WR Braden Lenzy ready to show offseason evolution in Notre Dame's offense

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Braden Lenzy has transformed.

That’s the message the junior Notre Dame wide receiver wants to send — even if it requires decoding.

It started with a number switch. In the offseason, Lenzy ditched the No. 25 jersey for No. 0.

While Irish fans may associate No. 25 with former Irish speedster Rocket Ismail, Lenzy associated it with his former self. Lenzy wore No. 25 at Tigard (Ore.) High School and his first two seasons at Notre Dame.

That wasn’t the player he wanted to be anymore.

“When I looked at 25 it kind of reminded me of what I was like in high school and early on in college: just a sprinter, just kind of a runner, a track guy playing football,” Lenzy said. “I thought getting a single-digit number would kind of make me feel more like a true receiver, which I feel like that’s what I’ve developed into.”

No. 0 also had a cool factor too, Lenzy said. Before this season, the NCAA didn’t allow football players to wear the number. So it came with a clean slate that allowed Lenzy to become the first to create a legacy wearing it. The number also resembles the “O” in Oregon, Lenzy’s home state.

The message and the motivation made sense from a wideout with a 40-yard dash of 4.4 seconds and résumé of high school track accolades.

Decrypting a recent Instagram story shared by Lenzy, however, required a dedicated understanding of anime — the Japanese animated story-telling form that Lenzy adores so much.

In the post, Lenzy compared himself to Yusuke Urameshi — the protagonist of the “Yu Yu Hakusho” anime series. At the start of the series, Yusuke is depicted as an irredeemable teenager until he dies saving the life of a child. Because of his premature death, Yusuke inherits a new life with special powers as a detective investigating demon cases in the human world.

Lenzy related to Yusuke as he navigated the last several months.

“When he came back, he had those powers and he kind of looked at life differently and took things more serious,” Lenzy said of Yusuke. “For me in quarantine and just COVID, it kind of helped me mature and realize what my priorities are and what I want to focus on and who I want to be. Obviously, it’s a bit of a stretch, but for sure, Yusuke, he’s that guy.”

Lenzy didn’t expand on what he went through in relation to COVID-19, so it wasn’t clear if he previously contracted the virus, spent time in quarantine because of contact tracing or was just referring to how the pandemic impacted his life on a broader level.

Regardless of the details, how Lenzy processed his own transformation has been apparent to head coach Brian Kelly.

“What I’m proud of Braden is he wants to be more than just a guy that gets handoff sweeps,” Kelly said. “He wants all of the complete passing tree. He wants to run every route that we have, and he’s working towards that. And I give him a great deal of credit for wanting to be that complete receiver.

“He’s not there yet, and he knows that, but he’s working towards that. He has a mindset that he wants to be that complete player. That’s who I want to coach. We all want to coach guys who are aware of where they want to go and how they get there.”

The 5-foot-11, 181-pound receiver hasn’t been able to display his development yet this season. Lenzy sat out the season opener against Duke with a previously unannounced hamstring injury. He eased back into the lineup the following week against South Florida at less than 100 percent.

Following a two-week layoff due to No. 5 Notre Dame’s rescheduling of its game at Wake Forest and a scheduled off week, Lenzy is ready to show what kind of receiver he’s become as soon as Saturday against Florida State (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).

“I haven’t really been able to display that — through spring ball, where I missed the first game and I wasn’t fully healthy for USF — but my hope and my goal is for one, to see us win, but two, that I can show my development and kind of grow into myself and advance as a football player.”

A healthy Lenzy should make Notre Dame’s offense more dynamic. He showed his ability as a playmaker last season with 11 catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns and 13 carries for 200 yards and two touchdowns.

In his return against USF, Lenzy caught three passes for 34 yards from quarterback Ian Book and rushed once for three yards.

“Vertical stretch,” Kelly said of what Lenzy brings to Notre Dame’s offense. “He has great speed. And he’s still a guy that you have to respect, because we’ve seen what he can do with that kind of speed.

“He’s going to have to continue to stay on the field, stay healthy, so he can build that consistency with Ian in terms of where he’s going to be, in terms of running routes and being part of our offense.”

The disappointment Lenzy felt in missing the season opener this year didn’t reach the level of last year’s frustration with a lack of playing time in the season opener at Louisville. He used that as motivation last year. While sidelined with a hamstring injury against Duke, he was at least able to watch fellow junior wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr., who Lenzy called “a teammate, colleague and best friend,” record his first career receptions.

“It sucks not to play, but at the end of the day we won, and I got to play the next week, so it’s not the end of the world,” Lenzy said. “It was nice to suit up. But now I’m 100, I’m excited and I’m ready to play vs. Florida State.”

Hamstring issues tend to linger in explosive athletes, but Lenzy is confident he’s put himself in a position to push past the setback.

“You just have to stretch, have to get treatment,” Lenzy said. “No easy answer, per se. I had zero hamstring stress or anything before and it just kind of happened, and I dealt with it.”

Lenzy credited head football athletic trainer Rob Hunt for guiding him through the recovery process. He added rehab to a routine that was long ago influenced by the late Kobe Bryant. Lenzy got to know Bryant through his father’s work at Nike. Lenzy vividly remembers Bryant admonishing him for not being willing to take an ice bath following a basketball tournament.

“I went over to a family friend’s house and Kobe was there,” Lenzy recalled, though he wasn’t sure of the year. “He asked me about the tournament. I said I was sore.

“He said, ‘Well, did you take an ice bath?’ I was like, ‘No, I can’t. It hurts too much. I can’t take an ice bath.’

“He goes, ‘My youngest daughter takes an ice bath.’ He’s like, ‘If you won’t take an ice bath, you won’t be great.’

“And I’ve taken a lot of ice baths since.”

Lenzy’s greatness should be tested Saturday by Preseason All-ACC cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., who is considered one of the top cornerback prospects in next year’s NFL Draft. Fellow Florida State cornerback Akeem Dent was rated as a five-star recruit in the 2019 class by Rivals.

The Irish wide receiver position is overdue for a big game after tallying only 11 catches in the first two games. That will likely require a significant contribution from Lenzy.

He’s well aware of what the Irish are up against in the Florida State secondary, but his focus remains inward. After an offseason of transformation, the self-reflection hasn’t gone away.

“They have some definite talent, but we aren’t going into the game treating them any different. We treat every team the same,” Lenzy said. “Although we are excited to get to go one-on-one with potential first-round picks, it’s the same preparation like how we would any week.

“We’re practicing hard every day, and I expect big things from us.”

Notre Dame junior wide receiver Braden Lenzy is ready to show his transformation into a complete player.
Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy scored four touchdowns on 24 touches in his sophomore season last year.