A hunger for more football relevance drives Notre Dame receiver/return man Michael Young

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Perhaps the only thing that’s been more elusive for Notre Dame’s Michael Young than finding authentic Cajun food in South Bend is a path to a consistent role on the football field.

“I’ve been recommended a few spots,” said the ND sophomore receiver, who grew up in St. Rose, La., roughly 20 miles west of New Orleans. “It’s not the same.”

His next move from a cuisine standpoint, Young suggested, may be to drop in at the house of ND defensive backs coach and New Orleans native Terry Joseph.

“Make him cook for me,” Young said with a laugh.

The next move toward football relevance, for one of ND’s most potentially explosive players on offense, started with a clean bill of health (groin) about a week before the season started and continued last Saturday in 22-17 win over Vanderbilt with a couple of kickoff returns.

Those were his first two touches of the season and just the seventh and eighth of a quiet-but-promising career so far. The others from last season: one rush for six yards, four catches for 18 with a TD, and a modest kickoff return of 18 yards.

“I’ve always been confident about what I can do, but I haven’t always put it on display,” said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound graduate of Destrehan High School.

Whether that begins to change today at BB&T Stadium against Wake Forest (2-1) and the nation’s 111th-ranked pass-efficiency defense is intriguing but far less so than who might be on the other end of the passes thrown to him and what that might mean for the quarterback position long term.

Kickoff for the first road game of the season for No. 8 Notre Dame (3-0) is noon EDT. ABC has the telecast.

The most conspicuous words that spilled out of ND head coach Brian Kelly’s mouth Thursday, during a press

conference otherwise flush with ambiguity on the subject, was his admission that the practice reps between senior incumbent starter Brandon Wimbush and junior Ian Book had shifted from a 60-40 Wimbush edge to a 50-50 split.

“You know, they’re both going to play,” Kelly said when asked directly whether Wimbush would remain the starter amid substantial buzz that Book might overtake him as the No. 1 option. “They’re both prepared. They’re both ready to go, and we’re going to need both of them to win.”

To this point in 2018, Book has been in a changeup role, mostly short yardage and/or near the goal line, and totaling fewer than a dozen snaps cumulatively through three games.

Both QBs thrived against the Demon Deacons last year, a 48-37 Irish home victory on Nov. 4. Wimbush amassed a career-high 390 yards in total offense among ND’s near school-record 710 total yards. Book, in relief, completed all eight pass attempts for 50 yards and a TD, and added a career-high 54 rushing yards on three carries.

That would suggest Kelly’s thought process regarding a significantly expanded role for Book may be more big-picture than game plan-oriented. But Kelly has always been a flow-of-the-game coach, so what actually happens on the field against Wake matters, moving forward. Don’t write off the possibility of Book getting a second career start, and the first unrelated to a Wimbush injury.

It’s important to note that Kent Smith in 2005 at Central Michigan is the last Kelly-coached No. 1 QB to make it through an entire season without missing an important stretch of a game — or games — because of injury, demotion or both.

It’s also noteworthy that in the only two-QB system at Notre Dame under Kelly that truly worked — Everett Golson/Tommy Rees in 2012 — Rees’ 59 pass attempts that season fluctuated wildly: Zero in the opener, then six, zero, 11, four, four, 16, one, 11, one, five, zero and zero. The season-high 16 came against BYU, a game in which Rees started and finished while Golson was recovering from a concussion.

Ask the current players about how an in-game adjustment between quarterbacks affects them, and they — Young included — tend to recite the company line, that it’s not a problem and they have no preference who is in the game.

Three of Young’s career four catches, including his TD against childhood favorite LSU Jan. 1 in the Citrus Bowl, were thrown by Book.

The TD reception from Young’s standpoint went well beyond tying the game at 14-14 (with a Josh Adams two-point conversion run).

“That gave me all the confidence in the world this winter and this spring to show coaches like, ‘This is what you saw, but there’s more,’ ” Young said.

A concussion in the spring and a chronic groin injury in the summer that lingered into preseason training camp slowed his roll.

Ideally, Young and freshman Kevin Austin would add depth to a starting wide receiver corps of seniors Miles Boykin and Chris Finke, and junior Chase Claypool.

“I think it’s staying on top of the little things,” Young said of gaining traction as a receiver in that starter-heavy rotation. “The alignments, the assignments. Not making stupid plays, like covering up the tight end.

“Just little things like that, making sure I do the simple things all the time and then doing the extra things. That’s really where you can close the gap.”

Young showed that kind of flash early last season as a freshman and at the very end of it, during bowl prep and the actual bowl game. In between, he got lost.

“I wanted to make an impression on the coaches fast,” he said. “Luckily, I was able to do that. The problem with me, it was the little things I was messing up on. Not being consistent with alignment. Instead of being on top of the numbers, I was a yard inside the numbers.

“Just things like that on certain routes that are very critical, because they’re timing routes. I couldn’t get them right. and the wear and tear on my body.

“I was in shape, but my body, my legs, there were days when I just felt I couldn’t explode the way I wanted to. and so being a freshman, you kind of complain. ‘I can’t really do this. I can’t really do that. I’m too sore.’ and that’s where I started to hit the freshman wall.”

And his opportunities did as well.

“It was kind of tough to just take a back seat and watch everything,” he said. “But toward the end of the season, I was like, ‘I just have to go. I just have to show what I did earlier. and this time no complaints. It’s all out.’ ”

Young draws inspiration and advice from his uncle, former LSU and Indianapolis Colts running back Joseph Addai.

“He’s been a huge factor in my life,” Young said. “He talks to me every day when things are going bad. ‘Keep your head up. I went through the s ame things. It’s going to be fine, just keep working.’

“Even when I’m doing things good. ‘Just keep going, keep the gas on the pedal.’ ”

And that entails, apparently, pestering special teams coordinator Brian Polian relentlessly to give Young a chance on kickoff returns. Young finally got that opportunity this season in game three, and it included a 48-yarder against Vanderbilt.

“The only thing (Polian) told me was, ‘Get healthy, get healthy.’ So the one thing I did, I just told myself, ‘OK, I have to get healthy. I have to get healthy.’

During the week of practice leading up to the Vanderbilt game, Polian asked if Young noticed that he had popped into the mix at kickoff return, which to that point had consisted of a rotation of running backs Jafar Armstrong, Tony Jones Jr., and C’Bo Flemister.

“I told him, ‘I’d give you a big kiss right now if we weren’t at practice,’ ” Young said of Polian, “and he laughed.”

Young was all smiles after the Vanderbilt game, except for the hiccup of thinking he had been whistled down on the long kickoff return when in fact he hadn’t. Everything else about the return, though, he felt like he could build upon.

“I think a lot of times guys get caught up in that they’re given too much freedom back there,” Young said. “They want to do too much, just because they want to impress. But it’s simple. Just find the first vertical seam, make the one cut and go. I tell myself that, and it helps me.”

Eventually, he’d like a shot at punt returns as well.

“I would say it’s not on my plate right now,” Young said with a smile. “I think it’s like dessert. It’s not the full-course meal, but if they (the coaches) are in the mood for it, then, hey, so am I.”

Notre Dame’s Michael Young (87) is brought down by Vanderbilt’s Gil Barksdale (38) during a kickoff return in ND’s 22-17 win Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.