Analysis: Why fast-forwarding freshman Jordan Johnson is the right move for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the hours that followed Brian Kelly’s Saturday evening rebuff of the notion of an elevated role for freshman Jordan Johnson, the Notre Dame head football coach’s second thoughts got the best of him.

And the fourth-ranked Irish may eventually be better off for it.

All Kelly promised the high-pedigreed, 6-foot-2, 180-pound wide receiver from St. Louis this week was a chance to escape from scout-team duty for a few days as the Irish (5-0, 4-0 ACC) were prepping for a Saturday road test at Georgia Tech (2-4, 2-3 ACC).

So impressive was the former five-star recruit, running routes from the ND playbook rather than its opponent’s, that he wowed quarterback Ian Book and has Kelly already charting a course, in pencil, that could lead to a meaningful story line for Johnson in the Nov. 7 clash with No. 1 Clemson.

“This has never been an issue of lack of ability,” Kelly said Thursday during a Zoom call with the media.

And yet, Kelly’s original mindset following ND’s 45-3 trampling of Pitt last Saturday would have meant Johnson reaching the halfway point of this season with zero career catches and 14 career snaps — and none of the latter since an Irish 52-0 dismissal of South Florida on Sept. 19.

So what changed — besides Kelly’s mind?

The realization that there are only so many true “X” receivers on the Irish roster — players who can truly stretch a defense and open up other aspects of the ND offense based on opposing defensive coordinators’ counterpunch to having to deal with that.

One of them, junior Kevin Austin, is out until spring after a rebreak of a bone in his left foot a week ago. Fellow junior Braden Lenzy’s latest setback Saturday with a lingering hamstring issue initially had Kelly optimistic about a quicker recovery, in part based on the 5-11, 181-pound junior’s high pain threshold and gritty disposition.

But Kelly conceded Thursday that Lenzy can’t tough his way back to full speed. So he’s out for Georgia Tech and Clemson for sure and perhaps the road trip to Boston College on Nov. 14 as he undergoes platelet-rich plasma therapy.

The worst-case scenario, with no new setbacks, would have Lenzy ready for a Nov. 27 date at North Carolina and the two regular-season games that follow.

Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy (0) is tended to after re-injuring his hamstring during ND’s 45-3 romp over Pittsburgh last Saturday.

Northwestern grad transfer Ben Skowronek, a natural boundary outside receiver (“W” in ND’s lingo), started at the X against Pittsburgh and boosted the growing pain-laden Irish passing game with TD catches of 73 and 34 yards.

Johnson himself could be a future W receiver, the position Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin played when they rocketed up draft boards during their final seasons at Notre Dame. But not now.

“He’s not physically at a position where he can, I think, excel at that position,” Kelly said. “I’d rather have him in a position where he could get more free releases.

“The W receiver gets a lot more press coverage than the X. And as a younger player, you would prefer much more free access, if you will. So he’ll begin his entry into our two-deep and rotation at the X receiver position.”

Johnson’s entry point into relevance, though, never would have happened on Kelly’s watch, without the freshman making a surge in adjusting to academic life at Notre Dame.

In the weeks that followed Johnson’s June arrival at ND for voluntary workouts, he was inseparable from running back Chris Tyree and tight end Michael Mayer when Kelly talked about freshmen on offense who were flashing with some regularity.

Then school started on Aug. 10, a couple of weeks early because of COVID-19 concerns, and Johnson quickly became an afterthought.

“There are other things that are important here at the university,” Kelly said, “and we all know that.

“He’s been focused heavily on making the transition. The things that are really difficult are in the classroom, and he’s made some progress, enough that we brought him up and he’s a talented player.”

But talented players have to develop and be developed too. A five-star recruiting rating isn’t necessarily a ticket to a happy ending.

Taking away the two currently on the Irish roster — senior defensive end Daelin Hayes and Johnson — the 17 Rivals five-stars Notre Dame previously has signed in the Rivals Era (2002-present) have produced roughly the same amount of heartache/disappointment as success.

