Notebook: Patience paying off for Notre Dame WRs Javon McKinley and Avery Davis

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Javon McKinley and Avery Davis have waited a long time for this.

Both Notre Dame wide receivers bided their time in the Irish football program with nothing close to a starring role.

McKinley, now a graduate student, didn’t catch his first college pass until his senior season last year. Davis, now a senior, switched positions from quarterback to running back to cornerback to wide receiver before finally landing a starting role this season.

Both played critical roles in Saturday night’s double-overtime victory over Clemson. McKinley led the team with 102 receiving yards on five catches. Davis caught the two biggest passes of the night on Notre Dame’s game-tying drive late in regulation: a 53-yard reception followed by a four-yard touchdown from quarterback Ian Book. Davis finished with four catches for 78 yards.

In the biggest game of their careers, the pair of late-rising veterans made their marks for No. 2 Notre Dame (7-0, 6-0 ACC).

“There’s a great amount of satisfaction when you see those guys have the kind of success against top-level talent,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “Avery Davis was running away from everybody the other night. Javon McKinley was taking the ball and making plays. He ran away from the corner that he was going against, who’s one of the finer corners in the country. We probably needed to get him the ball a couple more times.”

The 2020 season seemed to be set up for juniors Kevin Austin Jr. and Braden Lenzy to take on the starring roles in Notre Dame’s passing game. But Austin’s season was wrecked by a broken foot and Lenzy has been unable to shake a recurring hamstring injury. Those setbacks created even more opportunities for McKinley and Davis as a reward for staying in the program.

McKinley could have sought a grad transfer in the offseason. Davis could have left the program after his freshman year if he insisted on playing quarterback. Either of those decisions would have been understandable, yet they stuck around and fought for moments like these.

“My mom always told me to never quit,” Davis said Saturday night. “That was just on my mind. I knew I had unfinished business here at the school. I knew I was going to graduate. So I knew that every day I was going to come to work. That was my mindset. I think just preparation, finding my opportunity and I finally capitalized on it.”

It’s an interesting juxtaposition in a week the Irish will head to Boston College (5-3, 4-3) to take on former Notre Dame backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec. His decision to leave has certainly worked out for him. He was granted immediate eligibility, given a starting spot and has thrown for 2,083 yards and 15 touchdowns in eight games.

But there can be a payoff for patience too.

“That’s what you want in your program,” Kelly said in response to a question about Davis and McKinley that didn’t reference Jurkovec. “You want to see guys later in their careers continuing to see their development.

“People so many times talk about hallmark moments. I look at it from a different perspective. To me, program development is when your older players are still developing and when they get a chance to play, can play championship level football.”

Notre Dame needed better production from its wide receivers in recent weeks. In the first four games, Irish receivers combined for 26 receptions for 329 yards and two touchdowns.

Somewhere along the way, Kelly said he added more committed time in practice for Book to work with the receivers. In the last three games, they’ve combined for 31 receptions for 552 yards and four touchdowns.

The adjustments by Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees seem to be working. McKinley and Davis, who have accounted for 23 of those catches for 396 yards and one touchdown in the last three weeks, have been two of the beneficiaries.

“That helped us quite a bit and then just knowing that if we were going to take that next step, the ball needed to be pushed out there,” Kelly said, “plays needed to be called and so Tommy and I being on the same page, we felt the same way and ultimately you have to call those plays.”



Every time Jurkovec or Book take the field, a segment of the Notre Dame fan base that wanted to see him replace Book resumes making comparisons. Sports reporters, analysts and even anonymous coaches do too.

Last week, Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports quoted an opposing coach as saying “If Jurkovec was still the quarterback at Notre Dame, they’d be a legit contender.”

Kelly wasn’t asked to compare Jurkovec to Book on Monday, but he was asked to compare how Jurkovec has improved since leaving the Irish.

“Phil’s in a different type of offense than the one we were asking him to be part of last year. So it’s hard. We’re not comparing it,” Kelly said. “Remember in high school he was in truly a spread offense, catch and throw. He was in an RPO (run-pass option) offense last year. He is in a play-action, six-man, seven-man protection offense this year.

“So it’s really hard to compare where he is (now) compared to where he was last year, because they are so dissimilar from an offensive perspective.”

A quick glance at counting stats makes Jurkovec’s season seem much more impressive than Book’s. Jurkovec has completed 172 of his 277 passes for 2,083 yards and 15 touchdowns with four interceptions. Book’s stat line is 114-of-189 for 1,535 yards and eight touchdowns with one interception.

But Book’s passing efficiency rating is slightly better than Jurkovec’s — 141.4 to 140.2 — and Book has more production per completion (13.5 yards to 12.1 yards) and per pass attempt (8.1 to 7.5).

Book also plays behind a much better offensive line — 13 sacks allowed compared to BC’s 22 — despite the added protection Kelly mentioned for Jurkovec.

Mature Mayer

Freshman tight end Michael Mayer had a couple of freshman mistakes on Saturday against Clemson. On fourth-and-goal at the Clemson one-yard line in the first quarter, Mayer flinched for a false start penalty. On third-and-goal from the Clemson nine-yard line in the second quarter, Mayer dropped a pass from Book that could have been a touchdown.

Both early mistakes forced the Irish to settle for field goals to end impressive drives. Mayer rebounded by making four catches in the fourth quarter and overtime. He finished the night with five catches for 67 yards.

“When he came over after the red-zone situation that he was in, he handled himself incredibly well,” Kelly said. “Didn’t throw a helmet. Didn’t throw a tantrum. Just started breathing, talking to himself in a manner that I’m going to make that play next time when I’m given that opportunity again.

“He just handles himself like somebody that has been in our program for more than one year. Very unique. He’s had very little mental performance training. The little bit of mental performance training he has had, he’s taken to it and built upon it.

“And that’s why he’s had the kind of success that he’s had.”

Mayer leads the Irish in receptions with 20 for 235 yards and two touchdowns.

Extra points

• Lenzy’s return to the lineup could come Saturday at Boston College. He missed the last two games with a left hamstring injury that reoccurred late in the Pittsburgh game. He also missed the season opener against Duke with a hamstring issue.

“Braden was running full speed ahead straight-line on Friday,” Kelly said. “We will begin change of direction (Monday). We’ll see how he responds.

“If he looks good (Monday), we’ll put him in practice (Tuesday). And then it will be how he handles portions of practice as to whether he would be ready to play this week. If he’s not, then obviously he’ll have the bye week and he’ll certainly be ready for North Carolina.”

• Notre Dame's COVID-19 testing from Tuesday of last week through Sunday returned two positive results for football players. Another two players were put into quarantine as a result of contract tracing. None of the four players attended Saturday's game against Clemson.

• The ACC named Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams, offensive lineman Aaron Banks and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as players of the week at their respective positions for their performances against Clemson.

Williams rushed for 140 yards and three touchdowns. Banks blocked for an offense that totaled 518 yards. Owusu-Koramoah tallied nine tackles, two tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery returned for a 23-yard touchdown.

• Kelly was named the Dodd Trophy Coach of the Week. The Irish were also recognized as the National Team of the Week by the Football Writers Association of America.

Javon McKinley (88) has elevated the production from Notre Dame’s wide receivers in recent weeks. Here, McKinley celebrates a touchdown against New Mexico last season with left guard Aaron Banks hoisting him in the air.
Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy could play against Boston College this week if his hamstring responds well to increased work in practice, head coach Brian Kelly said.

Who: No. 2 Notre Dame (7-0) vs. Boston College (5-3)

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

Where: Alumni Stadium; Chestnut Hill, Mass.


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

Line: Notre Dame by 13