Now or never? Senior WR Braden Lenzy ready to make plays again for Notre Dame football
Confidence has never been the issue for Braden Lenzy.
The senior Notre Dame wide receiver has long been convinced that he can be a playmaker for the Irish, even if he hasn’t always been able to prove it.
He showed bright flashes of that potential as a sophomore in 2019. Lenzy’s 11 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns and 13 rushes for 200 yards and two touchdowns were a glimpse of what should have been a breakout season in 2020.
But Lenzy’s junior season was mired by injury. After being sidelined by a left hamstring injury in preseason practice, Lenzy felt like he never truly recovered. Even though he played in four consecutive games after missing the season opener, Lenzy wasn’t at full strength.
Then he pulled his hamstring running a deep route late in the 45-3 blowout at Pittsburgh on Oct. 24.
“I couldn’t bend my leg for a little while,” Lenzy said. “The Pittsburgh one, that was probably the most pain I felt since I hurt my knee in high school.”
The hamstring issue was so prevalent, Lenzy considers it one long injury. He’s convinced that after the initial injury in preseason camp, he didn’t run full speed again until the College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama on Jan 1.
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Lenzy missed three more games following the Pittsburgh hamstring pull and fought through his limitations for the rest of the season. Even though he heard parts of the Notre Dame fan base counting him out, Lenzy wanted to help in whatever way he could.
“The injury itself messed my mind up for sure,” Lenzy said. “It just sucks. Everyone wants to say you don’t hear whatever and you hear it. I’ve heard everything. Injury prone, all that. Nothing I can do about that. I just try to work harder and do what I can.”
That meant more hours in the Gugliemino Athletics Complex sitting in an ice tube and receiving treatment in the training room. The 5-foot-11, 182-pound Lenzy learned that he felt better if he cut back on weight gains while keeping his strength and speed.
Lenzy fed himself a dose of reality too. This late in his college career, one more serious injury could derail his dreams of playing in the NFL. So while Lenzy was working to become the best version of himself as a wide receiver this summer, he also wanted to prepare himself for life after football.
He reached out to Notre Dame graduate Tom Mendoza, for whom Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business is named, for guidance. Mendoza helped Lenzy land an investment internship with Summit Trail Advisors in Chicago.
Lenzy learned a lot in three weeks. Enough to convince himself that he’s interested in pursuing wealth management post-football. That doesn’t mean he wants to be doing it anytime soon though.
“I was like, ‘All right, this is dope, but I want to be an NFL player,’” Lenzy said.
Lenzy wouldn’t mind if he met that goal by April. He loaded his fall semester with 18 credits in order to graduate at the end of the calendar year. Lenzy has embraced a now-or-never mindset even though he still has two more seasons of college football eligibility remaining after this one.
"My mindset is have a great season, win the natty (national championship), get my degree, go to the NFL,” Lenzy said. “That’s the path if I chose option A.”
If that’s going to happen, Lenzy will need to become a big-play threat and a reliable target in Notre Dame’s offense as soon as the season opener at Florida State on Sunday, Sept. 5 (7:30 p.m. EDT on ABC). He has to be more than a receiver utilized fly routes and end arounds.
“I get a bad rap sometimes as just a gadget dude,” Lenzy said. “... I felt like since sophomore year I’m a playmaker in my mind. I don’t feel like at times I’m at a disadvantage. My strengths have been pretty strong through college, I just kept getting hurt.
“Now, I wouldn’t say it’s night and day. I’ve been that dude for a while, and it’s becoming more clear now that I’m not hurt.”
Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees knows the importance of maximizing Lenzy’s potential. He may want to protect Lenzy with a lighter workload throughout the season to keep him healthy, but he gained a better understanding for what Lenzy can handle throughout August.
“For us it's been important that we define things for Braden,” Rees said. “Like, ‘Hey, these are the things that we're going to ask of you, and as we continue to push these, these are the things we're going to add to your plate.’
“He's definitely expanded the routes that we've asked him to do. He's definitely expanded his mental and physical ability to understand the nuanced part of running those routes. He's committed to his craft right now.
“Throughout camp his speed obviously shows up, but the thing that I've been most proud of is his ability to win through traffic, to win through contact, to be stronger. It's a direct reflection of him committing himself to (director of football performance Matt) Balis this offseason. His mentality has been so great throughout camp that I can't I can't say enough good things about Braden.”
Lenzy wanted to give quarterback Jack Coan the confidence to throw him the ball in tight coverage. He showed at times throughout the preseason that he can win those fights for the football.
If Coan is as confident in Lenzy as the speedy wide receiver is in himself, that could be a big win for Notre Dame’s offense.
“We’ll probably see a bit more press than we have in the past, and that’s to our advantage,” Lenzy said. “In my mind and a lot of our minds, I don’t really feel too many people can run with me. But in the off chance someone can run with me, now there’s that part of my game where in my mind if there’s a deep shot called to me, I’m getting the ball either way.
“That was a big goal of mine. My plays are my plays.”
But Lenzy doesn't plan to do it alone. He firmly believes the entire wide receiver corps can produce more explosive plays.
"We’ve done so many great things at Notre Dame at receiver," Lenzy said. "I’m not really sure if being explosive would probably be that at all times. It’s not that we haven’t had the pieces, we’ve been hurt on and off.
"Right now all those pieces that have been explosive are all healthy and all playing at the peak of their college career. Everything’s just timing out well. This will kind of be the time we see a bit different look offensively speaking.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.