Hansen: Notre Dame football training camp opens with welcome surprise

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly looks on during fall camp practice No. 1 on Saturday, August 7, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center.

SOUTH BEND — In the course Saturday of mostly dissecting and projecting what to make of Notre Dame’s first football practice of training camp, coach Brian Kelly admitted having absorbed the first couple of episodes of the new “Inside The Garage” podcast.

It’s one of the tentacles of the name, image, likeness revolution in college sports that didn’t exist at this time last year, or any other year.

“You don’t want to know,” Kelly said with a laugh when asked what he thought of a show its other listeners had collectively rated a 4.9 out of 5 stars via Apple Podcasts.

The largely unfiltered look at the Irish football program through the eyes and voices of All-America safety Kyle Hamilton, backup safety KJ Wallace, projected starting cornerback Cam Hart and walk-on wide receiver Conor Ratigan has been way more revealing than what the media was able to glean during their 45-minute practice viewing window on Saturday.

Then again, that’s kind of the nature of the first day. It’s more of an inventory of injuries, sketching out distorted depth charts and fact-checking the summer rumor mill.

And sometimes revealing a summer surprise.

Peripherally, the latest surprise element includes senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr., a player coming off a twice-broken foot who still has the potential to be the offense’s most dynamic player. He’ll use August to carefully complete the physical comeback that’s helped limit him to a modest six career catches.

After missing all of spring practice recovering from foot surgery, Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. (4) was back at practice Saturday during the first day of fall camp on Saturday, August 7, 2021.

“Kevin Austin has always been a physical presence, so he continued on in that realm,” Kelly said. “There's great optimism from that perspective.”

The greater optimism comes from the wide receiver group as a whole, which coming into spring practice was the position group on the team with the most holes in its résumé.

Two starters departed to chase the NFL dream. Five others hit the transfer portal, including former five-star prospect Jordan Johnson, who landed at UCF looking for his first career catch.

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The closest thing offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander had to an absolute coming out of spring practice was Avery Davis, a former quarterback, former cornerback and former running back who started four games at wide receiver last season and hauled in 24 passes for 322 yards and two TDs.

Then summer came, and seniors Joe Wilkins Jr. and Braden Lenzy, in particular, changed the dynamic of the wide receiver corps.

“Transformational. Transformational, and I underline that word,” Kelly said. “I know that sounds strong — in terms of when I use a word like that, sometimes it's hyperbole. But these kids have changed their body, their commitment level. What we've asked them to do, they've taken it to heart.”

Wilkins even changed his number, from 18 to jersey No. 5.

He was the top point-accumulator among all Irish wide receivers and tight ends in director of football performance Matt Balis’ summer workout calculus after being in the lower third last summer. Lenzy, Kelly said, was in the top 10 percent this summer.

“Now, they've got to go make plays. I get that,” Kelly said. “But they understand how important they are to our success, and they look (the part). There's a lot of optimism right now about where that group is and where they can go.”

That includes fellow senior Lawrence Keys III, sophomore Xavier Watts and a freshman group of Deion Colzie, Jayden Thomas and, most immediately, Lorenzo Styles Jr.

Momentum is building at wide receiver beyond the upcoming season, too. On Sunday, the Irish are expected to add their second four-star receiver prospect in less than a week when C.J. Williams of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei announces his college decision.

Per Rivals.com, Williams is the No. 29 player nationally regardless of position in the 2022 class. And if his ranking holds through the end of the cycle, he’d tie for the ninth-highest-ranked ND recruit of the Kelly Era along with the departed Jordan Johnson and former All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson.

Kelly’s focus Sunday, once he hits the send button on a celebratory tweet, moves back to this team and this season — and what it needs to look like between now and the Sept. 5 opener at Florida State.

He said Saturday that the person primarily throwing the ball to that improved wide receiver corps should be decided by Thursday, a day when the Irish will scrimmage and the media gets to soak in an entire practice.

Grad transfer Jack Coan and sophomore Drew Pyne will both receive first-team reps in the interim. It should be noted Coan earned an ultimate warrior award from Balis this summer, something only 20 ND players can claim.

On Monday, Kelly will name captains, and he said to expect a large contingent, a reflection of just how deep the leadership appears to be on this team.

There’s depth and starting battles still going on at cornerback, safety, linebacker and the offensive line. And getting a wide receiver-type surprise as any of those positions may be more necessity than luxury.

The good news is just how well the pieces are fitting together, something that’s hardly a given with a team that has only nine starters returning (from a 10-2 playoff team) and is 128th out of 130th in the FBS in terms of returning experience, per Phil Steele’s preview magazine.

“Last year I had veterans,” Kelly said. “Like, a bomb could have gone off in that group, and it wouldn't have bothered them, we had so many veterans. This team needed to be together this summer, and they came together.”

Having 95 percent of the team vaccinated helps with that, logistically, and minimizes COVID-19 protocols that were in effect in 2020. Special teams coach Brian Polian even had to remind the players at one point Saturday they didn’t have to social distance during drills and team huddles.

“Now it's about building this football team from a technical standpoint and from a tactical standpoint and a mental standpoint,” Kelly said, “so when we get to Florida State and they start doing the chop, we don't run for the exit.

“We've got some work to do over the next 24 days.”

And perhaps plenty to look forward to as well.

Follow NDInsider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI