Worth the wait: WR Javon McKinley finally meeting expectations in fifth season at Notre Dame

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Javon McKinley already had a Senior Day, but it wasn’t really his.

The wide receiver was recognized with his family and fellow seniors before Notre Dame’s 40-7 win over Boston College last season. He didn’t play in the game, though. McKinley missed the last four games of the season with a foot injury.

It could have been a sadly fitting end to a career that never quite lived up to expectations. When McKinley joined the Irish in the 2016 recruiting class, he became the highest-ranked wide receiver, per Rivals, to sign under head coach Brian Kelly at that point.

But the No. 11 wide receiver and No. 59 overall prospect in the 2016 class didn’t record his first college catch until his senior season in 2019. Nine of his 11 catches that season came in blowout wins over bad New Mexico and Bowling Green teams and a blowout loss to Michigan.

McKinley’s future wasn’t certain at the end of the last year. Would he be asked to return to Notre Dame? Would he pursue a transfer following his graduation in May from the Mendoza College of Business? Would he opt to end his football career completely?

“He thought of it as if he didn’t come back, that it was the best that he had all his friends with him,” said his mother, Estrilla McKinley. “He was happy just to see his brothers win. It was a good game, but I was just like, ‘You have to come back. You have to play your senior game.’”

The way Javon told it earlier this year, he had already made his mind up in October of last season. He wanted to come back to give himself a chance to build a better résumé for a final shot at proving NFL worthy.

“I did not do well expressing that to the coaches at first,” Javon said in October of this year, “but giving them what my mindset was and explaining my contribution and for them taking the chance on me and bringing me back, I definitely appreciate that. It got me to the point where I am.”

Despite not leaving Notre Dame, Javon finds himself in a completely different place in his career now. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound graduate student enters Saturday’s Senior Day against Syracuse (1-9, 1-8 ACC) leading the No. 2 Irish (9-0, 8-0 ACC) with 30 receptions for 549 yards. He’s become a reliable target for quarterback Ian Book, a fellow 2016 class recruit from California, in the last four games with 21 catches for 378.

“He’s always had the physical tools,” Kelly said of Javon this week. “He’s made a couple of plays.

“Once you gain confidence and we’re able to build that confidence with you, if you’re recruited to Notre Dame, you should be able to make the plays here and be a contributor to a high level of success. And that’s what we’re seeing with Javon.”

Now Javon, who wasn’t made available for an interview this week, can celebrate Senior Day in a more meaningful way.

“Now that we’re having this next senior day and he’s gone through everything that he’s gone through, it’s even more rewarding,” said Javon’s father, Jonathan McKinley. “Because the journey for him to step into manhood, going through adversity and overcoming adversity, that’s the lesson that I appreciate.

“It’s going to be special to me because that’s what Notre Dame gave him. That wasn’t even on the docket when we first got into this thing.”

Second chance

Javon McKinley’s Notre Dame career could have ended before his senior season.

In the early hours of Feb. 10, 2019, McKinley was arrested after reportedly punching two University of Notre Dame Security Police officers. According to a probable cause affidavit, McKinley was unresponsive in the back of an Uber vehicle just before 4 a.m. The officers, who smelled alcohol on the breath of the 20-year-old McKinley, woke him up and were trying to help him to his dorm.

McKinley reportedly tensed up and tried to leave in the opposite direction of his dorm. He then reportedly punched both officers as they tried to restrain him. McKinley was charged with three misdemeanors: illegal consumption of alcohol and two counts of battery.

McKinley was indefinitely suspended from the Notre Dame football program for the start of spring practice as the legal process unfolded. By mid-April, McKinley reached a pretrial diversion agreement to dismiss the case with conditions that included 40 hours of community service, a substance and alcohol abuse evaluation, paying court fees and not committing any crimes for the one-year period. The agreement indicated McKinley sought out and apologized to the police officers.

McKinley was conditionally welcomed back to the team after missing four practices in the spring of 2019. The case was eventually dismissed one year later.

“It was a setback in my life and a poor decision on my part, but I worked the best to get back from it,” McKinley said in October. “The coaches know me. They know I’m not that type of guy. They didn’t really bat an eye at me. They let me come back and continue to work at my craft and I appreciate them for letting me do that.”

Estrilla and Jonathan McKinley were thankful that the university and the football program were both willing to give their son a second chance.

“That was a very blessed, fortunate situation for Notre Dame to forgive him for that,” Estrilla said. “It’s because it speaks about his character. He’s always been a good kid. He’s never been in trouble his whole life. He’s never even been in a fight in his whole life.

“For this to happen and be something unfortunate, Notre Dame saw right through that right away because it was like, ‘OK, this is not Javon.’”

With that incident on his record and a less than stellar four seasons of production on his résumé, the Irish could have easily passed on giving Javon the option to return for a fifth season. But Kelly and the coaching staff felt Javon had more to give the Irish program.

“Javon McKinley has always been that guy that you’re hoping for him to take that next step,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of things that went into making a decision to bring him back. And most of them were that he was put under the microscope and challenged in a number of areas.

“And he passed those challenges, or he wouldn’t have been invited back. So he gave himself a second chance. I didn’t give him a second chance. He gave himself a second chance — by his work ethic, the way he handled himself off the field and wanted to get this opportunity.

“Now with this opportunity, you have to go take advantage of it. That’s what he’s done. He’s taken advantage of the opportunity that he earned, and it’s great to see.”

