Another leap from Notre Dame wide receiver Lawrence Keys III needed in 2020

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Adjusting to life as a Notre Dame football player took time for Lawrence Keys III.

The product of McDonogh 35 High in New Orleans initially felt out of place when coming to South Bend in June of 2018. The move took Keys nearly 1,000 miles away from his mother, LaTanya Manning. They have a tight bond, strengthened from surviving Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Keys also came to Notre Dame with a heavy heart. Two weeks before announcing his signing with Notre Dame, Keys’ close friend, Devin “Duke” Winters, was found dead in his home. Keys honored him on National Signing Day by keeping Winters’ framed No. 89 football jersey by his side.

Arriving to campus as an undersized (5-foot-10, 160 pounds) wide receiver with a deficient diet only made matters worse.

“I had to lay off all the junk food. Popeyes, McDonald’s — everything had to go,” said the sophomore, now up to 175 pounds. “Now I’m just eating a lot of beef, lifting a lot of weights and drinking more protein shakes. I’m staying on top of it.”

The last game for AP No. 14/CFP No. 15 Notre Dame (10-2) this season could be the final one for Keys as a non-starter. The Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla., figures to be the likely postseason destination for the Irish. They are expected to learn that for certain and who their Big 12 opponent would be at around 3:30 p.m. EST Sunday on ESPN.

Approaching starting potential first required Keys to shake the physical and mental shortcomings that plagued him in year one. A better diet and strengthening his lower body started Keys’ climb after he did not see the field as a freshman.

Reviving his state of mind — which Keys attributes as the main factor in his ascent and overall development — called for a dose of spirituality.

“One night, I went to the Grotto,” said Keys, recalling a Sunday evening midway through his freshman season. “I sat down, prayed and ever since I’ve just been feeling great.”

That process became routine. Rarely does Keys go a week without spending an evening at the Grotto for prayer and meditation, he said. Sunday, Notre Dame’s lightest football day during the season, remains the best window for Keys.

Phone calls with his mother kept Keys afloat during the week. To help feel at home in South Bend, Keys surrounded himself with fellow students from Louisiana. That included former Irish receiver Michael Young, who put his name in the transfer portal days before the Oct. 26 disaster at Michigan.

The Destrehan (La.) High product represented Keys’ only teammate from the Pelican State this season.

“It was very hard. He had to make a big decision in his life,” Keys said. “I gave him some words of wisdom. I said, ‘At the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for you. Wherever you go, I wish you the best of luck. Hopefully I’ll see you in the future in the NFL.’”

A broken collarbone suffered in preseason camp sidelined Young through Notre Dame’s first three games. The injury could not have come at a worse time. Tight end Cole Kmet also endured the same injury just days before.

Kmet and Young had two of the best offseasons among Notre Dame’s skill players. Then their progress came to a halt. The options behind Young were scarce at that time. It took until November before sophomore Braden Lenzy cemented himself into a meaningful role at Young’s outside receiver position.

The quick fix before Lenzy’s ascent involved moving slot receiver Chris Finke out of position as he played through injuries. Finke operating outside elevated Keys into a more featured role in the slot. He started against Georgia, hauling in three passes for 35 yards and turning two carries into seven yards.

“It was tough to see Mike go out,” said Keys, “But I was prepared for it mentally and physically.”

Having someone to learn from like Finke made that increased workload increase. Keys often shares a hotel room and watches film with the team captain before games.

“Finke is amazing. I love Finke. Finke is my guy,” Keys said. “Finke taught me almost everything. He helped me with the Ps and Qs of it. He broke it down from crumbs to the whole meal. I appreciated that a whole lot.

“We do almost everything together. He has taken me under his wing as he gets ready to leave. I’m up next, so it’s a big role to play and take from Finke.”

A plantar fasciitis injury kept Keys out of the Oct. 5 Bowling Green blowout. That’s the only game he’s missed this season. Keys fought through the pain in the Sept. 28 Virginia game but admitted he should not have played.

When Young returned and Lenzy garnered a featured role, Keys remained part of the receiver rotation. Keys’ versatile role involves him as an outside and inside receiver utilized on end-arounds and jet sweeps. He’s caught 13 passes for 134 yards, rushed six times for 45 yards and returns kickoffs.

Those stats may not jump off the page, but Keys considers himself much different than when he arrived. He’s no longer the 160-pound homesick kid chowing down on Big Macs and fried chicken.

The Irish may need Keys to take another leap with Finke and top receiver Chase Claypool in their last season. Trips to the Grotto will still play a role for Keys as he handles those expectations. Now he’ll have advice from the man he’s set to replace.

“Keys, you’re up next,” he recalled Finke telling him before senior day against Boston College. “It’s a big road, but at the same time, walk around campus and enjoy almost every moment that you can because it flies by fast.

“Just cherish it and enjoy every single moment of it.’”

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Notre Dame’s Lawrence Keys III (13) falls out of bounds next to Duke’s Koby Quansah (49) during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC.