Notre Dame will be without three of its top pass-catchers to begin the season.
Irish Illustrated reported the absence of one of those three, wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr., will in fact last the entire 2019 season. A university-imposed suspension will sideline the 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore. He joins starters in tight end Cole Kmet and receiver Michael Young, both out with broken collarbones.
The Tribune previously reported Austin posted solid grades in the spring semester. Notre Dame has not commented on Austin's situation, though head coach Brian Kelly is scheduled to speak to reporters on Wednesday.
Austin minimally participated in preseason practices and lined up with the scout team defense. Former Irish receiver Kevin Stepherson (2017) and running back Dexter Williams (2018) garnered similar treatment when under university-imposed suspensions.
Austin did not travel with the Irish for their final two road games last season. Kelly opted to leave Austin at home as Notre Dame faced Syracuse in New York and USC in Los Angeles. Austin played in minimal action against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
A former four-star recruit out of Pompano Beach (Fla.) North Boward Prep, Austin was expected to see the field this season. Top cornerback Troy Pride Jr. told the Tribune in March that Austin was the toughest cover on the team — other than receiver Chase Claypool.
“I like Kevin Austin,” said Pride, “he’s a great athlete. When Austin first came here, I was like, ‘Did you transfer here?’ He was big, athletic. He’s a tough cover. You’ve got to get physical with him, but he can do that with you. He can run with you.”
The Irish have just two players available in the season opener with more than 14 career receptions — receivers Chris Finke and Claypool. Junior running back Jafar Armstrong recorded all 14 of his career receptions last season. Austin tallied five catches for 90 yards in 2018.
Kmet suffered his injury in preseason practice No. 5 (Aug. 8), while Young went down in preseason practice No. 12 (Aug. 17). The Irish offense has since looked more multiple. In an attempt to fill their void, the Irish have utilized more lineups involving two or three running backs or two tight ends.
Kelly mentioned five players last week when asked about who will fill the pass-catching void — sophomore receivers Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins Jr., senior receiver Javon McKinley, freshman running back Kyren Williams and Armstrong. Among the quintet, only Armstrong has registered at least one career reception.
Sophomore receiver Lawrence Keys III has worked with the first-team offense since Young went down. Keys lined up at slot receiver as Finke slid to Young's outside X position in practices observed by the media. Keys did not play as a freshman.
"We got plenty of guys," said Kelly last Wednesday. "We're going to miss Mike. He had a great camp going, too. But we've got a lot of really good players that will step up in that situation.
"We got to run the ball. We got to stop the run. I mean, we're going to miss (Young). I don't want to downplay an injury. He's a good player. But, man, we got a boatload of guys that can go in there and fill in for that position."
Tight ends Brock Wright and Tommy Tremble have rotated with the first-team offense since Kmet's injury. Wright’s only production came last season. The junior caught two passes for 12 yards and a touchdown. Tremble did not see the field as a freshman in 2018.
The best-case scenario for Kmet, per Kelly last week, is that he will return for ND's Sept. 14 home game against New Mexico. Kelly said Kmet could return as late as ND's Oct. 26 game at Michigan. Kmet caught passes last week.
Young's timetable also remains unclear. Kelly said last week he anticipates Young to be sidelined for at least four weeks. That would mean, at minimum, Young missing ND's first two games against Louisville and New Mexico.
Notre Dame opens its season at Louisville on Sept. 2.