking the majority of his reps with the first-team offense.

He’s allowing himself to learn — and that, in itself, is a lesson.

Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson (56) holds up Michael Young (87) after a touchdown during the Citrus Bowl on Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

“He has corrected himself on a number of things. He takes to coaching,” Alexander said. “I think when he first came in, though, he thought, ‘It’s not about me in a selfish way, but I have to control me.’ He wasn’t as open to coaching. He didn’t see things as clearly.

“As time went on and as he became more and more eager to play, he started to listen a little more and that helped him to see a little bit more, and that kind of freed his game up to where he was able to make more plays.”

Javon McKinley — Junior, 6-2, 215

Through two seasons, this former four-star recruit has been statistically invisible.

Six career games, all spent on special teams during the 2016 campaign, failed to yield a catch or a tackle. McKinley spent the 2017 season relegated to the scout team while recovering from a broken fibula suffered the previous fall.

It was difficult, even for Alexander, to consistently monitor McKinley’s progress.

“It’s tough when you go down to scout team,” Alexander said. “It’s tough to keep the level of competition in your mind. ‘OK, I’ve got to go out and compete against the first-team defense.’ I don’t get to see that. He may get some reps with me. I may pull him (to the side) and watch him work a little bit, but the majority of his time is spent away from me.

“So we just have to share information off the field a little bit more. We have to talk about little things that he might be doing. We have to steal opportunities watching video and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do this when you’re over there with the defense. I know they may not want you to attack the ball and injure someone, but you can go full speed.’

“So we were just trying to work on the (right) habits daily even though he was over there. I think he tried to do that, so his transition shouldn’t be very difficult to come back over (to the two-deep offense).”

McKinley has begun to make that transition this spring, working primarily with the second-team offense and showing flashes of what made the Corona, Calif., native such a coveted national recruit.

The question surrounding McKinley’s first career catch doesn’t seem to be “if,” but “when.”

“His progress has been good,” Alexander said. “He’s made some plays. There have been some opportunities that he’s missed. But like most guys I think he has a different determination, because he’s going into year three and he wants that opportunity for his family to see him play.”

Javon McKinley during Notre Dame football spring practice Saturday, March 24, 2018, inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

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Notre dame Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander talks to Chase Claypool (83) while running drills during spring practice at the Loftus Sports Center, Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