Consistency. Attention to detail. Increased volume (of reps).
Those are the normal necessary traits offered by Irish head coach Brian Kelly when asked what a young player needs to do in the coming months to earn solid rotation time.
For Tony Jones, Jr., the answer was a bit simpler.
“He is in it. He is well-ensconced in that rotation,” said Kelly of his redshirt-freshman runner. “He’s a guy that if at anytime we wanted to call him a No. 1 we could call him a No. 1. He’s done all the things to build that trust with us in terms of protections, catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s earned that through his work this spring.
“And quite frankly, (that’s been the case) through the time that he’s been here. That was a conscience decision on our part not to play him (last year) more than he wasn’t ready to play.
“He’s in it. He’s going to be part of it. You’ll see a lot of him this fall.”
Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame’s leading receiver was withheld from action Friday, sitting out the squad’s lightly-padded practice due to a mild hamstring strain (“Less than a Grade 1” according to his head coach.)
In his stead stepped junior classmate Miles Boykin, though Friday was hardly Boykin’s first breakthrough of spring ball.
“Miles is starting to build some ‘bank’ if you will as it relates to consistency,” said Kelly of Boykin’s spring performance to date. “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.”
After catching three passes for a combined 55 yards against Duke and Syracuse, Boykin resurfaced in the receiving rotation late last season, catching a touchdown against Virginia Tech — one that gave the Irish a 24-7 lead late in the first half.
“He’s been very consistent as a ball-catcher,” Kelly continued. “Very consistent in terms of assignments. His traits have been very evident in terms of attention to detail. His focus has been great. His attitude. He’s been gritty. He gets a lot of those back-shoulder throws where he has to go up and get it and he lands (hard). Physically he gets beat up a little bit. I see him in there getting treatment.
“He’s exhibiting all the traits that we’re looking for.”
It’s no longer as simple as W, X, Z.
Notre Dame’s receiver designations (X plays to the field; W to the boundary; and Z in the slot) have often been cast due to body type as much as skill set.
But the adherence to a quick tempo attack by new offensive coordinator Chip Long has elicited change in that regard.
(Note: Cast terminology aside and instead consider logic. If a (X/wide/field) wide receiver aligned far from the quarterback catches a pass near the sideline he began on, then automatically becomes aligned closer to the quarterback (W/near/boundary) for the ensuing snap — and if the offense wants to move fast, it can’t wait for him to sprint across the field to re-align in his original spot.)
“It is blurred,” said Kelly of position designations in a tempo-heavy offense. “You have to play all three positions. There is a little bit of a speciality to the short-side receiver (W). 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. But there’s a lot of changing of roles to the field between the X and Z receiver. (And the X and W.)
Kelly was asked about last year’s lead X receiver, rising sophomore Kevin Stepherson. The slight speedster caught touchdowns of 4, 44, 54, 37, and 31 yards as a rookie but has rarely been seen (in media viewings) practicing with anything other than the third unit this spring.
“He’s got a hamstring injury,” said Kelly. “It’s been a lingering hamstring that has not responded quite well. It was pulled again. We’re treating it pretty aggressively with anti-inflammatory. He has not needed PRP but he just hasn’t been right. He hasn’t been 100 percent.”
Kelly noted earlier this spring that Stepherson was not going to cross-train from his X receiver role (and thus did not need as many practice reps as others) something most of his receivers have been asked to do this spring.