SOUTH BEND — There were a few notable surprises when the first Notre Dame football depth chart for the 2020 season was released Monday, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
The three starting wide receivers for the No. 10 Fighting Irish on Saturday against Duke will be graduate senior Ben Skowronek, redshirt senior Avery Davis and graduate senior Javon McKinley. All three are new starters for Notre Dame: Skowronek is a graduate transfer from Northwestern, while Davis and McKinley have seen minimal action during their respective time in South Bend.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly credited Skowronek’s work ethic for earning him the starting job.
“He’s blue-collar in the sense that he’s the first one in and the last to leave,” Kelly said. “He’s watching film, and he does all the little things you want from a guy. If you’re going to take a grad transfer, he fits the profile of all those things a head coach would be looking for.”
McKinley gets the starting nod over redshirt junior Braden Lenzy, who was a starter by the end of last season. Lenzy was expected to be the No. 1 wide receiver returning for the Irish, but now he’ll be in a backup role to start the year. Kelly did not elaborate on the decision to start McKinley over Lenzy during his press conference Monday.
Five running backs were listed on the depth chart, with redshirt freshman Kyren Williams getting the starting position. Kelly mentioned last week Williams was progressing toward being the No. 1 running back, and Monday’s announcement made that official.
Second on the depth chart is freshman Chris Tyree, although the word “or” is next to three running backs below him: redshirt junior Jahmir Smith, redshirt junior C’Bo Flemister and redshirt senior Jafar Armstrong. Kelly expects all five guys to see playing time in 2020.
“I think we’ve made it pretty clear that Kyren Williams has kind of taken that lead position, and then I think we have four other backs that are all very capable of playing and will play this year … I don’t know that I’ve ever been blessed to have that kind of depth at the position,” Kelly said.
Defensively, the biggest question going into the fall was who would be the starting Buck linebacker. As of now, that answer is still unclear. The depth chart lists two players — junior Shayne Simon and redshirt freshman Marist Liufau — with an “or” next to their names. A starter will be determined during this week’s practices.
“Both of them are prepared and ready to play,” Kelly said. “(Defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) will make the decision as to who runs out there with the starting group, but both of them have had great camps, and both of them are prepared and ready to play a lot of football for us.”
Graduate senior Shaun Crawford is making a position change, as he is listed as the starting strong safety after playing cornerback during his career so far. Kelly raved about Crawford’s performance in camp at the new position.
“He’s been extremely productive for us at that position,” Kelly said. “He won that position over. We didn’t come into camp expecting him to win it. We came into camp expecting him to be a placeholder at that position. He went out and won that position. We are a better football team with Shaun playing the safety position.”
The final surprise came at the cornerback position. After losing both of its 2019 starting cornerbacks to the NFL Draft, the Irish will start grad transfer Nick McCloud and junior TaRiq Bracy in those two spots. There is an “or” next to Bracy, though, as freshman Clarence Lewis has earned a spot next to Bracy. He is the only defensive true freshman to appear on the Week 1 depth chart.
“The corner position requires not only athleticism, right? It requires an ability to make plays when the ball is in the air … (Lewis) brought all of those,” Kelly said. “Clarence had some innate ability at that position that was able to translate itself early on in his time here.”
Probably the biggest news to come from Monday, though, was Notre Dame has no players in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19. Everyone should be available to play this weekend, barring any injuries or positive tests during the week. The Irish — and every ACC team — is testing three times a week during the season: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“I feel really good about the discipline of our football team,” Kelly said. “We’re excited about now playing some football on Saturday.”