Notre Dame WR Braden Lenzy sprinting into opportunities in Irish offense

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Houston Lillard wasn’t keeping that close of an eye on the game.

On a handful of Saturdays this fall, the brother of NBA star Damian Lillard tuned into Notre Dame football games. He wanted to keep tabs on Irish wide receiver Braden Lenzy, a former Team Lillard seven-on-seven player for Houston Lillard.

Lenzy, a sophomore, hadn’t received much action in the first five games of the season. His first two appearances came mostly late in blowouts against New Mexico and Bowling Green.

But Lillard noticed Lenzy on the field in meaningful moments of the first half against USC. Lenzy’s moment came on a misdirection toss that worked like a reverse. With most of the offense carrying out a fake to the right, Lenzy received the ball from quarterback Ian Book, sprinted left and needed to outrun four defenders for a 51-yard touchdown. He did exactly that.

“I swear to you, I said, ‘If he gets the ball, it’s over.’ Because he is not about to waste his opportunity,” Lillard said. “He’s the type of kid, he’s not wasting opportunities. It was nice to see.”

Lillard keeps in touch with Lenzy during the season. But the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Lenzy didn’t clue Lillard into the fact that he would play a bigger role against USC. He rotated in with the starting offense for a full game for the first time this season.

Leading up to the Bowling Green game the week prior, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly expressed an interest in trying to get Lenzy on track in the Irish offense. Turns out it would happen a week later.

“We’re trying to find roles for Braden and breaking him into our lineup,” Kelly said after the 30-27 win over USC. “As you can see he’s got great speed.”

No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1) will likely put that speed to use Saturday in Michigan Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT on ABC). Wide receiver Michael Young, a junior, reportedly won’t play this weekend and will seek a transfer. That should result in even more snaps for Lenzy against No. 19 Michigan (5-2).

Lillard, who played quarterback at San Lorenzo (Calif.) High outside of Oakland and in college at Laney Junior College and Southeast Missouri State, started his Team Lillard program after moving to Portland when his brother was drafted by the Trail Blazers. He heard about a young speedster from Tigard (Ore.) High, started working with Lenzy and saw a lot of potential.

“He’s not a guy that approaches it like a game. He comes like it’s business,” Lillard said. “You can tell he’s competitive in track. He’s been competing at a high level for a while. When he put his cleats on, it was like it’s not a game. He always gave maximum effort.”

That’s how a skinny kid with speed turned into a college football prospect in the first place.

Freshman phenom

Freshmen don’t start the season on the varsity football team at Tigard High.

At least they didn’t in the 10 years Craig Ruecker coached the Tigers. He retired in 2018 after 42 seasons as a high school football head coach in Oregon.

But in 2014, Ruecker lost his top three cornerbacks to injury in the first half of the season. He had a solution in mind.

“We had a kid playing freshman football that did not look like he belonged on a freshman football field because he was faster than all the kids and more athletic than all the kids and that was Braden,” Ruecker said. “So I talked to our defensive backs coach and we said ‘Let’s bring him up and have him practice with us for a week and just see how he gets acclimated.’

“We did that and the following week we started him.”

Lenzy, who multiple Tigard coaches estimated weighed anywhere between 120 and 130 pounds as a freshman, wasn’t asked to do much. But he did have to play on an island in man-to-man coverage.

“He wasn’t big enough, strong enough, physical enough to really be involved in the physical part of the game,” Ruecker said. “We could line him up away from everybody and he could flat out run and cover. We never asked him to make a tackle. We never put him on offense where somebody could tackle him. He played awesome.”

John Kemper, who took over as the Tigard head coach after Ruecker retired, still remembers Lenzy holding his own in a 42-41 win over Jesuit in the Class 6A state quarterfinals. Lenzy was tasked with single coverage on receivers including Jordan Happle, a Boise State recruit.

“They tried to attack him and pick on him with some deep balls and he played really well,” Kemper said. “I think he gave up one. As a freshman, that’s pretty dang good.”

