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McKinley, Boykin show depth in Irish WR corps

Notre Dame v Syracuse

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 01: C.J. Sanders #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is congratulated by teammates Chris Finke #10 and Javon McKinley #88 after Sanders scored a touchwon in the first quarter against the Syracuse Orange at MetLife Stadium on October 1, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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If there is any advantage to starting an inexperienced quarterback such as Notre Dame junior Brandon Wimbush, it is the chemistry he theoretically developed with the younger receivers while taking third team and scout team practice reps the past couple seasons. Irish coach Brian Kelly eluded to as much following the first spring practice.

“There is a relationship already built with these guys,” Kelly said March 8. “Brandon has been with them for the last couple of years, so we’re not starting from scratch, but there are nuances of the position that they’re going to have to work out.

“I thought in particular there is already a pretty good sense of relationship if you will between the receivers and Brandon. I think we saw that today. At least, I did.”

The eldest members of the current receiving corps are, in fact, Wimbush’s classmates. He may have thrown more passes to Equanimeous St. Brown in practice than any other target. This spring’s 15 practices, concluding with the April 22 Blue-Gold Game, have presented and should present Wimbush with ample opportunity to improve his rapport with the other options, especially with a mild hamstring injury limiting St. Brown at the end of last week.

Sophomore Javon McKinley, for example, received more chances Friday in St. Brown’s place. Returning from a late-October broken leg, Kelly said McKinley remains somewhat limited and will wear a red jersey in the Blue-Gold Game, designating him as a non-contact participant.

“We want to get him competing,” Kelly said. “We played him as a true freshman, so we have a high opinion of him. He’s rusty … It was a great opportunity for Javon in there and we think we can get him some more work as we progress.”

Kelly echoed his comments from a week earlier praising Miles Boykin. Apparently the junior’s springtime consistency has not gone unnoticed.

“Miles is starting to build some ‘bank,’ if you will, as it relates to consistency. I’m using the word bank, he’s putting a lot in the bank of trust, that we can trust he’s going to give us the kind of performance that’s going to lend itself toward playing time,” Kelly said.

“He’s been very consistent as a ball-catcher. He’s been very consistent in terms of assignments. His traits have been very evident in terms of attention to detail. … He gets a lot of those back-shoulder throws where he has to go up and get it and he lands, physically, he gets beat up a little bit. I see him in there getting treatment and he comes back out and makes good decisions.”

As it pertains to back-shoulder throws, Boykin’s 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame undoubtedly helps his cause. As it pertains to the assignments, Boykin and most of the other receivers need to learn more, Kelly said, thanks to new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s emphasis on tempo.

In years past, receivers have largely broken down into three sub-groups: field (otherwise known as X), boundary (W) and slot (Z). Just like with defensive backs, the field and boundary designations pertain to the much wider hashmarks in college football. When the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

But if looking to snap the ball quickly, waiting for two receivers to swap sides of the field can be counterproductive. Thus, the Irish offense will be less specific in those assignments, per Kelly.

“It is blurred,” he said. “You have to play all three positions. There is a little bit of specialty to the short-side receiver, the boundary receiver. You won’t see as much of a Z receiver into the short field because that’s where you get a lot of your individual matchups.”

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has been limited by a hamstring injury this spring, Kelly said.

“It’s been a lingering hamstring [injury] that has not responded quite well,” Kelly said. “It was pulled again. We’re treating it pretty aggressively with anti-inflammatories. He has not needed [platelet-rich plasma treatment], but he just hasn’t been right. He hasn’t been 100 percent.”

For context’s sake, and to tie to the earlier positional explanation, Stepherson excelled in his freshman season at the field, or X, receiver position, where he had more room to utilize his speed and did not always have a safety monitoring him, as he would be more likely to on the boundary.