SOUTH BEND – This season, Notre Dame's coaches have let their young players and those lower on the depth chart know that they will get opportunities to make plays. The Irish have emphasized seizing the moment when it comes.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Javon McKinley did exactly that in the No. 7 Irish's 66-14 win over New Mexico on Saturday, catching two passes and turning them both into touchdowns. He came into the season without a catch in his Irish career but now seems to be in line to be Notre Dame's No. 3 receiver, behind Chase Claypool and Chris Finke.
“As you know, (McKinley) got on the field in a first-team rotation,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We're starting to get it here, figure out that he's not a No. 2. He can play as a No. 1. ... He would have been playing a long time ago if we'd had the young man playing at a consistent level. He is showing that (now).”
McKinley's first touchdown will likely be among the first plays on any highlight reel of the 2019 Notre Dame season.
In the second quarter, with the Irish up 21-0, he caught a drag route over the middle about eight yards past the line of scrimmage, broke one tackle with a stiff arm then another with a stutter-step. That allowed him to get to the sideline, where he got a block before zig-zagging inside again and spinning out of the grasp of a third would-be tackler on his way to a 65-yard touchdown.
In the third quarter, McKinley made it his first multicatch day at Notre Dame when he ran a fade route and used strong hands to haul in quarterback Ian Book's pass over the head of a well-positioned cornerback for a 20-yard touchdown.
His two-catch, 85-yard performance, as well as some less-heralded plays in the run game, caught Kelly's eye and will lead to more opportunities.
“He's really physical, one of the stronger guys we have,” Kelly said. “In the weight room, he's at the top of all the categories. So you've got a physical presence, can go up and get the football, so he brings all of those intangibles. ... He's earned his opportunity to get significant playing time.”
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound McKinley always had the physical tools to be a standout receiver, but for a while it looked as though this opportunity might never come for the Corona, California, native. He had played in 10 games without a catch in his first three years on campus, missing all of 2017 with an injury.
He was arrested this offseason following an altercation with police and though charges were later dropped, he got “lost in cyberspace” on the Irish depth chart, according to Kelly.
Notes: On the injury front, there was mixed bag of news from Kelly on Sunday. The Irish coach is encouraged that top tight end Cole Kmet, who broke his collarbone in fall camp, will be available this week against Georgia. Receiver Michael Young, who also broke his collarbone, is out against the Bulldogs, while running back Jahmir Smith is questionable with a toe injury. Smith will return to running today.