In his next three years at Tigard, Lenzy’s role would expand as he added weight. He played wide receiver on offense as a sophomore, added punt and kick return duties to his résumé and eventually played some wildcat quarterback in his senior year. But he never stopped playing defense. The Tigers needed him on both sides of the ball.

Lenzy finished his senior season with 1,010 yards of offense, 10 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 35 tackles in 10 games. Lenzy missed four games with a knee injury. Yet a final college decision still loomed.

Track star

As a freshman, Lenzy won a Class 6A state championship as a member of Tigard’s 4x400-meter relay team. He followed that up with his first individual state title in the 400 a year later with a time of 48.38 seconds.

Speed was never a problem for Lenzy.

“He definitely has the physical gift to do it, but he took it upon himself to develop that gift,” said Shane Kessler, Tigard’s head track coach and defensive coordinator. “There are a lot of people that have that gift and don’t put the work in. It’s the right combination.

“You can go to the store and you can buy all the stuff to make a great meal, but if you don’t know how to cook it or don’t put the time into it, it’s not going to make itself. You can either be chef (Gordon) Ramsay or just make mac and cheese. That’s something that’s been built in. It’s just a competitiveness.”

That drive led to Lenzy pursuing college careers in both football and track. Notre Dame offered Lenzy a scholarship following his junior football season. The Irish became the ninth program to offer him. In-state power Oregon and its superior track program was already on Lenzy’s offer list.

A little more than two months after Notre Dame offered, Lenzy gave the Irish a verbal commitment to play football and run track. But his recruitment was far from over. The appeal of Oregon’s track program and head coach Willie Taggart leading the football program proved to be too strong of a pull. He flipped his commitment from Notre Dame to Oregon in June ahead of his senior year.

Then weeks before Lenzy was set to sign with the Ducks, Taggart left Oregon after just one season to take the head coaching job at Florida State in early December.

That opened the door for Lenzy to rejoin Notre Dame’s recruiting class. He attended the Irish football awards show in December and inked with the Irish during the early signing period later that month. Lenzy announced his final decision with an essay written for The Players’ Tribune.

In it he recalled first falling in love with football as a third grader playing Pop Warner. On his first play, he was given the ball on a reverse. He scored.

“I had always felt like I was fast, but it wasn’t until that moment, as I was running past all of these defenders, that I realized I was actually faster than other kids,” Lenzy wrote for The Players’ Tribune. “Like a lot faster. I ended up going for about 60 yards without anybody touching me and all I remember was this amazing feeling I had. It was a mix of adrenaline, happiness and pride. I loved that feeling, and I knew right then I wanted to experience it again and again.”

Football focus

Lenzy finished his Tigard track career with individual school records in the 100 (10.62), 200 (21.34) and 400 (47.52) and as a member of the school-record relay teams in the 4x100, 4x200 and 4x400.

He won the 400 state title again as a junior, won the 4x100 relay as a senior and notched runner-up finishes in the 200 as a junior and senior.

But after a redshirt season on Notre Dame’s football team last fall, Lenzy decided to sit out the track season. He set aside the sport that was such a crucial part of his recruiting process in order to better himself on the football field in spring practice.

If he can find a balance, track will almost certainly be in Lenzy’s future again. He was busy putting on weight — 14 pounds between the start of the 2018 season and 2019 spring practice — during his first year on campus.

“He’s really focused on wanting to play (football) this year,” Kelly said in March. “He felt he needed to get stronger and was worried about not being able to fulfill the things that he came here for, and that was to make an impact in football.

“He didn’t come here with his first priority being track. If he had, he would have gone to Oregon. I think when he settles into his niche in a football sense, he’ll try to go and run some track here. But I think he wants to find his place in football first.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy showed his speed when he outran USC’s defense for a 51-yard touchdown in the 30-27 Irish victory.
Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy (right) made his first career catch against New Mexico on this 52-yard pass from quarterback Phil Jurkovec.
Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy celebrates his first career touchdown, a 22-yard reception, in the 66-14 Irish victory over New Mexico.