SOUTH BEND — On a day that Notre Dame elicited its highest Associated Press poll preseason football ranking of the Brian Kelly Era, sophomore Lawrence Keys III on Monday stepped squarely into the spotlight.
How long the 5-foot-10, 173-pound wide receiver remains there for the No. 9 Irish depends on how much of a challenge he receives from classmate Braden Lenzy, how many games classmate Kevin Austin Jr. will miss because of an unconfirmed (officially), university-imposed suspension and how quickly projected starter, junior Michael Young, recovers from a broken collarbone.
Sophomore Joe Wilkins Jr., could also find himself in the mix to fill in for Young, though he spent Monday’s offensive tempo drills lined up as the No. 2 boundary receiver behind Chase Claypool. The media got to watch the first hour of practice, leaving before any of the scrimmage periods were staged.
Those four aforementioned sophomores have five career catches among them — all five belonging to Austin. Only Wilkins and Austin of that group have played in a college game and only Austin played enough to burn his redshirt year.
Keys, normally a slot receiver behind starter Chris Finke, was an outside receiver Monday. Grad senior Finke was in his normal position in the slot, with senior Claypool the other outside receiver.
Young’s role in practice Monday was that of a spectator, his left arm in a sling after suffering the injury in Saturday’s practice. Coach Kelly will likely provide a timetable for Young’s return during Media Day interviews after Wednesday’s practice.
Up until the injury, the St. Rose, La., product was perhaps the most improved offensive player on the team since the end of last season. Young had seven receptions for 138 yards and a touchdown as a backup in 2018.
No. 1 tight end Cole Kmet, another ascending player in training camp, also is out with a broken collarbone, with Kelly optimistic the junior will be back for the home opener with New Mexico on Sept. 14.
The pessimistic extreme of Kelly’s timetable for Kmet would delay his 2019 debut until after the bye — the Oct. 26 showdown at No. 7 Michigan.
• Who lined up in the offensive tempo drill also hinted that there is more than one way to replace Young’s and Kmet’s missed snaps.
The No. 1 offense lined up with two backs — first junior Jafar Armstrong and senior Tony Jones Jr., with sophomore Jahmir Smith and freshman Kyren Williams rotating in, in tandem. Often, not always, one of the backs would line up as a wide receiver.
None of the tight ends worked with the 1s, led by QB Ian Book.
The No. 1 offensive line was its usual cast, from left tackle to right: Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks, Jarrett Patterson, Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey.
• The No. 2 offense featured Wilkins and Lenzy as outside receivers, with freshman Kendall Abdur-Rahman in the slot. Rapidly improving sophomore Phil Jurkovec was at quarterback, and classmate C’Bo Flemister was at running back.
Junior Brock Wright and sophomore Tommy Tremble rotated at tight end. The offensive line from left tackle to right was: Andrew Kristofic, John Dirksen, Colin Grunhard, Dillan Gibbons and Josh Lugg.
• The No. 1 defense in early drills comprised of defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, nose guard Kurt Hinish, middle linebacker Drew White, buck linebacker Asmar Bilal, rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, and cornerbacks Troy Pride Jr. and Houston Griffith.
It’s the first time with the 1s for Griffith in a practice open to the media since spring football.
In individual drill work, freshmen linebackers Osita Ekwonu and Marist Liufau worked with the depleted rover group. Moala still had his right arm in a sling. Kelly said Saturday he expected the sophomore rover to return to practice Tuesday or Wednesday after the key backup suffered a torn tendon in his right thumb last week.
Also in individual work, grad senior Shaun Crawford continues to do his individual work with the safeties — and looked good doing so — though he’s appeared in scrimmage periods at cornerback and nickel and likely will do so in games at those positions as well.
• Kickers Jonathan Doerer and Harrison Leonard worked on conventional kickoffs, squib kicks and onside kicks indoors in the new Irish Indoor Athletics Center with special teams coordinator Brian Polian.
Unlike the old Loftus Center, the pitch of the roof is high enough for freshman Jay Bramblett to boom his punts without taking chunks out of the ceiling.
• Quinn Carroll (torn ACL), Kmet, Young and Moala were all sidelined. Backup tackle Cole Mabry rode an exercise bike while his fellow linemen participated in individual drills. Backup receiver Javon McKinley was on the bike in period 5 after going through some individual work with the other wideouts.
Not only is Monday’s No. 9 ranking the highest preseason AP poll position of the Kelly Era, it’s the loftiest overall by the Irish since Charlie Weis’ 2006 squad garnered a preseason No. 2 ranking.
The previous high in the Kelly Era was a No. 10 rating heading into the 2016 season, which the Irish finished with a 4-8 record.
Conversely, Kelly’s last two teams to start the season unranked (2017 and 2012) recorded double-digit victories.
• Last year’s 12-1 Irish squad was AP’s preseason No. 12 team. Notre Dame ended up No. 5 in the final poll, the first time in the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present) that an ND team that was ranked in preseason by AP outperformed that ranking.
The other Irish overachievers were all unranked to start the season.
• Most people realize a preseason ballot is an educated guess and usually wait until late October to question my weekly AP ballot. There are always exceptions.
Usually their preseason disagreement is accompanied by an insult relating to something like my mom drives a beer truck.
Actually, at age 89, she teaches yoga — still, though she’s not Brian Kelly’s yoga teacher. And if she were moved to do so, she’d probably be a heck of a beer truck driver.
With that said, here’s my AP preseason ballot, which we had to file by Aug. 5:
4. Ohio State
6. Texas A&M
9. Notre Dame
14. Penn State
17. Iowa State
21. Michigan State
23. Miami (Fla.)