Never quitting

As parents, the McKinleys couldn’t help but wonder if Javon should pursue a transfer out of Notre Dame throughout his career. He had so much success at Corona (Calif.) Centennial — 180 receptions for 3,752 yards and 43 touchdowns in his high school career — yet it wasn’t translating in South Bend.

Javon broke his left fibula after playing in six games mostly on special teams as a freshman at Notre Dame. He missed the entire next season recovering from the injury and essentially making up for not being able to redshirt as a freshman. Then as a junior, Javon played in only four games and still had not recorded his first catch.

“When things don’t go your way, sometimes you just start to look at options,” Jonathan said. “That’s with anything in life. So when things weren’t going the way that we thought they should have gone, of course we discussed options — me and my wife. However, the decision to actually be at Notre Dame wasn’t on us. It was always going to be Javon’s.”

Refusing to quit was a lesson Javon learned at a young age. When he was seven years old, Estrilla said, Javon played on a basketball team that was so bad that the scoreboard would often get turned off at halftime. The coach was bad and refused to get helped by other fathers, so even Jonathan considered taking Javon off the team. But Estrilla wouldn’t let Javon quit.

Maybe that lesson impacted Javon several years later when he was weighing his high school options as an eighth grader. Jonathan recognized enrolling at Centennial would give his son a chance to play for a traditionally strong program, but it also could be a tougher task to break into the starting lineup. Javon wasn’t interested in the easier path.

“We were thinking, ‘Hey, you ought to go to the one that’s not a powerhouse so that you could start.’” Jonathan said. “His reply to us was, ‘I’m not going to sit on the bench. I’m starting at the powerhouse.’

“That was an eye opener to me because that let me know, ‘Hey, the kid is serious.’ That’s the goal he’s made so I said, ‘Hey, why not? Let’s go for it,’ and that’s exactly what happened.”

Javon came to Notre Dame with a similar level of confidence, but it didn’t lead to instant results.

“There definitely was a little bit of pressure being in high school and the pretty good career that I had from being the No. 1 guy and going back to square one and working your way from the bottom,” Javon said. “It took me a long time, but the transition I definitely appreciated.

“It helped me more as a man and putting my mindset to what it takes to be a grown person in this business of football and overall off the field in life.”

No surprise

Javon McKinley may be the biggest surprise of Notre Dame’s season, but everyone around him insists he shouldn’t be.

“I had a lot of confidence that this was going to be his year,” Estrilla said.

Said Jonathan: “What’s happened is we finally get to see what we thought we were going to see about five years ago. Unfortunately it didn’t happen in our terms and what we were thinking, however it wasn’t too late for the kid. It wasn’t how he started but actually how he finished.”

Even Kelly had been waiting for Javon to reach this level.

“There’s nothing where we’re, ‘Oh wow. We didn’t know you could do that.’ Or, ‘Wow, you’ve changed immensely,’” Kelly said. “It’s really the mental approach, the confidence and the opportunity — those three things.”

The confidence from Javon was always buried beneath a layer of humility. Estrilla said she and Jonathan raised him to be more reserved than brash. Sometimes Javon’s lack of outward emotion could be interpreted as a lack of confidence.

That’s why Kelly was publicly pumping up Javon after his five-catch, 107-yard performance against Florida State earlier this season. Javon was sitting in the room as Kelly praised him during his postgame press conference.

“He’s a beast,” Kelly said. “He just needs to think that way more often. I think he’s starting to think that way. I mean, I think he is, isn’t he? Aren’t you? He’s starting to think that way.

“He can’t be defended. There’s nobody in college football that can defend that kid.”

Minutes later, Javon said he had embraced that mindset.

“It comes natural to me in terms of the way you want to play on the field, being in a dominant mindset and hitting the opponent across from you every single play,” Javon said following the 42-26 win. “That comes with that beast mentality and I think I put that on a little bit today.”

Estrilla saw that swagger showing through a little bit more on the field this season. After Javon made a leaping catch over a defender for a 43-yard reception at North Carolina, he celebrated with a subtle shimmy.

“I think that he’s enjoying it. I think he’s excited,” Estrilla said. “He still doesn’t have that demeanor to brag about it. He does entertain his friends. I see when they’re pumping him up, he kind of gets excited about it.

“It was years of being humble and modest. I was even shocked when he pointed the football forward when he made the catch against Clemson.”

The McKinleys have been at every Notre Dame game this season except for the game at Boston College, where no fans or family members were allowed in the stadium. Estrilla already had a flight scheduled for the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, N.C., before the Irish had clinched a spot in the game.

She’ll be at Notre Dame Stadium with Jonathan and their daughter on Saturday to celebrate a Senior Day that will feel a bit different that last year’s.

“The fact that he stayed there and persevered, of course we’re going to be there for him and be at every game that we’re allowed to be for him and root him on,” Estrilla said. “He’ll tell you he can hear me.

“I don’t care if it’s 80,000 fans or eight fans, he’s going to hear his mom yelling ‘Javon!’ And he’s going to hear his dad saying ‘Move those chains!’’”

Wide receiver Javon McKinley has risen to the occasion as Notre Dame’s top receiver in his fifth season with the Irish.
Wide receiver Javon McKinley leads Notre Dame in receptions (30) and receiving yards (549) while becoming a big-play threat for the Irish offense.
This catch Notre Dame wide receiver Javon McKinley, right, made over North Carolina safety Don Chapman was featured on ESPN’s “You Got Mossed” segment named after Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss.