Mystery solved: Braden Lenzy is on the mend and expected to contribute for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Junior wide receiver Braden Lenzy made it to the top of the Notre Dame football depth chart this week for Saturday’s non-conference matchup with South Florida (2:30 p.m. EDT; USA Network).

Last week he was listed as the No. 2 option at field (outside) receiver for the Atlantic Coast Conference and season opener with Duke.

Saturday, in the 27-13 subduing of Duke, one of the most dynamic offensive players on the Irish roster was a mystery. And then a Twitter crisis, because he didn’t play a single down and there wasn’t any timely clarification as to why.

Apparently even information can be social distanced, and not in a good way, during the COVID-19 Era.

The upshot is that Lenzy is expected to start and contribute for the seventh-ranked Irish (1-0) against the visiting Bulls (1-0) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Braden wasn’t healthy. He had a hamstring injury, and he should be almost to 100 percent on Tuesday,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said during his weekly Monday Zoom conference call with the media. “And if he is, then he can help us. You can’t take a guy like Braden Lenzy, who’s a speed guy, and have him not 100 percent healthy.

“It looks like he’s going to be healthy for us, and if he is, he’s going to be able to help us. We all know what kind of speed he has.”

The 5-foot-11, 181-pound Tigard, Ore., product was ND’s third-leading rusher last season, despite running the ball only 13 times. That translated to 200 yards, two touchdowns and a team-best 15.4 yards per carry.

The late-season standout averaged 23.1 yards on 11 catches with two touchdowns in 2019.

The Lenzy status confusion started in warmups when he wasn’t doing so with his teammates on Saturday. Notre Dame put out a statement in pregame that the only players not available because of injury were wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. and backup defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah, both nursing long-term conditions.

Attempts to try to get clarity at that point and throughout the game were complicated by the fact the ND sports information department is separated during games, with some members in the team bubble and others in the press box with the media.

In the postgame, Kelly’s press conference inadvertently ended early due to a miscommunication, with questions about Lenzy’s status still sitting in the question queue when it was truncated.

Again, COVID-19 intersecting with technical limitations doesn’t make it possible for media members to ask their own questions, per usual, in the postgame setting.

Kelly did inform the media in Saturday’s postgame about starting safety Kyle Hamilton’s ankle injury, and wide receiver Ben Skowronek’s ailing hamstring as well. He had updates on both players Monday.

The 6-4, 219-pound sophomore preseason All-American Hamilton, who left the game in the second half, is still listed as the starter but is day to day per Kelly.

“He’s better,” Kelly said. “He’s in a walking boot. He had a scan that came back clean. But we’ll keep him in a walking boot ’til Wednesday. This is a matter of, now, pain management and how he feels.

“But we’ll get him out of the boot midweek and start moving him around and see how he feels. You know Kyle. He wants to play on Saturday, so we’re not going to rule him out. We’re going to kind of dictate where we go. We’ll keep him in the rotation and day to day to see where we go from there.”

Junior DJ Brown is Hamilton’s primary backup. Hamilton had seven tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry against the Blue Devils.

Skowronek, a grad transfer from Northwestern, made his first start for the Irish on Saturday but left the game in the second quarter and was replaced by surprise standout junior Joe Wilkins.

Wilkins recorded the first four catches of his collegiate career — for 44 yards — against Duke.

Skowronek’s expected absence against USF means an expanded role for Wilkins this Saturday, and likely one of two freshmen — Jordan Johnson or Xavier Watts — getting worked into Saturday’s rotation.

“Somebody’s got to step up now and accelerate their growth,” Kelly said.

Kelly said junior C’Bo Flemister, the only one of his top five running backs not to see action against Duke, spent most of last week’s practices in a red jersey (no contact) as a result of a collarbone injury.

Kelly said he expects Flemister to contribute against USF after putting together a strong training camp.

Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy (25) breaks free after making a catch during the ND-USC game, Oct. 12 at Notre Dame Stadium. Lenzy is expected to make his 2020 debut on Saturday.