Reasons to believe the praise for Notre Dame's unproven wide receivers
SOUTH BEND — Jack Coan didn’t spend time researching message board complaints or social media concerns about Notre Dame’s returning wide receivers when he committed to the Irish as a graduate transfer from Wisconsin.
The quarterback knew he had plenty of time to get to know his teammates after he enrolled at Notre Dame in February for the spring semester. Winter workouts, spring practice, summer workouts and preseason camp all provided opportunities for Coan to get a better grasp of the talent on the receiving end of his passes.
Coan eventually learned how little game experience and production the group had collectively.
“I didn't know basically who the receivers were or who anyone was coming in,” Coan said Saturday after being named Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. “But I had no idea that not many of them have played that much. It surprised me a ton, because these guys are super talented and can do it all basically. It's a group of guys with a chip on their shoulder and that are hungry to have success.”
Coan’s first impressions of his top receiving options coincided with a transformational offseason, in the words of head coach Brian Kelly, for Notre Dame’s senior wide receivers: Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins Jr.
Coan didn’t see a wide receiver group that included only one player (Avery Davis) with more than 18 career catches.
“You definitely hear about a few guys,” Coan said. “Then you come here and you learn about even more guys. The depth here is definitely pretty crazy to me. There’s a lot of guys that can contribute.”
That depth will remain overstated until those wideouts produce with regularity this season, but there’s reason to believe the hype and it starts with the quartet of seniors.
“There was a challenge there to raise their level of preparation and commitment throughout the offseason program with (director of football performance) coach (Matt) Balis and his staff,” said Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. “And you see that pay dividends throughout camp.
“There are catches that Braden Lenzy's making through traffic that are impressive. Their attention to detail and what we're trying to do day in and day out has been the best it's been since I've been here at that group.
“The strength and grit to push through certain days has shown up day in and day out. I could pull clips up — I wish I could — and I could show you all these things coming to light. I'm as encouraged and excited for a group that's worked that hard to get to where they are that I've ever been.”
Davis knows how one season late in the career of a Notre Dame wide receiver can become transformational. He saw it happen for Miles Boykin in 2018, Chase Claypool in 2019 and Javon McKinley in 2020. He even experienced a smaller breakout season of his own last season (24 catches for 322 yards and two touchdowns) following three years littered with position switches from quarterback to cornerback, running back and wide receiver.
Now Davis enters the 2021 season as a captain and the team’s most productive returning receiver. But that doesn’t mean he can fully explain the late career trend for Irish wide receivers.
“Maybe it’s a Notre Dame thing. I really can’t tell you,” Davis said. “I know that being in here and developing is something that’s really going on with Notre Dame. You develop so much. You get bigger, faster, stronger with Balis. You get the Xs and Os in the film room. Then when you go out here and watch these guys compete, that’s where the most learning happens.”
Davis wanted to replicate everything he learned from Chris Finke as a slot receiver.
“Mirroring their game and seeing what works for them and what doesn’t work for them,” Davis said, “once it all comes together — especially on top of you being physically probably the best you’ve been since you’ve been here, the most developed — you have nothing to lose at that point.
“It’s just all in at the back end. You’re not afraid. You’re not timid. It’s just my time to go.”
The wide receiver group is so in sync, Davis spotted moments on film where they’re all making movements in the same way at the same time as if it were choreographed.
“I’ve been around them for a long time, but I haven’t been around us being so locked in with football and so confident,” Davis said. “That’s the biggest thing. The confidence that the group is bringing right now is really through the roof.”
Is now the time for Kevin Austin Jr.?
Maybe no player in Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame has received more praise for what he's done in practice without being able to show it on Saturdays than Austin.
A sophomore season derailed by suspension and a junior season sidelined by a twice-broken left foot has only built the suspense on what Austin may actually be able to bring to the Irish offense. Davis knows not only from watching Austin in practice but from being assigned to defend him during his short-lived cornerback career.
“That was rough,” Davis said. “He made my time at corner not fun.”
When Austin caught an 18-yard pass from Ian Book against Louisville last October (his only one of the season), it was his first reception since a 38-yard catch against Navy in October 2018.
“Kev’s done a great job,” Rees said. “He's healthy. He’s competed. He's done everything we’ve asked of him. It’s been a progression to get him to where he is.
"The whole program — there’s so much joy for that young man right now, to fight through everything he’s gone through to put himself in a position to go out and play and help this team win games.”
But what can the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Austin do if he actually performs to his potential? It’s a combination of size, strength, speed and explosiveness after the catch.
“Kevin’s super special,” Davis said. “I’m just so happy that he’s finally healthy. He’s finally out here on the field and balling. He’s having fun. He’s flying around. He’s crazy athletic and making plays all over the place.
“It’s special. I can’t wait to take the field with him. He’s going to do really big things this year.”
Is Deion Colzie the future?
The freshman wide receiver picked the right day to impress when making a few nice catches with reporters present at last Thursday’s practice.
The 6-5, 207-pound Colzie had previously been sidelined with an undisclosed injury.
“You see the raw ability,” Rees said Saturday. “There’s a lot of range there. There’s good speed. There’s good understanding. The last two or three days, when he’s really been going, you see plays show up.”
Colzie was one of the gems of Notre Dame’s 2021 recruiting class out of Athens (Ga.) Academy. Rivals and 247Sports both ranked him among the top 20 wide receivers and top 150 prospects overall in the 2021 class.
Colzie was taking reps with the No. 2 offense Tuesday.
“I’ve liked everything I’ve seen from him," Davis said. "The earlier practices he was injured. ... But when he’s on that field, he’s been making nothing but plays. He’s going to be really special. I’m excited to see him play.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.