Notebook: Joe Wilkins Jr. offers silver lining for Notre Dame's wide receivers against Duke

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

None of Notre Dame’s wide receivers recorded a catch in the first half against Duke.

Except for Joe Wilkins Jr.

The No. 10 Irish (1-0) endured a tough stretch offensively before downing the Blue Devils (0-1) 27-13 on Saturday. The unlikely Wilkins ended their receiving drought on the final possession before halftime, fueling momentum to the offense that carried into the second half.

Coming into the season opener at Notre Dame Stadium, Wilkins had zero career catches. He had impressed during offseason practices but never carved a role in his first two seasons. He played two games as a freshman and six games last season.

Injuries and circumstances prompted Wilkins to receive more opportunities Saturday. Top wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. remains sidelined with a broken foot. Junior speedster Braden Lenzy, surprisingly, did not play despite being available, per the program.

So once Ben Skowronek tweaked his hamstring in the second quarter, Wilkins essentially became the starter. Skowronek, a graduate transfer from Northwestern, grasped his leg during a passing route before leaving the game permanently.

Only three receivers caught at least one pass: Wilkins, Avery Davis and Lawrence Keys III. Wilkins led the group with four catches for 44 yards.

“We’ve always felt like when Joe got his opportunity he’s talented enough to make some plays," head coach Brian Kelly said. "It’s just fun to watch him make some plays. I mentioned him in our postgame talk. There were a lot of players who just needed an opportunity and were stuck behind some really good players.”

Notre Dame’s first six possessions included three three-and-outs, a four-and-out and an interception from quarterback Ian Book. The Irish gained seven yards on 10 plays in the first quarter. Their offensive line struggled to find a push against the Blue Devils’ 4-2-5 defense. Notre Dame’s depleted wide receiving corps also didn’t help.

Then Wilkins emerged with three catches in four plays. The drought-ending reception came on a four-yard pass with 50 seconds left in the half. Following a seven-yard rush from running back Kyren Williams, Wilkins caught passes of 15 and 13 yards. Jonathan Doerer capped the drive with a 48-yard field goal as the clock expired, bringing the Irish advantage to 10-6.

Wilkins’ best catch came before Notre Dame’s next score in the third quarter. He grabbed a seven-yard pass at its highest point while tapping both of his feet inbounds before falling out of bounds. Williams found the endzone on a 26-yard run two plays later, increasing the lead to 17-6.  

Never mind that Wilkins had just come off a hamstring injury suffered during fall camp.

“He’s another guy who brings a ton of energy,” Book said of Wilkins. “He’s extremely confident. He should be. He’s very versatile. I feel a lot more comfortable with him. We’ve been able to put in a lot more reps. He’s someone out there I’m always talking to on the field.

“When his name is called, he’s going to be ready. He showed that tonight. He’s got more to go. He’s going to be a really good player for us.”

Book entered this past offseason with a fresh set of skill players. Tight end Cole Kmet and wide receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke leaving after 2019 meant Notre Dame losing more than 50 percent of its receiving production. 

The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out 14 of Notre Dame's 15 spring practices and other opportunities for Book to establish chemistry with the new group.

“He is still working through that process,” Kelly said. “It’s not in a situation where he knows exactly where they are going to be. He will. So I told him, ‘Don’t expect that to happen overnight.’ Make the easy plays. At times, Ian wants to be great. And he can’t be great yet, because a lot of those guys are young and may need more time. So just make those easy plays.”

The situation at receiver will be worth monitoring. The Irish can’t afford another drought like that, especially against better competition. Austin, Skowronek and/or Lenzy returning to action would likely give Book and this offense a boost.

Until then, unproven players like Wilkins will need to shine.

“It was next guy in,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in Joe. He made some terrific plays for us. That sideline catch was a really big catch for us.”

Inexperience shined

Some of Notre Dame’s inexperienced players on offense beyond Wilkins also picked up the slack.

In his first game as a starter, sophomore running back Kyren Williams received the game ball after turning 19 carries into 112 yards and two touchdowns and catching two passes for 93 yards. True freshmen running back Chris Tyree (six rushes for 20 yards) and tight end Michael Mayer (three catches for 38 yards) also flashed.

How the relatively unknown players performed factored into Book eventually finding a groove.

“I felt like I had a little bit of a slow start,” Book said. “But the team carried me for a little bit and I felt like I got back to where I wanted to be. The receivers did an unbelievable job making plays for me. Again, the running backs ... that’s where I was extremely impressed.

“Obviously with some young guys in there for the first time, when they play like that it’s huge. It helps open up the pass for us and helps us get into a groove as an offense.”

Davis may not be considered inexperienced as a senior. But he’s endured position switches from quarterback to running back to cornerback to receiver. So his first career start as a slot receiver figured to be a new experience.

That experience started slow but ended on a high note. Davis elevated the Irish lead to 24-13 after catching in a 17-yard touchdown with 10:58 left in the fourth quarter. He hauled in the 50-50 pass on a critical third-and-10.

“It was man coverage,” Davis said, “so it was just me versus him. He covered me pretty well, but when the ball was in the air, I just needed it. I couldn’t let that opportunity pass.”

Defensive rotations

The Irish also featured plenty of inexperience on defense, using rotations for a majority of their position groups.

Middle linebacker Bo Bauer came in for starter Drew White plenty and recorded two tackles. Sophomore Marist Liufau started at buck linebacker before alternating series with junior Shayne Simon for most of the first half. Simon did not appear on the stat sheet, but Liufau collected three tackles.

Sixth-year graduate senior Shaun Crawford took a breather on multiple possessions, being replaced by junior DJ Brown. When sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton permanently exited the game with an ankle sprain, Brown permanently replaced him. He tallied a pass breakup.

Involving several defensive linemen has been common under position coach Mike Elston. Starting defensive ends Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes were intermittently replaced by backups Justin Ademilola, Ovie Oghoufo and Isaiah Foskey. Interior defensive linemen Jacob Lacey, Jayson Ademilola and Howard Cross III saw action behind starters in defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and nose guard Kurt Hinish.

Foskey shined among that group of reserves. He registered two tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup. That sack came during a pivotal third-and-goal at the two-yard line for Duke in the second quarter. The Blue Devils settled for a field goal following the 10-yard loss, trimming their deficit to 7-6.

“What we are blessed with is great depth,” Kelly said. “You could kind of see that show itself in the third and fourth quarter. We started to take the game over.”


• A total of 10,097 fans were in attendance, the third-smallest crowd in Notre Dame Stadium's 90-year history. Kansas in 1933 (9,221) and Washington of St. Louis in 1936 (9,879) drew fewer fans. Notre Dame capped ticket sales at 15,525 in wake of the pandemic.

• Notre Dame has won 19 consecutive home games, dating back to Sept. 30, 2017. Clemson (23) and Ohio State (21) are the only Power Five programs with longer active streaks.

• The Irish have held 26 of their 27 opponents to 30 points or fewer under defensive coordinator Clark Lea. The one exception is Notre Dame’s 45-14 loss at Michigan on Oct. 26, 2019.

• Book represented Notre Dame as a captain for the opening coin toss.

A television displays wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. during the Notre Dame-Duke college football game broadcast on NBC. As part of Notre Dame’s COVID-19 safety protocols, photojournalists were not allowed inside Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.