Noie: Time is now for new and improved and focused Notre Dame WR Joe Wilkins Jr.
SOUTH BEND – A fresh burst of Notre Dame football interview air unexpectedly swept through the Irish Athletic Center last week.
Ascending the two sets of stairs that lead from the indoor practice field to the second-floor player lounge that doubled this preseason as a post-practice interview area, Irish junior wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr., had shed his Under Armour cleats and his socks for that afternoon meeting with the media.
One-on-one interviews are about as common this time of year as weekday home football games. They just don’t happen at Notre Dame. Like, ever. Too many reporters with too many agendas to grab a guy even for a few minutes. But you soldier through as the lines of questioning jump from here to there to anywhere.
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One question for a receiver might be about the nuances of catching back shoulder throws, then the next about whether they like to eat broccoli. Not really, but you get it.
In those rarest of times when one-on-ones just sort of happen, as was the case with Wilkins, man, they’re something else. Interview gold. Untapped treasures. A good day in the journalism world when interviewer and interviewee can just sit and … talk.
What a concept, and a reminder of what it was like before the paranoia of players saying something wrong permeated so many programs.
“Shoeless Joe” settled in at a table empty of any member of the print media wanting to get a word or two with him. Across the room, fellow wide receiver Braden Lenzy was holding court. That drew a good gaggle. Nearby, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was speaking with reporters, likely for the last time until December. So he was a popular/natural/needed interview.
The prevailing attitude toward Wilkins? Nah, we’ll pass on the backup. Too bad. Because once Wilkins got going, he seldom stopped for 12 minutes. He was in peak interview form. On any subject. On himself. On the wide receivers being basically dismissed as a group void of a proven game-breaker. On his own place in the program and how he was content – too much at times – taking a backseat previous seasons to the likes of Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley. Let those guys handle the heavy lifting of route running and pass catching and playing and leading, Wilkins often thought, he was good with where he was at.
That’s not his approach now. He knew months ago that it had to change. That he had to change. Wilkins changed his diet to include more protein shakes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He changed his work habits. His practice habits. His film-watching habits. His everyday existence as a football player.
He even changed his jersey number from 18 to 5.
He changed his entire outlook. He couldn’t wait to talk. First, someone had to ask.
“This spring, I just really went all in,” Wilkins said. “I’m so all in. I’m doing all the little things right and meticulous about all the little details now.
“I’m just trying to go the whole nine yards.”
Wilkins went for 39 of them in the 2020 opener against Duke, when he also caught a career high four passes. At the time, he seemed like a revelation. Like, who was this guy? Wilkins was running routes and catching balls and playing the part that first Saturday – then basically disappeared for the rest of the year.
After those four catches against Duke, Wilkins made three for 24 the rest of the way. That included his first career touchdown on Halloween at Georgia Tech, but the big moments after that first moment were too few. Why? Deep down, Wilkins knew he wouldn’t do what he did against Duke again.
“I played Duke at probably 65 percent,” Wilkins said. “Nobody knows that at all, but that whole game, I was hurt. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. If I could’ve stayed from where I was against Duke, the season for me could’ve been different.”
A new and improved wideout
A tweaked and tender hamstring and assorted lower-body injury issues that never really did get right hampered Wilkins for most of 2020. By the time he was healthy enough to cut it all loose, the rotation was set. He wasn’t jumping McKinley on the depth chart. He wasn’t getting on the field for many meaningful reps. His season after the first game was basically done.
Wilkins was OK with that because he rarely was healthy, He now knows that to be good, to be at his best, to be in the rotation, he has to stay fit and focused. No more hamstring tweaks. No more minor maladies that keep him on the outside looking in.
No more excuses.
“That’s why I’m making these changes,” he said. “That’s why I’m busting my (butt) this offseason and the summer. I need to be healthy this year and I’m going to be healthy this year.
“With me being healthy, the sky’s the limit.”
Wilkins believes it. So does Rees, who sat the wide receiver down for an offseason heart-to-heart. Yeah, Wilkins didn’t show much or do much his first few seasons, and that was fine. The older guys got the chances. But now he’s an older guy.
At 6-foot-1 ½ and 195 pounds, Wilkins isn’t the tallest or the quickest or the stronger Irish receiver. But there’s no reason he can’t follow in the footsteps of a Claypool or a McKinley and go from nobody to somebody.
The opportunity’s there. How badly does Wilkins want it?
“Joe’s always had a ton of talent,” Rees said. “He’s a guy that is extremely versatile in terms of knowing all three (receiver) spots, having the ability to win at all three spots. He’s a guy that's done a lot of things the right way and it’s starting to show on the field.”
He’s not alone. Start wondering about this football team and the questions usually start with the wide receivers. Can Wilkins and Lenzy and Kevin Austin and captain Avery Davis and Lawrence Keys III handle the playmaking pressure?
Just wait, Wilkins said.
“We all busted our (butts) this offseason,” he said. “Avery is a great leader. Kevin’s a freak athlete. Braden is so fast. Keys is as quick as a cat. I can do everything.
“We’re a dominant group and we’re going to show that this year. We’re so locked in.”
Wilkins draws much motivation from Austin, his best friend who’s also above him on the depth chart. Austin has the look of a potential freak playmaker with an NFL future. Once he puts it all together, he may be without peer. But that doesn’t dissuade Wilkins. It pushes him, everyday.
“We’re competing, but we’re doing it together and it’s amazing,” Wilkins said. “I love it.”
If Wilkins is to win on Saturdays, he first had to win in the offseason. In the weight room. In workouts. Be it a bench press or a leg lift or end-of-workout gassers, Wilkins vowed to work harder and longer than any wide receiver. Lenzy may be quicker, but that didn’t matter. Austin may be stronger but that also didn’t matter. Davis is older, but big deal. Wilkins outran Lenzy in wind sprints. He outlifted Austin in the weight room. He outworked Davis.
By the end of the summer session, no wide receiver had accumulated more overall workout/effort/execution points than Wilkins.
“He killed us,” Lenzy said.
Why him? Why now? Again, it goes back to being an older guy. As a young guy. Wilkins had no clue what he needed to do daily to be an even average college receiver. He figured he could get by on talent, just as he did in high school back in North Fort Myers, Florida. That worked then. That’s not going to work now for the ninth-ranked team in the land.
Wilkins not only has to play the game, but think it. Always. Even when barefoot and away from the practice field.
Last week, Wilkins and the wide receivers sat for a presentation about the difference between being buyers and renters. Up until last spring, Wilkins admitted he was a renter. He was only kind of, sort of invested. He was there, but not really.
Now he’s a buyer. On everything.
“The first two years, for sure, just a renter,” he said. “You’re just getting by, just checking the boxes. That's a terrible mindset to have, but that’s what I had. Now, it’s the details. You’re doing it for a reason.
“It’s your time.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI