Can Notre Dame WR Kevin Austin catch on in the NFL? Mel Kiper Jr. likes his chances
SOUTH BEND — Most receivers can’t elevate and grab the football the way Kevin Austin Jr. does.
“I have a very strong passion to go up and get the ball when it’s in the air,” he said during Notre Dame’s Pro Day in March. “I always think to myself that it’s only mine when it’s in the air, nobody (else’s).”
This ability to "high point" the football is a big reason Draft analysts such as ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. believe NFL teams will overlook Austin’s small collegiate sample size when the Draft runs this Thursday through Saturday in Las Vegas. After limited action as a freshman, Austin missed his entire sophomore year because of off-field issues and most of the 2020 season due to injury.
The hype finally translated into production for the former four-star recruit last season. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native led the Irish with 888 receiving yards (18.5 per catch) and tied tight end Michael Mayer with a team-best seven touchdowns. His 48 receptions were second on Notre Dame only to Mayer.
Kiper projects Austin to go in the fourth or fifth round on Day 3 of the NFL Draft.
“I think Kevin Austin Jr. has moved up,” he said on an ESPN media call in March. “He eliminated most of the drops and became much more consistent, the kind of go-to guy (in 2021). Throw it up and he went and got it. He was able to ‘high point.’ He's certainly got the ability to beat you down the field vertically.”
A breakout year in 2021
Austin caught his first career touchdown in the season opener at Florida State and had two more scores against Wisconsin in the Shamrock Series game at Soldier Field in Chicago.
But his first half of the fall was a mixed bag. He caught just one pass in the loss to Cincinnati and was largely held in check at Virginia Tech, though he did haul in a desperation toss from Jack Coan for a vital two-point conversion in that comeback victory.
Late in the season, Austin hit his stride. He put up a career-high 139 yards, 70 of which came on a touchdown grab, against Navy, and led the Irish with 125 yards in the regular season finale at Stanford. He ended his Notre Dame career with another 100-yard game and touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Austin then turned heads in Indianapolis at the NFL Combine. He finished second among wide receivers in both the three-cone and 20-yard shuffle drills and was also top 5 at the position in both the vertical and broad jumps. Most importantly, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds, 14th-fastest out of 32 participating receivers.
Austin was not only happy with the number itself, but that it meant he could focus on playing football again.
“It was amazing,” he said about not having to run the 40 again at Pro Day. “Just having to focus on just route running and not having to focus on (the) 40 or shuttle or bench or anything like that, it was great just being able to just be a football player and running routes.”
Another plus from the combine? NFL teams decided his left foot, which he fractured twice in 2020, didn’t need to be poked or prodded any further.
“After I went through those tests, they figured I’m 100% healed and everything’s good,” he said.
A mixed Pro Day
Austin said his Pro Day-focus was to show scouts his versatility running routes both outside and in the slot. To maximize his physical tools, he’s been studying some of the most dominant receivers in the NFL.
“I always tried to emulate my game after (free agent and seven-time Pro Bowler) Julio Jones because he’s such a great, physically fast freak of a football player,” Austin said. “Recently, I’ve been watching guys like Davante Adams (of the Las Vegas Raiders), Justin Jefferson (of the Minnesota Vikings), guys that are really great route runners to try to perfect my craft.”
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The shirt came off early in the workout, but he didn’t fully shed an old bad habit: dropped passes. He counted two drops, but other observers put the number at four.
“Just focus drops,” he said. “I have a tendency to try to run before I catch sometimes. So just focusing on catching it first and then running.”
His first drop was followed by a good catch between the hashes on a ball delivered behind him from Jack Coan and a deft toe-tap on the sideline after a double move. After missing an over-the-shoulder attempt late, he finished with a similar grab.
“There was no stress coming into this because I knew those guys are going to make me look good all day,” Coan said of Austin and Kyren Williams. “Even if the ball’s a little off, I knew they would adjust their bodies and make it look like a good pass.”
Austin decided to take advantage of strength coach Matt Balis and prepare for the Draft on Notre Dame’s campus. He was on the West Coast this weekend, but he said via text Sunday that he would be watching the Draft with his family.
They don’t know precisely when his NFL dream will come true later this week, but Austin didn’t hesitate when asked what he wants front offices to know.
“That I’m a really great person and I’m a great football player,” he said. “I’m a great teammate and they can trust me.”