5stars

Getting Johnson on the field, though, is pragmatic at this point. There’s hopes that junior Joe Wilkins can expand his role as well, at one of the three receiver spots.

As of now there are no wide receivers among ND’s top three pass catchers, with grad senior wideout Javon McKinley fourth, with nine receptions for 176 yards. In the past 50 years, a Notre Dame season had never ended with a wide receiver no higher than fourth in catches and only once (1975) with a wide receiver no higher than third.

The Irish could probably win most of their remaining games with that kind of passing game makeup. But this season is about reaching higher than expectations.

Especially for Kelly.

And if the 30-3 beatdown from Clemson — ND’s only loss in its last 15 games against ACC competition — in a 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal told us anything, the biggest gap between the two programs was speed/skill in quantity at wide receiver and running back.

Recruiting Tyree, Mayer and Johnson is part of Kelly’s direct response to that painful reality.

Now, can Johnson really be fast-tracked to the point that he could actually make a difference Nov. 7 and again Dec. 19 if ND makes the ACC Championship Game?

Kelly is making the right move to find out.

Electing to make a practice change

Because the NCAA is mandating Tuesday, Election Day, being an off-day for all Division I athletes to have nothing impeding their ability to vote that day, Notre Dame has shuffled its prep week for Clemson.

ND’s “Mental Monday” — mostly meetings, lifting, film study and the first look at the Clemson scouting report — will take place Sunday instead.

The Irish will then hold their first padded practice of the week Monday, a day early. then fall back into their normal routine on Wednesday.

All in all, no wall?

Freshman running back Chris Tyree remains Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher (35 carries, 217 yards, 6.2 ypc, 2 TDs), despite coming off career lows for carries (3) and yards (minus-3) in Saturday’s win at Pitt, against the nation’s No. 1 run defense.

And it’s Kelly’s anticipation we’ll see a second wind from the 5-10, 188-pounder.

“His physical numbers — in terms of volume load, in the weight room, GPS numbers — don’t point toward a freshman,” Kelly said. “They point to somebody who has a much higher level of conditioning and work volume.

“These were important questions for us as we were going into camp: How do we sit? Do we really have a true freshman that is going to hit the wall five or six games into it? Or do we have a guy we really believe is going to be here the whole year?

“We were feeling pretty confident that this was a guy that was going to get better as the season went. And we are, in a practice sense, seeing it.

“I know you’re not seeing it in the games, because he’s not getting a ton of work. But I think you’re going to see his workload continue to pick up as the games move forward.”

Owusu-Koramoah’s rise

Five games into his senior season, Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is Pro Football Focus’ top-graded Power 5 linebacker in the nation.

And in PFF’s most recent list of top 100 draft prospects, the 6-2, 215-pounder with technically two more seasons of college eligibility left, he’s one of two Irish prospects named (offensive tackle Liam Eichberg is the other, at No. 46).

Owusu-Koramoah is the No. 2 linebacker and No. 20 overall prospect on the list, that after going his first two seasons at Notre Dame without a single tackle.

Kelly loved his potential from the start but redshirted Owusu-Koramoah as a freshman, largely because he wasn’t picking up the defensive scheme. He was ticketed to be a reserve as a sophomore, still not consistent in his assignments, then suffered a broken foot in game 2 of 2018 that ended his season.

“Where I think we saw him begin to take that next step was against Georgia,” Kelly recalled of the third game of the 2019 season, a 23-17 loss in Athens, Ga. Owusu-Koramoah had eight tackles in that game, including 2.5 for losses.

“When the caliber of play stepped up, his play stepped up,” Kelly said, “to a level where we saw him almost stand out against the really top-performing teams. He brings his best against the best, and I think that’s how you measure great players.

“I think that’s where we started to see his separation and ascension as a football player.”

Wide receiver Jordan Johnson’s stay at Notre Dame will be short-lived. In the final weeks of his freshman year, Johnson announced Monday his plans to transfer.

No. 4 NOTRE DAME (5-0) vs. GEORGIA TECH (2-4)

Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium; Atlanta

TV: ABC

Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 20