The Big 3. The Next 2. And Everyone Else.
Save for the graduation and departure of Boykin, the unit returns intact, and the group’s work to forge a deeper, more dangerous receiving corps has begun in earnest.
It dates back to August Camp 2018 during which a pair of young players flashed prime time potential before the reality of an arduous season slowed each’s apparent ascent.
“I had a good camp, a good start to camp,” said freshman Lawrence Keys, “The coaches liked what they saw and now (December) I’ve been able to get back in the mix.”
Though he did not appear in the Cotton Bowl, Keys ran with the two-deep during bowl practices. It was his classmate Joe Wilkins, Jr. that worked most often with the varsity during game preparations over Notre Dame’s 12-game regular season.
The plan was to redshirt him (by playing four games or fewer) but as the team’s sixth varsity receiver, playing time beckoned. Wilkins earned two game day appearances, at Wake Forest and at Virginia Tech.
“I think my versatility helped,” said Wilkins. “I finished strong (in camp) and the coaches felt I could contribute. Understanding the playbook is key when you’re a freshman.”
Regular Season Snaps
The freshman’s appearance in Blacksburg indicates he was in the mix through at least the first half of the season. Fellow rookie Kevin Austin—the lone player from the five-man freshman class to break through as a daily contributor in 2018—was as well.
Until the end…
Austin did not travel with the squad to either the Shamrock Series game in Yankee Stadium nor the Los Angeles Coliseum due to an unspecified violation of team rules. He returned to the field in the Cotton Bowl but was not targeted on two handfuls of snaps.
“Missing those last two games was a setback but I’m back,” said Austin. “Traveling with the team is a blessed opportunity.”
Austin mixed five receptions for 90 yards over the season’s first 10 contests, the highlight a 38-yard catch vs. Navy in San Diego. He and sophomore Michael Young (7 catches, 138 yards, 1 touchdown) logged a combined 230 regular season snaps but just 20 total targets.
Austin noted that the groundwork for future playing time is in place, and that the W receiver spot at which he technically operated is not the only place he practiced as a freshman.
“We learn the concepts more than we learn the specific position,” he said. “Learning the playbook is how you get on the field.”
That and maintaining your peak athletic performance at an elevated level of competition.
“Yeah, I do think it’s real,” said Wilkins of the oft-reference ‘Rookie Wall’ encountered by most freshmen in the college game. Keys noted he experienced it in late August when his play in practice tailed off after a hot start. He wasn’t the first future speedster to admit that reality.
Freshman year Will Fuller noted the same circa 2013.
Told the top playmaker of the Brian Kelly Era wasn’t immune to such rookie setbacks, Keys and Wilkins immediately perked up.
“It’s definitely hard when you hit that wall,” Keys said. “But I worked through it.”
For the rising sophomores, the real work has just begun.