Kevin Austin Jr.'s eventual return helps fuel optimism for young Notre Dame receiving corps

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Rumors of how castigated wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. consistently challenged the nation’s No. 5 pass-efficiency defense in practices during his one-year suspension from game action proved too widespread and too convincing for Brian Kelly to keep deflecting.

In Notre Dame’s first and only spring practice, on March 5, the repatriated junior fueled the notion that his game had taken a momentous step forward since his sometimes-flashy cameos as a freshman in 2018.

Eventually, after pumping up much of the rest of a receiving group whose promise eclipses its collective inexperience, the 11th-year Irish head coach acknowledged there was a bandwagon worth climbing aboard.

“Well, he’s always had the talent,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior. “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 today.”

And that’s one of the big reasons why there’s so little inclination to call what’s happening with the wide receiver group a “rebuild,” even though junior Lawrence Keys III’s 13 catches represents a Kelly Era-low for a leading returning wide receiver.

The group did suffer a setback when Austin suffered a fractured bone in his left foot on July 29 during team workouts and underwent surgery on Aug. 3. In a press release, Notre Dame didn't specify a timetable for his recovery, though a return for game 4, Oct. 10 vs. Florida State, might not be overly ambitious.

Even without Austin temporarily, there’s just too much speed, too many options, too much depth and size, and too much incubated talent to not lean into an optimistic prognosis for a position group that lost team MVP Chase Claypool and underrated Chris Finke to graduation, and Michael Young to a transfer to Cincinnati.

“You look at our receiver group, and it’s probably as deep as it’s been in our three years here,” Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said. “You look at our receiver group, there’s a lot of people in there that excite you and that you know you can rely on. Now it’s time for a lot of them to go out there and show it.”

In reality, there may be no position group on the Irish roster that would have benefited more had the COVID-19 pandemic not wiped out the final 14 spring practices (save perhaps cornerbacks), to hone timing and chemistry with third-year starting QB Ian Book.

Northwestern grad transfer Ben Skowronek, though, found a loophole and quarantined with Book in California for a stretch before ND players returned to campus for summer workouts in mid June. He may be the player whose role expands the most during Austin's absence.

“It’s been impressive to see Ben come in,” Rees said. “Obviously, the situation’s unique. But his ability to be one of the guys and mold right in with the group, it’s like he’s been here for five years.

“With how quickly he’s picked things up, he’s taken a leadership role. I’ve known Ben. I was actually at Northwestern when we recruited him, so I’ve known him quite a while.

“He’s really meshed with that whole room really well. It speaks volumes to not only the guys that we have here, but also to Ben’s ability to come in and get to work.”

Freshmen Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts and Jay Brunelle, and position-switcher Avery Davis provide the rest of the influx of talent.

“We’re seeing some things with Johnson early,” Kelly said of ND’s first five-star receiver since Michael Floyd, in the 2008 class. “He’s competing at a level that is as high, if not higher, than the Wilkins-Keys-Lenzy group when they came in, which is extremely encouraging.”

Among the holdovers, grad senior Javon McKinley (24.4 yards per catch, 4 TDs) and junior Braden Lenzy (23.1, 2 TDs) delivered big-play potential in 2019 in small sample sizes. Junior Joe Wilkins is a viable option for the rotation, despite still looking for his first career catch heading into 2020.

Austin, Lenzy and Keys figure to have the inside track to starting once Austin is back to 100 percent, but not a lock on it. The rotation could go six deep or more and may not look the same in November as it did in September beyond Austin's reintegration.

“I’m excited to see what (wide receiver coach DelVaughn Alexander) is able to do with this young group and how we’re able to maximize each of their abilities,” Rees said. “We have a huge plate of people that we can mess around with and put in different spots.

“That’s something I’m extremely excited about. Having that amount of competition is always a good thing.”

But whether anyone wants to admit it publicly, it starts with Austin whenever he returns.

“The expectations for everyone are just about the same,” Rees said when pressed about Austin in particular. “I want guys to understand their role, whatever it’s defined as. Maximize their ability within that role and do it for your teammates.

“That’s really what’s going to be asked from every player on the offense. That’s going to be asked from every receiver in that room. Understand your role, maximize that role, and your motivation needs to be the other 10 guys on the field with you.

“Different people’s abilities are going to lead to different roles, but for that entire group it’s really to buy in and understand what we’re asking them to do.

High expectations followed Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.’s reinstatement from a season-long suspension.

OUTSIDE (FIELD) RECEIVER

0 Braden Lenzy 5-11 180 Jr.
11 Ben Skowronek 6-3 224 Gr.
18 Joe Wilkins Jr. 6-2 194 Jr.
82 Xavier Watts 6-0 195 Fr.
81 Jay Brunelle 6-1 196 Fr.

SLOT RECEIVER

13 Lawrence Keys III 5-10 173 Jr.
3 Avery Davis 5-11 205 Sr.
22 Kendall Abdur-Rahman 6-0 195 So.

OUTSIDE (BOUNDARY) RECEIVER

4 Kevin Austin Jr. 6-2 210 Jr.
88 Javon McKinley 6-2 215 Gr.
15 Jordan Johnson 6-2 185 Fr.
80 Micah Jones 6-5 210 Jr.