What kept Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy from rerouting his dreams elsewhere
SOUTH BEND — It was two periods into Braden Lenzy’s first football practice at Notre Dame when reality blindsided all the dreams he had built up in his mind that he thought were about to unfold.
“I couldn’t catch,” he said. “That’s pretty tough when you’re a receiver.”
And the Tigard, Ore., product with elite track speed started asking himself perpetually at that point is this really where he wanted to be and if this really was what he was supposed to be doing in life?
“All the time,” the 5-foot-11, 182-pound senior said Monday after practice as the fifth-ranked Irish (11-1) continued to prep for their PlayStation Fiesta Bowl date with No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2), Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz.
“Honestly,” Lenzy continued, “I think if anyone doesn’t, they’re lying or they played day one as a freshman.
“There were definitely days where you roll up in your bed and you’ve got to do that like 6, 7 a.m. walk in the snow. And you might not see the field a single rep that week and you might feel like you should be playing.
“You’ve still got to get up and make that walk, because that’s what you want. You’re working toward something and, especially here, it’s hard.”
Last week was more of the hard stuff. Lenzy took final exams for the 18 credit hours he crowded into his fall-semester schedule to be able to pick up his degree in business this month.
Ahead is a decision on whether he wants to return for a fifth year, in which case he’ll apply to a one-year Master’s degree program instead of opting to major in football next fall with a minimal academic load.
“I don’t have any benchmarks,” Lenzy said of what kind of feedback he’d have to hear from NFL personnel types to decide he’ll play his final college game in a week and a half. “I haven’t gone into this thinking, ‘Oh, if I hear this grade, then I’m gone.’ I just don’t really know what I’m going to do.”
Lenzy just knows that what he has done to this point has all been worth it.
Through the persistent run of intermittent injuries, the homesickness, the culture shock of living three time zones away from home and in a much less friendly climate.
“I mean if you look at my phone, my contacts for networking are ridiculous now,” he said. “I can call up Mr. Mendoza (Tom of the Mendoza School of Business) at any point, so that’s huge.
“Notre Dame’s hard. South Bend’s not great, if I’m honest. Yeah, there are a lot of tricky days, but like I didn’t come here with the expectation that it’d be easy.”
New Irish head coach Marcus Freeman wasn’t at Notre Dame when Lenzy was being recruited — verbally committing to ND, flipping to Oregon, then ultimately signing with the Irish four Decembers ago.
But Lenzy is exactly the recruiting profile Freeman is looking for as the promoted former defensive coordinator takes on the role of lead recruiter for the Irish.
“I make sure these kids understand we're going to do things the hard way,” Freeman said last week on National Signing Day, when the Irish compiled the nation’s No. 7 class, per Rivals and 247Sports.
“That's what makes us unique. That's what makes us special, is that everything here is a challenge. If you're here for three, four, five years, and every day you wake up and you're willing to pursue that challenge, you're going to be better because of it in the long (run).
“Because you're willing to wake up and challenge yourself in the classroom, challenge yourself in society, challenge yourself in a football program, when you get finished here after four years, you're going to be better and more prepared because of it.”
For Lenzy that translates into him playing the best football of his career. His 25 catches, 290 yards and three TDs all represent career highs.
“The consistency level’s at the highest it's been,” offered offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. “His commitment to preparing has been as high as it's ever been. His selflessness, how he's acted with the team has been awesome to see. What you kind of expect a senior to grow into.
“Even after (captain) Avery (Davis) went down, you saw that tick up another notch. He's been unbelievable these last three or four weeks of the season and then leading into bowl prep.
“He's been the best he's ever been, not only as a player, but like his mentality and how he's come to work. You see that paying off. He's been a guy that we continue to work with, continue to develop, and he's hitting his stride at a really good time for us.”
And Lenzy has been a sounding board for the three freshman wide receivers — Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas, who gradually became invaluable rotation pieces as injuries and defections cut into ND’s wide receiver numbers.
The Irish will face the nation’s No. 3 team in total defense in the Fiesta Bowl with just five scholarship receivers to throw at it.
Styles (16 catches, 208 yards) is just the 10th freshman in the concluding 12-year Brian Kelly Era to catch at least two passes for ND as a true freshman and just the third to reach double digits in his freshman season.
“If a freshman doesn’t play as a freshman, then he’s just not good enough,” Lenzy said in explaining those numbers. “The first freshman I saw that was ready to play was Zo (Styles). Zo played.
“I think people who think we aren’t trying to play freshmen are mistaken. Like realistically, who’s spot was going to be taken? I understand the fans. You want to get young guys acclimated and all that. It’s starting to happen, especially with the portal. Obviously, times are adjusting.
“So I don’t know. I couldn’t play as a freshman. Y’all saw.”
And coming in as an early enrollee doesn’t necessarily make the process any easier for freshman wideouts, Lenzy — a June enrollee — has observed.
“Originally, I thought (enrolling early) would be more convenient,” he said, “but it’s a very different feel, because you’re in the worst time period weatherwise in South Bend right when you arrive. There's no actual reward.
“The (coaches) are really letting things play out in the spring. They're trying to see some true competition. So it’s kind of difficult to take someone’s spot in the spring. Freshmen often get frustrated, because they felt like they came in and left with minimal depth chart movement, (And there’s a feeling of) what is really going to happen?
“I just think now when you’re not playing and you’re not seeing movement and you’re walking in the cold, it sucks. And you can’t even go out. That’s tough. As an early enrollee. it’s just not your image of college football.
“It’s just not. And it’s right in your face immediately. The early enrollees, they’re just thrown into the fire. There’s no warmup. You’re here. You’re a college student. Tough.”
It’s why rumors of ND freshmen at all positions contemplating transferring are real. And just as real is the culture that Lenzy and so many of the other seniors have fortified that cause most of those rumors to end up fizzling.
“I have my Notre Dame degree,” Lenzy said with a smile. “And no one can say anything to me now. Football or not, I did my time. I played well. I worked hard academically, so I feel very good about that.”
HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. OKLAHOMA ST.
What: PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
Who: No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2)
Kickoff: Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. EST
Where: State Farm Stadium; Glendale, Ariz.
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 1 1/2
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI