Austin leads six wild cards who could strongly influence Notre Dame's 2021 bottom line

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Irish wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. during Notre Dame football practice Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Four years into his college career and days before that translates into his first career start, Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. is essentially a rumor.

With just four fewer breaks of the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot (2) than career catches (6). With more season-long suspensions (1) than career touchdowns (0). With practice sessions that have wowed the media and his teammates on both sides of the ball and zero corresponding stretches in actual games that match up to that.

What is undeniably real about the 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior is his resilience.

And because of that, the potential that his four-star, top-100, 34-scholarship-offer recruiting pedigree has long been suggesting is very much still alive as No. 9 Notre Dame opens the season Sunday night (7:30 EDT, ABC-TV) at Florida State.

The Irish will be seeking their 20th successive regular-season victory against an ACC team. The Seminoles feature 13 transfers, including former Irish backup offensive guard Dillan Gibbons. The fifth-year player is expected to make his first start Sunday night.

As for fellow Florida high school product Austin, who will also be making his first career start, it’ll only be his 14th career college game and his third against a school that passed on him in the recruiting process when notably Clemson, Ohio State, Oregon, USC, Florida and Miami did not.

Modest college statistics aside, Austin is one of six players with thin Notre Dame résumés who top the list of those in best position to strongly influence ND’s bottom line in 2021.

Collectively, they have three starts in a Notre Dame uniform — all by senior safety Houston Griffith (one at cornerback in 2018, two at safety last season).

► Irish Notebook:Don't forget the importance of Notre Dame's running game for the 2021 season

► Updated:Notre Dame football's depth chart for season opener at Florida State

Some of Austin’s missed opportunities were self-inflicted — immaturity as a freshman in 2018, a larger dose of that resulting in a season-long suspension in 2019.

Some were not.

Austin suffered the first fractured metatarsal on July 29, 2020, and a rebreak in October. He put off a second surgery in hopes of returning late in the 2020 season to help the Irish in December/January. Instead it only pushed back his recovery timeline, with Austin missing spring practice and only getting up to full speed finally in August.

“I think he has had some good days and bad days in trying to work through it,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “I think that (wide receivers coach) Del (Alexander) has done a great job of staying really close with him as he navigates not having football.

“So, what does that mean? How do you handle yourself in the classroom and do the right things when football is not a prime mover in your life? I think he's had a lot of really good support around him and then his desire to want to play here at Notre Dame. 

“Look, easy story, right? That he (could have) transferred and moved on somewhere else, but he wanted to do it here. He's been strong-minded in terms of fighting through some very difficult times to want to play for Notre Dame."

Irish linebacker JD Bertrand runs a drill during football practice Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

JD Bertrand

Even if No. 1 weakside linebacker Marist Liufau hadn’t suffered a season-ending broken/dislocated right ankle in practice last week, Bertrand had worked himself into a tag-team situation.

Now, the 6-1, 230-pound junior with seven career tackles tops the depth chart heading into Sunday night’s opener.

Enigmatic senior Shayne Simon also has an opportunity to expand his role at the position.

For Bertrand, first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s system has been an absolute schematic fit, but Bertrand deserves credit for taking advantage of that over players with more game experience.

One person who probably saw Bertrand’s rise coming was his older brother, John Michael Bertrand.

John Michael last year grad transferred to ND from a Furman program that had dissolved. Last spring, he became one of the key figures in the Notre Dame baseball team’s seismic transformation into a top 10 team nationally and NCAA Tournament Super Regionals participant for the first time since 2002.

The first-team All-ACC selection went 8-2 with a 3.21 ERA and three complete games.   

Leading up to that, John Michael and JD, neighbors in an apartment complex, trained together, did yoga together, talked faith with one another, shared dreams with each other.

“I don’t think you could ask for anything better than that,” John Michael told the Tribune last spring. “He’s my best friend, one of my closest confidants and someone who you share your entire life with. And you have them 100 feet away from you.

“It’s funny because I’m older than him, but I’ve always looked up to him and admired him. His work ethic is superb and I think it’s second to none. It’s really nice to have him here and to be able to push each other and challenge each other in new ways.”

Quarterback Jack Coan has been the picture of consistency since being named the starter at Notre Dame, per head coach Brian Kelly.

Jack Coan

The grad transfer quarterback from Wisconsin does have 18 starts at his former school, though none since a 28-27 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2020. In that game, Coan went 23-of-35 passing for 186 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

On Sunday, he’ll be the eighth different QB to start a game for Kelly at Notre Dame, with all seven predecessors winning in their debuts.

Kelly named Coan the starter a week into fall training camp, on Aug. 14.

"He's been really good. He's been what he has been,” Kelly said of the 6-3, 223-pound grad senior. “That's the nice part about it. He's the same guy every day. You don't go to practice and go, 'Who's that guy?'

“He is so consistent in terms of who he is and his makeup, his preparation. He's even improved since the spring in a number of the more detailed areas that we've asked him to. That's the mark of a very good quarterback."

Irish defensive end Isaiah Foskey during Notre Dame football practice Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center.

Isaiah Foskey

Notre Dame’s position group of strength is undoubtedly its defensive line. And there’s a number of ascending players in expanded roles that could easily fit on this list — the Ademilola twins, Rylie Mills and Howard Cross III among them.

But none of them have generated higher expectations than Foskey, a 6-5, 260-pound junior who’s moved up from a niche role to be a starter.

The Athletic’s NFL Draft analyst, Dane Brugler, projects Foskey, in fact, as the No. 39 prospect in next spring’s draft (safety Kyle Hamilton is No. 3). 

“The Irish had three front-seven defenders drafted in April,” Brugler recently wrote in his top 50 breakdown, “but when watching Notre Dame’s defensive tape from 2020, Foskey’s No. 7 jersey was what caught my eye.

“Coming off the bench last season, the California native is quick off the ball with the length and closing speed to stress blockers. With continued strength and technical development, Foskey will be a disruptive NFL edge player.”

Freeman’s scheme produces pressures from all over the front seven, but at some point you need your edge players to do so by simply winning their straight-up matchups. And Foskey didn’t show an abundance of that during the media-viewing windows in August, coming off a summer pectoral muscle injury.

Yet Kelly is encouraged, particularly by more recent practices.

“He's definitely feeling much more comfortable on a day-to-day basis with the defensive structure, what he's asked to do, his workload, all of those things,” Kelly said. “He continues to grow as a football player. He has not reached his ceiling.

“We all know what his physical ability is right now, and it's outstanding. But his football ability continues to grow, and I'm kind of excited to watch him play." 

Chris Tyree runs a drill during football practice Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Chris Tyree

The 5-10, 190-pound sophomore is the only one of these six wild cards who isn’t listed at the top of the depth chart for Florida State. And yet it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that he and incumbent starting running back Kyren Williams could both be among the starting 11 on offense.

That’s because Kelly and second-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees are committed to playing around with “21 personnel” — two running backs and one tight end.

"Well, 21 personnel can be looked at in two different ways,” Kelly said. “What's that second back? Is he a fullback or is he another halfback? We're getting (tight end) Mike Mayer on the field with Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree. We like that, because we're putting three dynamic players on the field.”

Williams, a junior preseason All-American, rushed for 1,125 yards on 211 carries (5.1 per carry) and 13 touchdowns in 2020. Tyree averaged 6.8 yards on his 73 carries for 496 yards with four TDs. Williams was ND’s third-leading receiver in 2020 with 35 catches for 313 yards and a score.

Tyree’s eight catches (for 65 yards) were more than seniors Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr., Lawrence Keys III or Austin amassed last season. 

“So at times 21 (personnel) is thought of as kind of an old-fashioned connotation about pro-style offense,” Kelly said. “But in fact, it's putting another playmaker on the field for us that we can move around into different formation sets.

“Twenty-one breaks out for us into no-back, it breaks out into 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) because of the multiplicity that we have with one in particular, a Kyren Williams, that can move around quite a bit." 

Notre Dame safety Houston Griffith (3) brings down Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence (16)  during the ACC Championship Game on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, inside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

Houston Griffith

The highest-rated ND prospect in the 2018 recruiting class (No. 43 nationally, per Rivals.com) turned his January U-turn in the transfer portal into a starting berth Sunday at strong safety.

Griffith will rotate some with DJ Brown, Kelly confirmed. And the extent to which they can raise their games will help determine how unconventionally at times the Irish can use junior All-America free safety Kyle Hamilton.

“Where Kyle Hamilton is going to be, most people are not going to be,” Kelly said. “So, that position (strong safety) is crucial relative to getting the ball on the ground. And so that's a tackling position for us. Those guys have to tackle the football. 

“They both had really good camps. You're going to see them both playing. And they're going to be on notice, because most teams know where Hamilton is, and they're going to attack both those guys. I think they're up for the task." 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Who: No. 9 Notre Dame (0-0) vs. Florida State (0-0)

Kickoff: Sunday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Doak Campbell Stadium; Tallahassee, Fla.

TV: ABC

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 7 1/2

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI