Walk-on WR Austin Webster makes history as a Notre Dame captain

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Austin Webster doesn’t get called into Brian Kelly’s office too often.

When the walk-on wide receiver wa

s notified that Notre Dame’s head football coach wanted to speak with him earlier this month, he wasn’t sure why.

“When I was called (that day), your first thought is ‘Did you mess up or do something wrong?’” Webster said.

Instead, the 6-foot, 195-pound junior had much easier questions to answer.

“Coach Kelly called me into his office and he asked me a couple questions about how the past couple weeks have gone, and then he asked me if I wanted to be a captain this year,” Webster said. “It’s an unbelievable honor.”

Webster and six of his teammates were announced as Notre Dame captains for the 2017 season at the team’s awards show on Dec. 9. The other six players are well known by the average Irish fan: linebacker Greer Martini, offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, linebacker Nyles Morgan, offensive guard Quenton Nelson, safety Drue Tranquill and quarterback DeShone Kizer, who gave up his chance to be a captain for the NFL.

So who is Austin Webster? He’s a slot receiver who has played in only one game in three seasons at Notre Dame. He’s also the first player in Notre Dame football history to be named captain while on the roster as a walk-on.

“It is something that I’m truly honored to be the first one,” Webster said. “It’s something I intend to make the most of and to hold true to the fact that us as walk-ons, we have a big part in this team. To be able to represent them as a captain is something I’m excited to do.”

At Notre Dame, the walk-on players call themselves WOPU Nation, with WOPU standing for Walk-On Players Union. Some members graduate past walk-on status and receive scholarships, like sophomore wide receiver Chris Finke or former linebacker Joe Schmidt, but they always identify with the walk-on group.

Schmidt himself served as a Notre Dame captain in 2015, two seasons after shifting to a scholarship player. But extra meaning comes with Webster being a captain while still holding walk-on status.

“It’s a huge step for us, for the WOPU guys, to have someone to be able to kind of voice their opinions and to be a voice for them,” Webster said. “We’re such a huge part of this team. And even though we don’t get the glory every weekend, we take pride in what we do every week during practice. To be able to represent them during the week for the next year is a dream come true for sure. We’re excited.”

As one of Notre Dame’s captains, does that make Webster the official captain of the walk-ons?

“That will be decided by the walk-on players as WOPU Nation,” Webster said with a laugh. “We will see how that goes. I have no doubt that they’ll support me and be behind me no matter what I do throughout this year.”

Like any player, Webster’s ultimate goal is to get on the field on Saturdays in the fall. But with Sanders and Finke and perhaps others ahead of him on the depth chart at slot receiver, he understands that special teams will likely offer the best opportunity. He hoped to find a way onto one of the special teams units this past season, but he didn’t reach his goal.

Webster, who traveled only for Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series home game in San Antonio and the season finale at USC, isn’t certain if his captain status will guarantee him a spot on the travel squad for his senior year.

“I’ll let the coaches make those decisions,” Webster said. “Obviously, I’m going to let my work on the field do the talking. That’s going to be my voice and that’s going to be my say on whether I get to see the field or not.”

Before coming to Notre Dame in 2014, Webster starred as a wide receiver at Windward School in Los Angeles. He caught 123 passes for 2,257 yards and 34 touchdowns in his career. Webster’s father, Keith, played basketball at Harvard. His grandfather, Bruce, played football, basketball and baseball at Rutgers.

When Austin Webster was introduced as a captain at the awards show earlier this month, he received a louder cheer than any of his fellow captains. It marked the official end of Webster’s run of anonymity at Notre Dame, and he already has started talking like a captain. Sometimes leadership can come from unexpected sources.

“I just love my players. I love my teammates,” Webster said. “To know that they support me and especially in this moment, one of the best moments of my life, is a true honor. It’s an amazing feeling to know that my buddies are there for me supporting me throughout the entire way because I know I’m supporting them every single day.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Austin Webster tries to make a catch while Devin Studstill tries to tackle him during the Notre Dame football practice in Notre Dame Stadium Friday, April 15, 2016. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA