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Leftovers & Links: Unexpected veterans key Notre Dame’s adaptability

Head coach Brian Kelly reacts to Notre Dame's 42-26 win over Florida State after a three-week layoff and how the Irish played a strong game in their return but still have room for improvement.

Javon McKinley forgot to tell the Notre Dame coaching staff he wanted to return for a fifth season in 2020. After missing his sophomore year with a broken leg, that option was available for the Irish receiver, if both he and the school agreed upon it.

However, a February 2019 arrest for two counts of battery and illegal consumption of alcohol made the University approving the former consensus four-star California recruit for an additional season was no longer a clear-cut certainty. Yet when McKinley decided about a year ago he wanted to return for one more fall of action, he was not as proactive as he should have been in initiating that process.

“I would say definitely in October I had the mindset that I wanted to come back,” McKinley said Tuesday. “Give myself the chance to build a better résumé and take a chance on the League.

“I did not do well at expressing that to the coaches at first, but giving them what my mindset was, explaining my contribution, for them taking the chance on me, bringing me back, I definitely appreciate that.”

It has worked out for all parties, McKinley’s five catches for 107 yards in Notre Dame’s 42-26 win against Florida State on Saturday night only the latest example of his needed offerings.

Coming into 2020, McKinley had all of 11 catches for 268 yards in his career, yet he was the second-leading returning Irish receiver, and the only name ahead of McKinley among returning receivers, junior Lawrence Keys, was unavailable against South Florida.

Far from a stalwart to date, McKinley’s experience was needed as much as his broad 6-foot-2 frame, and both have served Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC).

“Our connection is great, our chemistry is good,” Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book said Saturday night. “I was going there a lot this week (in practice), and he was making the plays and knew it’s his time to shine. That was a matchup we all wanted to see and knew he could come out on top. … He’s someone on the perimeter I want to get the ball to.”

McKinley’s six catches this season for 114 yards are well and good, but his impact on the perimeter has gone well beyond showing up Seminoles’ star cornerback Asante Samuel on a jump ball or two.

Out on the perimeter, McKinley has set the tone for how Notre Dame receivers block for the rushing attack. The example that stood out Saturday may have been freshman Chris Tyree’s 65-yard score, in which McKinley tied up with a defensive back all the way down the field, but also consider sophomore Kyren Williams’ 46-yard score shortly before that.

McKinley did not hold his block as long, but he occupied the defensive back long enough that Irish junior tight end Tommy Tremble had nothing to do on Williams’ jaunt; the running back was not the only one untouched all the way downfield.

“It’s just one of those things where sometimes it just takes longer,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “[McKinley is] a beast. He just needs to think that way more often. He’s starting to think that way.”

Kelly went on to pile compliments onto McKinley — “There’s nobody in college football that can defend that kid.” — that may have been caught up in the moment. There is no need to lean into exaggeration and thus diminish McKinley’s contributions in just these first three games.

The Irish needed a receiver Book could count on, if not to catch many passes, to at least line up correctly and run his routes. They simply have not had many options due to both hamstring and coronavirus reasons.

Fortunately, McKinley was around, despite his inarticulated intentions a year ago, and he has been an all-around additive to an offense currently averaging 44 points per game.

“I wish I got a little bit more yards after the catch, but just to be able to go on the field and beat the man across from me, get open, catch some balls, get some yards, help my team out not just blocking but in the passing game, it was fun,” McKinley said.

Notre Dame intended for sixth-year defensive back Shaun Crawford to simply fill in at safety this preseason. Kelly described him as a “placeholder” until less experienced players found their sea legs. Instead, Crawford “went out and won that position.”

He worked there throughout the preseason and September, but last week in practice, the Irish had only sophomore TaRiq Bracy available among their cornerbacks on the two-deep. The rest were unavailable to such an extent they could not be counted upon against Florida State, even if no longer officially unavailable anymore.

Back to cornerback Crawford went, and by now, he has presumably flipped once more to safety already. While Kelly deemed these moves “selfless” on Crawford’s behalf on Saturday, sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton focused on the experience aspect of Crawford’s career. Keep in mind: This is his sixth collegiate season (and let’s not indulge the idea of a seventh year, which he will technically have available).

“He’s played more snaps than everybody in the [defensive back] room combined,” Hamilton said. “He’s seen a lot of football, he knows what he’s doing. You never really have to worry about him doing his job.”

For the second consecutive game, senior kicker Jonathan Doerer missed a field goal, dropping him to 3-of-5 on the season, far below his 17-of-20 pace from 2019. By no means will that diminish Doerer’s confidence, though.

“Misses happen,” he said Tuesday. “Sometimes you get a good kick, doesn’t go in. I try not to dwell on it too much. The game goes on. Like we like to say, the most important kick is the next kick.”

With Doerer “most likely” planning to return to Notre Dame in 2021, courtesy of the NCAA’s eligibility mulligan this season, that confidence should only grow, and for a college kicker, that is anything but a bad thing.

Another example of that confidence: Doerer said he has made a 61-yard field goal in practice.

Within Notre Dame’s distributed notes following Saturday night’s win, one stuck out simply for being unexpected. Apparently, the Irish had not scored 42 or more in consecutive games since 2000. Sure enough, despite breaking that mark 26 times in Kelly’s 10 seasons, Notre Dame had not done it in back-to-back weeks. In 2017, the Irish actually reached 48 or more in five of their first nine games, perfectly alternating 30s (and one 19-point showing) with 40s or 50s into November.

The last time Notre Dame tallied 42 or more in three-straight weeks? Lou Holtz’s final month, when the Irish worked out the scoreboard for four weeks to the tune of 54-48-60-62.

With Louisville giving up an average of 34.25 points per game — Miami reaching 47 and Georgia Tech 46 — there seems a decent chance Notre Dame takes another step toward Holtz’s closing stanza.

10,409 fans were in the stands Saturday night, a season-high after Notre Dame opened in front of 10,097 and hosted 10,085 the following week against South Florida.

Or, more accurately, lack thereof.

In the age of a College Football Playoff selection committee, the AP and Coaches’ polls have no effect or impact and serve solely to spur conversation, more often irrational conversation than not.

In this week’s AP poll, the Irish rank No. 4, two spots ahead of Ohio State. When the 2020 season began with the Big Ten intending to sit it out entirely, the AP made those teams ineligible to be included on the 62 ballots collected each week, but once the Big Ten changed course and announced its season would start Oct. 24, the Buckeyes could once again be positioned on ballots.

As such, Ohio State is ahead of Notre Dame on 39 of this week’s 62 ballots. Then how did the Irish end up not just in front of the Buckeyes, but in front by a decent margin? Nine ballots continue to leave off all Big Ten (and Pac 12) teams.

That will inevitably change in two weeks, at which point one should expect Notre Dame to drop a spot in these inconsequential debate-stirrers.

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