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Javon McKinley makes most of second chance at Notre Dame, first chance on field

The biggest game of the weekend is in Athens, Georgia, as the Bulldogs host the Fighting Irish. Chris Simms joins the show to break down the matchup.

In the category of “Believe it when I see it,” senior receiver Javon McKinley held an unrivaled lead on Notre Dame’s roster heading into the season. The former consensus four-star California recruit first had his career stalled by a broken leg, then an inability to make an impact on the depth chart. Even in practice, McKinley flashed only occasionally, not inspiring any thoughts of a breakthrough.

Thus, his February arrest for two counts of battery and illegal consumption of alcohol came across as more a moment of potential roster management than something that would affect the Irish on the field. Notre Dame was then over the NCAA maximum of 85 scholarships, and not to be too callous, but McKinley had just allegedly struck a campus police officer who was trying to help him. At that point, his name had appeared in headlines twice during his collegiate career, once for a broken leg and now once for an arrest.

Yet, Irish head coach Brian Kelly quietly stuck by McKinley, who served a suspension in the spring and reached a plea agreement including pre-trial diversion in April.

“Advocacy from across campus,” Kelly said when asked why he and the University gave McKinley another chance. “He had had, really, a clean record with us. This was — I don’t want to say aberration, but it was something that had never happened before, which earned him the opportunity to get a second chance.”

If not an aberration, perhaps an anomaly. After scoring two touchdowns on two catches for 85 yards during No. 7 Notre Dame’s 66-14 victory against New Mexico on Saturday, McKinley has his first chance to contribute on the field, and he now has to prove that showing was not another anomaly.

Maybe that sounds harsh. McKinley overcame a season-costing injury and the subsequent lost time and fitness before making a mistake, one that was by all reports a first for him as far as any transgressions go, to have a breakout performance including an utterly-memorable touchdown.

But sometimes, “Believe it when I see it” really means “Believe it when I see it multiple times.” In that regard, McKinley is very much going to have his chance as long as junior receiver Michael Young is sidelined with a broken collarbone — at least a couple more weeks.

“We like his size,” Kelly said. “We like what he’s done. Look, he would have been playing a long time ago if we had the young man playing at a consistent level. He is showing that. He is practicing well. He is doing the right things both on and off the field. You guys don’t want to hear this, but all those traits are starting to show themselves, and he’s preparing himself for a big year for us.”

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Pairing McKinley with senior Chase Claypool, his first roommate at Notre Dame, gives Irish senior quarterback Ian Book a pair of targets awfully reminiscent of Claypool and Miles Boykin a season ago, a combination that brought both speed and size such that Book usually had an open spot to throw to.

“He’s really athletic and super strong,” Book said. “When you see him running, you saw four or five guys bounce off of him. I was super happy for him, and he’s faster than people think. When you get him the ball in a drag like that and he can go all the way down the field and make four or five people miss, that’s huge, and again, he has another touchdown on a back-shoulder fade. He’s able to go there and be strong with his hands and bring down a fade ball.

“He’s someone you want on the perimeter and he’s someone we need this year.”

Perhaps Book’s last point explains McKinley’s breakthrough. When he made his first career catch at Louisville, it could be written off as just one snag, but now he has three in physical moments across two games. He has been aggressive in attacking both the ball and subsequent defenders. Kelly spent part of Sunday raving about his blocking abilities. Why now?

Because now Notre Dame has nowhere else to turn for someone 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. Boykin is scoring touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens. Sophomore Kevin Austin will not see the field this season. Sophomore Joe Wilkins has the wanted length, but he tilts the scales at only 194 pounds. The Irish need McKinley this year, and sometimes that pressure turns potential into reality.

“To see that growth and see him staying true to everything that we fought for, I’m so excited for him,” Claypool said. “I hope he enjoys every moment of it. There’s more to come, obviously.”

Obviously may yet be a reach, but it is far from outlandish, which could not have been said just a few weeks ago.