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Leftovers & Links: On Javon McKinley, Notre Dame’s OL depth and lack of Irish injuries

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and Rich Eisen discuss if the Fighting Irish should be in the College Football Playoff even if they lose their rematch against Clemson.

Beating Syracuse 45-21 revealed little about No. 2 Notre Dame that will be applicable moving forward aside from reminding viewers what the Irish blue-and-gold looks like against orange-and-white. Fittingly, in a year defined by blue vs. orange, Notre Dame should be wearing its home uniforms against Clemson in Charlotte on Dec. 19.

However, fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley finding the end zone for not only the first time this season but for the first three times confirmed the Irish have found a deep threat even if junior Braden Lenzy remains slowed with a nagging hamstring.

“Javon’s been doing an unbelievable job, I’m just happy for him,” fifth-year quarterback Ian Book said after connecting with McKinley seven times for 111 yards. “With this being his last night in Notre Dame Stadium and him being able to finish like that, it’s unbelievable.

“It’s just trust. I trust he’s in the right spot at the right time and we showed that tonight. We’ll see that more in the next three games that we’ve got.”

Book’s bold but subtle claim the Irish will play in Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 11 hinted at the payoff of five months of post-practice work. It took five years for McKinley to be the focus of those added reps, and then another full season for them to lead him into the end zone, but his time came before his career in South Bend ended.

“That kind of recognition and belief and trust is where this offense has grown throughout the season,” Kelly said Saturday. “Where that didn’t exist for (McKinley) for what, four years? It now exists, and that’s why this offense is so much better than it was earlier in the year.”

McKinley finishes the regular season with 660 yards on 37 catches and four 100-yard games. For context, Chase Claypool had just three 100-yard games in 2019.

McKinley’s surge is even more impressive when framed by the season’s latter half. In Notre Dame’s last five games, McKinley has 489 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 28 catches. Kelly may expect the rematch with No. 3 Clemson to be lower-scoring than the 47-40 double-overtime classic on Nov. 7, but McKinley has (finally) grown into a complete receiver the Tigers will have to worry about the length of the field.

The Irish home finale was reminiscent of its opener in that it struggled on the ground out of the gates. Yet Notre Dame continued handing off the ball, a total of 38 carries against Syracuse.

“We knew 2-3 yard gains would burst into big gains,” sophomore running back Kyren Williams said back in September. “So we knew if we kept doing that, then those big gains would come. Obviously, that’s what happened.”

It happened again in December, the Irish averaging 5.38 yards per rush (sacks adjusted) even without freshman Chris Tyree’s 94-yard score in the fourth quarter.

More than any offensive line adjustments, Notre Dame simply kept running Saturday, as it has all season.

“The longer we stuck with it in terms of our offensive running production, the better we were,” Kelly said.

The Irish brought fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer into the game in the first half, far earlier than the midweek “emergency situation” scenario Kelly outlined for any potential Kraemer return only two weeks removed from an emergency appendectomy.

“As we went along during the week, Tommy had made it clear that in his last home game, he wanted to play,” Kelly said. “Once he was cleared by our doctors, we saw that there was no need not to get him in the game.”

Kraemer will no longer share the role with seniors Dillan Gibbons or Josh Lugg, that much is for sure. Whether or not Lugg continues to work at center in place of sophomore Zeke Correll (ankle) is to be determined.

“The positive of this is that we know with Lugg and Zeke and now even with Dillan and getting Tommy back … we’ve created some depth,” Kelly said Monday. “We’ll look to find out what that best rotation is. With the offensive line, I don’t know that you ever really want to be moving guys in and out of the lineup there.”

Courtesy of the ACC bettering its lower-tier bowl prospects, Notre Dame can spend this week focusing on Correll’s health. There should be no other injury concerns. Junior linebacker Bo Bauer suffered a contusion Saturday, but no further damage was done. Sophomore quarterback Brendon Clark’s “cranky” right knee will presumably continue to bother him, hence a knee brace seen Saturday, but any further evaluation will wait until after the season.

Furthermore, Notre Dame logged another set of clean coronavirus tests over the weekend. As of Monday, no players were in either isolation or quarantine.

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