Opportunity awaits Notre Dame WR Kevin Austin Jr. following sophomore setback

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

John Garrish heard what some of Notre Dame’s draft prospects were saying about Kevin Austin Jr. at the NFL Scouting Combine.

All he could do was nod in agreement.

“Kevin Austin is going to be a star,” said wide receiver Chase Claypool. “I’ve been saying it all along. He’s a super good player.”

Garrish, who met Austin as a sophomore at Coconut Creek (Fla.) North Broward Prep, felt just as strongly about Austin’s future back then. Following a freshman year at Davie (Fla.) Western, Austin transferred to North Broward Prep, where Garrish led the strength and conditioning program for all sports in addition to his work as the head coach for the track and field team.

Not long after Garrish was introduced to Austin, he challenged the young player to touch the ceiling in the weight room. Garrish isn’t sure how high the ceiling was. He estimated it was closer to 11 feet than 10. What Garrish does know is he’s never seen anyone else touch it.

“It wasn’t really a testament to what we were doing training-wise,” Garrish said. “It was just a testament to what he had athletically and the work he put in before.”

Austin made plenty of lasting first impressions at North Broward Prep. In his first season, Austin caught 43 passes for 713 yards and 12 touchdowns. He took advantage of his fellow wide receiver C.J. Riley, a senior committed to N.C. State, drawing double teams and leaving Austin in man coverage.

When Austin stepped into the No. 1 receiver role as a junior, he thrived. He caught another 41 passes for 1,021 yards and 13 TDs. He rushed 46 times for 454 yards and six TDs. He even scored once each on a kick return and a fumble recovery.

“It was like ‘All right, this kid’s very special,’” said North Broward Prep head football coach Rex Nottage. “As a receiver, 21 touchdowns. We were a primary running offense, but we had to get the ball in his hands. No doubt about it.”

Opponents made a concerted effort to keep the ball out of Austin’s hands during his senior season. But he still caught 35 passes for 761 yards and 11 touchdowns in addition to 38 carries for 390 yards and two touchdowns.

Nottage was grateful Austin chose to finish his career at North Broward Prep rather than jump to one of the many football factories in South Florida following his sophomore or junior seasons.

“Once in a blue moon, (players like Austin) come across you unless you’re at a powerhouse place,” Nottage said. “We’re a high academic, private school here.”

That’s why it’s no surprise to Garrish nor Nottage that Austin chose to stay at Notre Dame through the university-imposed and suspension that sidelined his entire sophomore season with the Irish. Reasons for the suspension are undisclosed.

“He knew where he wanted to go as soon as he got the offer,” Garrish said. “I know the type of kid he is. I know the type of family he comes from. When he commits to something, when he signs to something, he’s going to follow through with it. I never had any doubt. I never had any thought that he might seek elsewhere.”

Austin was relegated to mostly scout team work during his suspension last season. That’s where he impressed the likes of safety Jalen Elliott and defensive end Khalid Kareem, who both named Austin as the next big thing for Notre Dame’s offense during NFL Combine media sessions.

“He would go out and make some incredible plays that make you say, ‘Wow, what I would give to have him on the field,’” Kareem said. “He’s going to have a really great season this year.”

Cornerback Troy Pride Jr. was tasked with trying to cover him in practice.

“Some of the catches he had were incredible,” Pride said on the Pod of Gold podcast. “He just has to be trusted. Once everybody can trust him, it’s going to be lights out for him as well. It’s a sight to see what he can do on the football field.”

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Austin put some of those skills on display Thursday during Notre Dame’s first spring practice. He pulled in a pass from quarterback Ian Book with one hand as he dove to the ground with cornerback TaRiq Bracy all over him. Austin later made a leaping catch while pulling it away from Bracy’s tight coverage again.

That’s just to name a couple of the plays he made.

“He’s always had the talent,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “He’s obviously doing things right both on and off the field. His development has been one that we’re really pleased with. That’s why you’re seeing a lot more of him on a day like (Thursday).”

Austin didn’t make much of a splash as a freshman. His five receptions for 90 yards came in four games despite playing in 11 of them. He caught two passes for 35 yards at Wake Forest. His biggest play came on a 38-yard catch and run against Navy.

Folks at North Broward Prep are anxious to see what’s next from Austin.

“I’ve been itching for it for a couple years now,” Garrish said. “It was a little taste of it his freshman year. It feels like since that Navy game where he had a pretty big play … we’ve been on the edge of our seat and itching to see his breakout performance.”

Austin, a four-star recruit in the 2018 class, could only watch as other sophomores across the country lit up box scores last fall. Four of the top 16 pass catchers in the FBS were sophomores in 2019. LSU’s JaMarr Chase finished his sophomore season as the FBS leader in receiving yards (1,780) and receiving touchdowns (20) and the winner of the Biletnikoff Award.

Austin should have plenty of opportunities in 2020. Of the 253 receptions Notre Dame tallied last season, 171 of them (67.6 percent) were made by players no longer on the Irish roster. He could very well become Book’s new favorite target.

Austin already has established himself as a favorite of North Broward Prep athletes. The last time he visited Garrish, Austin shook the hand of every single student in the weight room before leaving.

“It was like every day I got to work with him he did something else either athletically or personally that was really impressive,” Garrish said. “It happened early on, but still to this day he impresses me any time I get to catch up with him.”

Garrish has a new goal for Austin. North Broward Prep has a new weight room with a higher ceiling now. There’s a light that he’s challenged Austin to jump and touch. He hasn’t accomplished it yet, but it feels like only a matter of time until he does.

Whatever ceiling Austin has, his coaches expect him to reach it.

“If for some reason he dug himself a little hole, he’s going to climb out, because that’s the type of kid he wants to be,” Nottage said. “He wants to be the best he can possibly be.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. made a few impressive catches in Thursday’s spring practice opener.