Notre Dame wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. takes the game seriously

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SOUTH BEND – A new gust of Notre Dame football interview air unexpectedly swept through the Irish Athletic Center last week.

Barefoot.

Climbing the two sets of stairs that lead from the indoor training ground to the second-floor player lounge which has doubled this preseason as a post-practice interview area, Irish junior wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. , had lost his Under Armor crampons and socks for this afternoon media encounter.

One-on-one interviews are about as common this time of year as weekday home football games. They just don’t make it to Notre Dame. Like always. Too many reporters with too many agendas to catch a guy even for a few minutes. But you get stronger as the question lines jump from here to there to anywhere.

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One question for a catcher might be on the nuances of recovering from shoulder throws, and then the next on if he likes to eat broccoli. Not really, but you got it.

In the rare moments that one-on-one does kind of happen, like it did with Wilkins, man, it’s another thing. Gold interview. Untapped treasures. A good day in the world of journalism where the interviewer and the interviewee can just sit down and… speak.

What a concept, and a reminder of what it was like before player paranoia saying something bad permeated so many programs.

“Shoeless Joe” sits at a table empty of any member of the print media wishing to say a word or two to him. Across the room, fellow receiver Braden Lenzy was courting. It attracted a good herd. Nearby, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was speaking with reporters, possibly for the last time until December. So it was a popular / natural / necessary interview.

The dominant attitude towards Wilkins? No, we will forward the save. Pity. Because once Wilkins got going, he rarely stopped for 12 minutes. He was in great interview form. On any subject. On himself. On wide receivers being basically dismissed as a group devoid of a proven game breaker. On his own place in the program and how happy he was – too much at times – to take a step back from previous seasons against Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley. Let these guys do the heavy lifting of the road running and receiving the passes, the play and the steering, Wilkins often thought, he was good with where he was.

This is not his approach now. He had known for months that this had to change. This he had to change. Wilkins changed his diet to include more protein shakes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He changed his working habits. His practice habits. His movie viewing habits. His daily existence as a football player.

He even changed his jersey number from 18 to 5.

He completely changed his gaze. He couldn’t wait to speak. First, someone must have asked.

“This spring I really got all-in,” Wilkins said. “I’m so into it. I do all the little things correctly and meticulously on all the little details now.

“I’m just trying to go the nine yards.”

Wilkins tallied 39 in the 2020 opener against Duke, when he also captured a career-high four assists. At the time, it seemed like a revelation. Like, who was this guy? Wilkins was running routes, catching balls and playing the part that first Saturday – then was virtually gone for the rest of the year.

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After those four catches against Duke, Wilkins made three for 24 the rest of the course. That included his first career touchdown in Halloween at Georgia Tech, but the highlights after that first moment were too few. Why? Deep down, Wilkins knew he wouldn’t do what he had done against Duke again.

“I played Duke probably 65%,” Wilkins said. “Nobody knows at all, but this whole game I was injured. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. If I could have stayed where I was against Duke, the season for me might have been different.

Joe Wilkins Jr. decided he needed to outperform the rest of Notre Dame's wide receivers this offseason - so he did.

A new and improved wideout

A twisted, tender hamstring and various lower body injury issues that were never really hampered by Wilkins for most of 2020. By the time he was healthy enough to let it all go, the rotation was in. square. He wasn’t skipping McKinley on the depth chart. He was not going to the field for many significant representatives. His season after the first game was basically over.

Wilkins was okay with that because he was rarely healthy, he now knows that in order to be good, to be at his best, to be in the rotation, he needs to stay fit and focused. More hamstring adjustments. No more minor illnesses that keep him outside to look inside.

No more excuses.

“This is why I am making these changes,” he said. “That’s why I’m breaking (buttocks) this offseason and this summer. I need to be healthy this year and I will be healthy this year.

“With me in good health, the sky is the limit. ”

Wilkins believes it. The same goes for Rees, who sat the wide receiver for an open-hearted offseason. Yes, Wilkins hasn’t shown much or done a lot in his first few seasons, and that was good. The older guys had chances. But now he’s an older guy.

At 6-1½ and 195 pounds, Wilkins is not the tallest, fastest or strongest Irish receiver. But there’s no reason he can’t follow in the footsteps of a Claypool or a McKinley and go from person to person.

The opportunity is there. How badly does Wilkins want it?

“Joe has always had a ton of talent,” Rees said. “He’s a guy who is extremely versatile in terms of knowing all three places (receivers), having the ability to win all three places. He’s a guy who’s done a lot of things the right way and it’s starting to show on the pitch.

He is not alone. Start wondering about this soccer team and the questions usually start with the wide receivers. Can Wilkins and Lenzy and Kevin Austin and Captain Avery Davis and Lawrence Keys III handle the pressure of the game?

Wait, said Wilkins.

“We’ve all broken our (asses) this offseason,” he said. “Avery is a great leader. Kevin is a weird athlete. Braden is so quick. Keys is as fast as a cat. I can do everything.

“We are a dominant group and we will show it this year. We are so locked up.

Wilkins draws a lot of motivation from Austin, his best friend who is also above him on the depths board. Austin looks like a potential playmaker with a future in the NFL. Once he has everything in place, he can be second to none. But that doesn’t deter Wilkins. It pushes him, every day.

“We compete, but we do it together and it’s amazing,” said Wilkins. “I love it.”

If Wilkins was to win on Saturday, he had to win in the offseason first. In the weight room. In training. Whether it’s a bench press, leg lift, or late workout gas, Wilkins is committed to working harder and longer than any wide receiver. Lenzy might have been faster, but that didn’t matter. Austin might be stronger, but that didn’t matter either. Davis is older, but it’s serious. Wilkins edged Lenzy in the windward sprints. He passed Austin in the weight room. He surpassed Davis.

By the end of the summer session, no wide receiver had accumulated more training / effort / execution points than Wilkins.

“He killed us,” Lenzy said.

Why him? Why now? Again, it comes down to being an older guy. As a young man. Wilkins had no idea what he had to do on a daily basis to be an average college receiver. He thought he could get by with talent, just like he did in high school in North Fort Myers, Florida. It worked then. It won’t work now for the ninth-ranked team in the country.

Wilkins not only has to play the game, he has to think it. Always. Even barefoot and away from the training ground.

Last week Wilkins and the Broad Receivers sat down for a presentation on the difference between being buyers and renters. Until last spring, Wilkins admitted he was a tenant. He was only sort of, sort of invested. He was there, but not really.

Now he’s a buyer. Above all.

“The first two years, of course, just a tenant,” he said. “You just get by by checking the boxes. It’s a terrible state of mind to have, but it’s what I had. Now these are the details. You do it for a reason.

“It’s your time.”

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI

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