Notebook: Steady climb for Braden Lenzy shown again during Notre Dame's trouncing of BC
SOUTH BEND — Braden Lenzy’s hunch proved to be correct.
Before Notre Dame’s offense trotted out to begin a possession from its own 39-yard line late in the third quarter against Boston College, offensive coordinator Chip Long locked eyes with Lenzy. One look and the speedy wide receiver knew the first and only play of that series would feature him.
“Right when I saw where the spot was,” Lenzy said, “I just looked at him, he was looking at me and it was go time.”
The ensuing jet sweep brought Lenzy from right to left — short side to wide side — presnap before receiving a handoff from quarterback Ian Book and turning upfield on the edge. The 61-yard touchdown run brought the game out of reach for the Eagles, 40-7 losers in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.
No. 15 (AP)/No. 16 (CFP) Notre Dame (9-2) has scored on a handful of similar end-around plays this season. The latest iteration involved Book faking a handoff to running back Tony Jones Jr. after Lenzy received the ball. BC’s linebackers hesitated as a result of that misdirection.
The Eagles (5-6) were misaligned in their secondary, Lenzy said, making the jobs of tight ends Cole Kmet and Brock Wright easier. Serving as lead blockers, those two never had to make contact with a defender after Lenzy broke a tackle and burst down the sideline.
“He makes fast people look slow,” Book said. “He’s really fast. When I can just hand it and watch him do that, it makes my life a lot easier.”
An Irish offense that lacked speedsters heading into this season has uncoiled the big-play option that is Lenzy. His team-leading four gains of 50-plus yards this year have added a key element to the offense.
Book’s top options in wide receiver Chase Claypool and Kmet sometimes receive double coverage. Lenzy’s speed stretches defenses.
“Are you really going to worry about me when Cole Kmet and Chase Claypool are on the field? I feel like I’m the least of their concerns,” Lenzy said. “At least that’s the way I look at it.”
Lenzy’s postgame interview with reporters marked his first collegiate availability to the media offered by Notre Dame. That likely won’t be his last. Lenzy figures to have more bright moments in his three seasons of eligibility following 2019.
As for Lenzy’s inkling of Long's play call, Irish head coach Brian Kelly quipped that the sophomore knew nothing of the sort.
“He had no idea. He doesn’t know the snap count half the time,” Kelly joked. “Was this his first time with the media? Yeah, so, you’ve got to — guys, really? You bought that?”
What Lenzy bought in year one at Notre Dame was the belief that his time would eventually come.
As a member of the Irish scout team, Lenzy helped starters prepare but never saw the field in 2018. Lenzy embraced that role, saying that scout team work in practice helped his teammates coalesce into a squad that registered a 12-0 regular season and College Football Playoff appearance.
“I think last year changed my mindset,” Lenzy said. “I wouldn’t say I had things easy coming in, but I realized that I needed to do a lot more and that I couldn’t just be the fast guy. Even though I am the fast guy, there’s a lot of other parts to my game that have vastly improved.
“I realized that you can’t just come to college and do one thing.”
The former four-star recruit out of Portland (Ore.) Tigard High arrived in South Bend with 4.4 speed, making him among the fastest on the Irish as a freshman. Concerns surrounding other aspects of his game lingered, however — like a nagging knee injury suffered during his senior season in high school.
“Just looking at this weight,” Lenzy said. “My high school profile, I don’t really know where those numbers came from. I was never 170 (pounds). I probably came in at a mean 160. Going into this summer, I was 182, 183.
“So I gained 23 pounds, and I’ve been able to carry on that weight. So just simply from a weight standpoint and being able to protect my body, (director of football performance Matt) Balis did a great job.
“It also made me faster. My big issue was that I had a lot of knee issues from just pain. When I got stronger, cutting, breaks and route-running became a lot easier out of that leg strength.”
Wide receiver Michael Young committing to a transfer from Notre Dame before the Oct. 26 Michigan game elevated Lenzy into a starting role. He emerged as Notre Dame’s top deep threat, averaging 21.4 yards per touch this season. Lenzy has tallied eight catches for 199 yards and two touchdowns with 79 rushing yards and a score on five carries.
Becoming more of a featured option for Book has still taken some adjusting for Lenzy. He missed games against Georgia and Duke because of a concussion and fatigue, respectively. The latter reason had nothing to do with the concussion, Lenzy said.
“I had just been really tired,” the 5-foot-11 Lenzy said. “It had been really difficult for me to sleep. I needed to find out my daily regimen with food and all that. I think (Brian) Kelly put it really well about how to figure out and adjust.
“We’re in college, so we know our schedule. He gave me a week to recoup, get my mind right.”
Lenzy dropping track this past spring helped him better prepare physically for his role this season. Now that decision to become a one-sport athlete is permanent, Lenzy said.
With graduate senior receiver Chris Finke and Claypool expiring their eligibility following this season, Lenzy knows Notre Dame will be in need of a No. 1 receiver in 2020.
“The way I look at it, last year it was very difficult for me to even go with the 2s,” Lenzy said. “From a football standpoint, I just wasn’t ready. Clear, cut and dry. Now I stand out in the game. For me, it’s just coming in every day and working hard.”
• Defensive end Khalid Kareem and safety Jalen Elliott represented Notre Dame as captains for the opening coin toss.
• Notre Dame won its seventh straight game against Boston College, the longest streak in series history. The victory improved the Irish to a 16-9 all-time record against the Eagles and 8-5 at home.
• With the win on Senior Day, the Irish capped their second straight undefeated season at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame’s 18-game streak began after its 20-19 loss to Georgia on Sept. 9, 2019.
• Chase Claypool passed former Irish wide receivers Tim Brown (137) and Jim Seymour (138) in collegiate receptions after hauling in seven passes for 60 yards and a touchdown. The senior’s 140 career catches ties former Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert for eighth all-time in school history.
• Another first quarter shutout brings the Irish defense’s average to 3.09 points allowed in the opening frame this season. Offenses against Notre Dame’s defense in the four first quarters since the Michigan loss have combined for 158 yards, 11 first downs and seven points on 54 plays.
A total of 23 of Notre Dame’s last 24 opponents have scored 30 or fewer points.
• Irish running back Jafar Armstrong garnered zero touches but suited out against the Eagles.
• Notre Dame did not play freshman defensive tackle Howard Cross III, who had previously met the NCAA-imposed maximum for obtaining a redshirt by playing four games. The Irish stuck with this decision despite backup defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola being out with an ankle injury and starter Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa missing time with an injury.
Starting nose guard Kurt Hinish slid to defensive tackle in Tagovailoa-Amosa’s absence. That elevated freshman Jacob Lacey to the No. 1 nose guard. Lacey and third-team nose guard Ja’Mion Franklin received more time and freshman Hunter Spears saw action at defensive tackle.