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Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Carrying on name, Wilkins Jr. makes own way for Notre Dame

September 18, 2020

Joe Wilkins Jr. hated the game.

Not like this. Not with flags instead of helmets.

Shorts instead of uniforms.

Joe Wilkins Jr. wanted FOOTBALL.

“Starting as early as 5, he was in flag football, and he actually hated flag football because he wasn’t tackling,” said Kristy Woodley, Joe’s mother. “He wanted a helmet, pads, and was like, ‘I want to do what the big guys do.’ But that area only allowed ages 6 and up to tackle, and because his birthday was in January, we actually went to another league that would allow him to start playing for the Pop Warner Panthers earlier. He was a natural. I don’t know how much at that age you’re supposed to really know, but he took instruction well and he just outran everybody.”

It’s a little tougher these days for 6-foot-1.5-inch, 190-pound Wilkins to simply outrun everybody, but after battling injuries he’s making his mark for No. 7 Notre Dame, which hosts South Florida Saturday at 2:30 p.m. inside Notre Dame Stadium.

“It’s humbling, it’s hard,” Wilkins, a third-year wideout, told reporters of the wait to contribute at Notre Dame. “But my life has been hard. My whole life has been hard. It’s nothing new to me. I’m used to being the underdog. I’m used to having to grind through it.

“I’m used to having to work twice as hard just to get the same thing as the next man. No problems.”

Thrust into action following a hamstring injury to Ben Skowronek during last Saturday’s opening win against Duke, Wilkins tallied four catches for 44 yards. In leading the entire receiving corps in both catches and yards, he showed both speed and remarkable awareness – especially as he dragged both feet inbounds along the sideline for a chains-moving catch.

As Wilkins was delivering, he also was experiencing things on the field for the very first time.

“Going into the game, I was taking two reps,” said Wilkins, born in Tampa and whose first scholarship offer came from South Florida. “Watching Ben. I’m literally just on the sideline and didn’t take my eyes off him at any period of time. I’m always watching him. Listening to the play-calls, looking at everything, looking at signals. I’m just studying; mental reps, mental reps, mental reps.”

So much studying, in fact, that in post-game film review, Wilkins’ work elicits a compliment from wide receivers coach Del Alexander.

“So when I got in the game,” Wilkins said, “I know exactly what I’m supposed to do.”

Mother and son embrace the challenge; always have. They are closer because of it, the whole family, and Joe Wilkins Jr. – who says he will name his first-born son Joe Wilkins III whenever that day arrives – already is getting work in a de facto father figure role to 18-year-old sisters, Briyanna and Lamiya.

Wilkins’ omnipresent smile betrays his arduous path to Notre Dame.

“I think a lot of that comes from me, because we haven’t had it really easy,” Woodley said. “I had a lot more than most would go through, losing his father [who was murdered prior to Wilkins Jr.’s birth], bringing Joe into the world knowing I was going to struggle from Day 1, but with struggles, I learned to turn struggles into strength in just the way I kept overcoming what I was going through. Anything that came our way, and we are a tight-knit family, I didn’t exclude my kids. They saw me on my happiest days and also saw me in tears and when I didn’t know how I’d get groceries and pay the light bill at same time.

“We don’t give up. We’re going to find a way and it’s going to be OK and we’re going to get through this and get through this together. I think he’s found some things I instilled in him have added more value than some others. With those struggles and things he saw, or my daughters are seeing, that’s OK. We have a good heart, good soul, determination, drive, the faith to keep going.”

A perseverance from Wilkins that isn’t lost amongst coaches or teammates. On the sidelines, during that win against Duke, coaches and teammates alike celebrate Wilkins’ contributions.

They know there is more out there for him; hope the time for Wilkins to keep shining is now.

“He had been limited in camp with a hamstring injury, but we always felt like when Joe got his opportunity, he was talented enough to make some plays,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “And it's just fun to watch him make some plays.

“I mentioned him in our postgame talk. There's a lot of players that just needed an opportunity. He was stuck behind some really good players.”

Working constantly on his flexibility, maximizing his mental and physical reps, as well as seizing the moments in games, Wilkins is intent of maintaining a role in the Notre Dame offense.

“I knew it was coming,” Wilkins said. “Patience is a virtue, my mom always told me that. I knew it was coming, I just had to be patient.

“Things I’ve worked on? Everything. Releases, my speed, flexibility. I’ve been hurt last year, my hamstring’s always been giving me problems.”

Now, Wilkins is healthy.

Now, Wilkins owns a role for the Fighting Irish and, it seems, a permanent home on the offensive side of the ball after beginning his career at Notre Dame on defense.

“Some things you can’t buy with money,” Woodley said. “Money will come later because we will work hard to get it. We have things you can’t put a price on. Family unity and positivity that obviously helped us through some really crazy things.

“Him being able to be a part of Notre Dame is a true blessing. But prior to Notre Dame, maybe I volunteered extra because whatever I had to do extra, he knew I would find a way.”

It’s the only way Joe Wilkins Jr. knows.

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