Analysis: McKinley returns to Notre Dame's receiving corps, and speedy sophomores surge

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Thursday a groin injury kept Javon McKinley out of the contact portion of Notre Dame spring football practice, relegating him to some light stretching and side work.

Given the events of the past six weeks for the senior wide receiver from Corona, Calif., that constituted progress in relative terms.

When spring practice opened on March 2, McKinley wasn’t even sure he had a football future, period. A blurry one will suffice for now.

A Notre Dame spokesman confirmed after Thursday’s practice — No. 5 of 15 this spring — that Irish head coach Brian Kelly had reinstated McKinley conditionally from an indefinite suspension, with a status review to come sometime after the April 13 Blue-Gold Game.

On a day when the media got to see the entirety of practice for the first time this spring — but with no player or coach interview availability — there was no shortage of news or impressions.

That included junior Drew White exiting the linebacker-a-palooza mass audition to replace soon-to-be NFL rookies Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney at the heart of the Irish defense.

White will undergo shoulder surgery Friday for a non-football injury to his (right) AC joint. The 6-foot, 225-pound Fort Lauderdale, Fla., product is expected to be fully recovered in four months, just ahead of the start of August training camp.

Here’s a smattering of the developments that stood out in practice No. 5 and how they contextually tie into the big picture.

Sophomore speed

Braden Lenzy tweeted out a practice footage shot recently, showing him blowing by a cornerback and catching a deep ball that was underthrown.

The defender happened to be Avery Davis, the former quarterback and running back who was four practices into his career as a cornerback. Turns out, Lenzy can run by seasoned cornerbacks as well.

And he’s not the only one.

Classmates Joe Wilkins Jr., Lawrence Keys III and Kevin Austin all had shining moments Thursday as did speedy junior Michael Young.

If Notre Dame’s offense is going to be more explosive in 2019, which is offensive coordinator Chip Long’s spring priority, this is an essential piece. That is a dynamic starter emerges from that group to complement returnees Chris Finke and Chase Claypool, and that the other four help form a deep receiver rotation that can come at defenses in waves.

Austin, who had been in Kelly’s/Long’s doghouse for what amounts to a chronic bout of immaturity off the field, certainly had opportunities on the field Thursday and showed polish, confidence and advanced ball skills.

The next step for this group is sustainability, getting past the flavor-of-the-week stage and being able to grind out consistent practices over the balance of spring.

McKinley’s next step

Even if McKinley’s Feb. 10 arrest hadn’t delayed his start to spring, there wasn’t a clear path for his skill set for significant playing time.

The 6-2, 215-pounder, still looking for his first career catch, doesn’t fit the speed profile for the open starting spot for the receiver on the wide side of the field. And with leading returning receiver Claypool moving back to the outside boundary receiver spot, the best-case scenario for the highest-rated wide receiver recruit of the Kelly Era would seem to be as a backup there.

He appears to be willing to work for that, and he’ll have to — on several fronts.

The 20-year-old has been charged with two Class A misdemeanor counts of battery resulting in bodily injury and one Class C misdemeanor count of illegal consumption of alcohol after reportedly punching two Notre Dame police officers in the early-morning hours of Feb. 10.

A source confirmed that McKinley already has had his hearing with the university’s disciplinary arm, the office of community standards, and is in good standing as a student and is cleared for extracurricular activities.

McKinley’s next appearance in St. Joseph County Traffic and Misdemeanor Court is scheduled for April 15, two days after spring practice ends.

Kelly had a lengthy conversation with McKinley during practice Thursday inside the Loftus Center, away from the action on the practice field. The coach will next meet with the media on Saturday after practice No. 6, another full session open to the media.

Nobody’s perfect

In fact, everybody has a bad day, or at least a bad stretch of practice.

That happened Thursday to Claypool, heretofore one of the standouts cited by the coaching staff during the early practice sessions.

Thursday he was paired regularly with senior cornerback Troy Pride during drills and team periods, and Pride played a part in Claypool’s frustration (as he did with other receivers). But not on a perfectly thrown ball to the corner of the end zone in which Claypool had inside position.

This time sophomore TaRiq Bracy was on the cover. Claypool jumped for the ball, which ended up around his waist, then bobbled and dropped it. Claypool then picked up the ball and hurled it at a concrete wall.

The good news is, Claypool recovered from the sequence to finish strong, and he showed that he has a strong enough arm to execute a trick play requiring him to throw.

Linebacker intrigue

Even with White out of the mix at linebacker indefinitely, there was a dizzying array of combinations that were used Thursday as defensive coordinator Clark Lea takes a protracted and deliberate approach to redefining the position group.

Drue Tranquill’s seemingly flawless precision in drill work in front of NFL scouts, on the same Loftus Center turf the day before at Pro Day, shows what a difficult task Lea has ahead of him. It’s clear there’s talent in the large cluster of players competing for the middle linebacker, buck linebacker and rover positions.

But there’s not anything close to a finished product in the bunch.

Sophomore Shayne Simon, junior Jordan Genmark Heath and grad senior Asmar Bilal comprised the first group to rotate in, with the former starting rover Bilal manning the middle.

Lea’s expectations are for the competition to ebb and flow into August. Nothing a third of the way through spring practice indicates that’s an underly ambitious timetable.

Speaking of linebackers

Sophomore Derrik Allen looks like a linebacker or Notre Dame’s former linebacker-looking quarterback Brandon Wimbush. In fact, his current dimensions (6-2, 220) are almost identical to what Wimbush was listed at last season (6-2, 222).

The super-sized safety even wears Wimbush’s old uniform number, 7, and did so last season (Wimbush now wears No. 3 at his new school, UCF).

Allen has been a curiosity among the Irish fan base because of the combination of being a top 150 national recruit and getting absolutely no playing time as a freshman at a position group that lacked depth.

This is a defining spring for him, at least if his future remains at safety.

With starting free safety Alohi Gilman held out of scrimmage work as a precaution on Thursday, Allen often paired with starting strong safety Jalen Elliott. The learning curve looked steep for Allen, particularly in one-on-one drills.

If there’s some solace he can take, it’s that about this time last year Elliott was struggling as a returning starter and Gilman was up and down with his spring performance.

Unspecial teams?

Kelly hopes to get the special teams its first extensive work of the spring on Saturday. The plan is to make practice No. 6 of the spring overall the first one to be staged outdoors.

The small glimpse of the kicking game indoors Thursday wasn’t encouraging.

Junior Jonathon Doerer shanked his first field goal attempt wildly to the right. It came from PAT distance. He made most of the other attempts, but didn’t look particularly comfortable.

Walk-on punter Jake Rittman actually looked more at ease on place kicks, at least from the shorter distances. Rittman punted, kicked off and played wide receiver at Free State High School in Lawrence, Kansas.

Recruited walk-on kicker Harrison Leonard arrives in June.

Final word

As good of a season as junior tight end Cole Kmet is having for the Notre Dame baseball team (2.89 ERA, a 27-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 2/3 innings as a pitcher), he looks even more dominant on the football field so far.

Tribune File Photo ROBERT FRANKLINWide receiver Javon McKinley has been conditionally reinstated to the Notre Dame football team after starting the spring indefinitely suspended from all football activities.