Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 17, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 18 of 55 OCT. 17, 2020 19 Except he did. And loved the result. "I ended up getting a minor in it," he said. McKinley's Twitter name is even written in Chinese characters. He hopes to become bilingual and carve out an international business career. The initially draining undertaking has become invaluable. In many ways, his embrace of it is reflective of his football career, which has taken an arc he did not anticipate and placed him in a role that could be seen as a disappointment — but one his team has needed. And one he has grown into and executed with distinction. McKinley, a former top-60 recruit and U.S. Army All-American, came to Notre Dame envisioning something grander than his current usage as a perimeter run blocker. He played 100 snaps in the Irish's first two games, the most of any Irish receiver, and was tar- geted four times with one catch. He's a wide receiver in designation only. On a few occasions, he has lined up in tight, essentially an extra edge blocker. Pro Football Focus gave him a healthy 87.0 run-blocking grade in the first two games. "He's a big, physical kid. He has always had that in him," head coach Brian Kelly said in September. "He's very confident in what he's doing and who he's going up against. The one thing about Javon is he's under- standing if he's not catching the foot- ball, he can help us in other ways." "Coming in and not getting the time I wanted, not doing the best I could in practice and consistency, the number of injuries I've had while I was here, it definitely makes you consider the op- portunities you have, when you have them and when you're not going to have them," McKinley added. Like his venture into Chinese, the road to reaching that understand- ing had a few speed bumps and re- calibrated expectations. TOUGH REALITY McKinley, the No. 59 overall recruit nationally in the class of 2016 per Ri- vals, didn't enter college expecting to stay five years. He also didn't arrive expecting to catch zero passes in his first three seasons, with injuries a con- sistent hindrance. And he didn't proj- ect most of his senior-year production to come in garbage time or in dustings of hapless Group of Five opponents. McKinley anticipated to have more than 12 career receptions entering his final campaign. After all, he caught 97 passes for 2,062 yards and 25 touch- downs in his junior season alone at Corona (Calif.) Centennial. His coach there, Matt Logan, once said McKinley "reminds me a little bit of Jerry Rice." But this is McKinley's reality. The choices were to dive in or get out of the way, and the latter wasn't an op- tion. Plus, that 6-2, 215-pound frame could make him a hell of a blocker. "That goes back to a few years ago to what you had to do as a receiver to get on the field, and that was block," McKinley said. "If you can block, they'll look at you and give you a shot. "Over the years, building that mindset as being a good blocker will get you chances to get the ball thrown to you, that's what has led to my contribution last year." It's not that McKinley arrived as a disinterested blocker. He was a cov- eted recruit because of his receiving ability, and the opportunity to show- case it was sporadic or unavailable. He suffered a broken leg as a fresh- man in 2016 that knocked him out for 2017. Younger players passed him on the depth chart. He played in four catch-less games in 2018. The low point came in February 2019, when he was arrested and charged with three misdemeanors after a late-night altercation with campus police officers. Notre Dame reinstated him, but he played spar- ingly in the Blue-Gold Game, once again behind younger players. "He's been here too long for us to have a question mark about him," Kelly said that spring. Kelly chose to keep him on the team, and early on, McKinley took advantage. He caught 11 passes for 268 yards and four touchdowns, all in five games. Improved focus and com- mitment were evident to teammates and coaches, who were unsurprised he earned a chance and ran with it. "He has done things from the ground up," Notre Dame wide re- ceivers coach Del Alexander said before the 2019 season. "I think that there's a part of him where he improved on his demeanor, he im- proved on his communication. "The look in his eye, his walk down the hallway and his attention to detail in the meeting [room] is to- tally different." 'OUR VETERAN GUY' After McKinley two-touchdown game against New Mexico on Sept. 14, 2019, Kelly chided himself for not play- ing him more. Later that season, the coach once again couldn't play him at all. McKinley was injured and did not see action in the final five games. A fifth year was available because he had redshirted. The likelihood of it was another story. He had to want to return, with no bigger role prom- ised. Notre Dame had to want him back. The first element became clear during the season. The second looked grim when the Irish took a commit- ment from Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek, who had 110 catches with the Wildcats. "I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do at that point while I was still nursing an injury and trying to get back," McKinley said. "But I'd say in October I had the mindset I defi- nitely wanted to come back, give my- self a chance to build a better résumé and take a chance on the league." The Irish gave him the chance this offseason. There was a need at the po- sition. And he did enough as a senior to convince his coaches he could help. "I did not do well expressing that to the coaches at first," McKinley said. "Giving them what my mind- set was and explaining my contribu- tions and for them taking the chance on me, bringing me back, I definitely appreciated that, and it got me to the point where I continue to make the best of that opportunity." Still, catches have yet to follow the bump in playing time. It's not clear if they will either, with junior and ex- pected go-to receiver Kevin Austin's return from a summer injury. Skow- ronek and junior Braden Lenzy are also fully healthy after injuries cost each a game in September. At this point in his career, though, McKinley is redefining success. It doesn't require being the center of a defense's attention. There's enjoyment in blocking a defender out of the play as a running back darts behind him. "He's our veteran guy," Kelly said. "When you have a guy who has been around and is a fifth-year that is set- ting that kind of standard and model, it rubs off on all the other guys." ✦ "If you can block, they'll look at you and give you a shot." MCKINLEY ON HOW HE EARNED HIS WAY ONTO THE FIELD

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