Chance to transcend status as practice legend arrives for Notre Dame WR Kevin Austin Jr.
In Notre Dame’s only spring practice of 2020, Kevin Austin Jr. dominated.
The wide receiver, who spent his 2019 sophomore season suspended and impressing teammates on the scout season, showed the promise of a future star in Notre Dame’s offense.
Two surgeries to correct a breaks in his left foot later, the potential that so obviously exists within a healthy Austin has yet to be realized. But somehow that bright future still seems inevitable, especially after listening to Austin speak.
“I’m probably better than I was back then,” Austin said of his March 5, 2020 self. “My foot is way better than it was before that.”
That first spring practice of 2020 came just days after Austin was a popular topic of former Notre Dame players at the NFL Scouting Combine. Wide receiver Chase Claypool declared Austin was going to be a star. Defensive end Khalid Kareem expressed how much he wished Austin would have been able to play in 2019.
Before the combine, cornerback Troy Pride Jr., who was tasked with covering Austin in practice, described the difficulty in covering him on ND Insider’s “Pod of Gold” podcast.
“Some of the catches he had were incredible,” Pride said in January 2020. “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.”
More than 19 months and just one in-game reception later, Austin’s teammates still speak of him with the same reverence. The senior is in line to make his first career start in No. 9 Notre Dame’s season opener at Florida State on Sunday (7:30 p.m. EDT on ABC).
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“He’s a physical specimen,” said Notre Dame All-American safety Kyle Hamilton. “You guys see him. Every single time, he’s like first-team off the bus. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s athletic. He knows how to use his body really well. Great hands. Great ball skills.
“He’s really indescribable watching him play, because he’s just so smooth to be as big as he is. And he’s competitive at the same time. He’s not complacent.
“A lot of guys his caliber would tend to kind of coast, but he’s a really hard worker, works really diligently. Kind of motivates me in a sense to grind every single day, to see what he’s doing and see the results he’s had in practice.
“I know the results he’s going to have this season. He's going to be a big piece for us, and it’s just the start for him.”
Recovering from two foot surgeries
Not convinced yet? Fair enough.
It can be hard to be confident in a player who broke the same foot twice in a span of three months last season. Who’s to say a third injury won’t happen?
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Austin certainly can’t guarantee that himself, but he can do everything in his power to prevent another foot issue.
When Austin first suffered a fractured fifth metatarsal on July 29 of last year, he didn’t realize how serious the injury was until after an X-ray revealed it. Surgery to repair the fracture on Aug. 3 preceded rehabilitation and a recovery schedule that would allow him to return to play sparingly against Florida State on Oct. 10.
Austin turned his first catch of the season the following week against Louisville into an 18-yard gain. Then he broke his foot again in practice leading up to the Pittsburgh game.
Austin doesn’t regret trying to come back so quickly, but he learned that he probably pushed himself too much once he returned to action. That’s why he has so much confidence in how his foot feels now.
“The first time after I came back, I could kind of still feel it a little bit,” Austin said. “This time coming back, I feel nothing. I feel no pain, no type of tweaking this, nothing.”
To keep himself feeling that way, Austin spends time after practices, runs and lifts in the cold tub. He doesn’t want to revisit the pain of watching his teammates from the sideline again.
“Kev’s done a great job,” said offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. “He's healthy. He’s competed. He's done everything we’ve asked of him. It’s been a progression to get him to where he is.
“The whole program — there’s so much joy for that young man right now, to fight through everything he’s gone through to put himself in a position to go out and play and help this team win games.”
Sticking through scout team
When Austin was suspended for undisclosed reasons in 2019, he could have looked for an escape hatch out of Notre Dame.
Instead, he embraced his scout team assignment and used it as an opportunity to make himself and his teammates better.
“They put me there for a reason,” Austin said. “So I wanted to give the upmost effort and show to my teammates that I could make them better every single day.”
That dedication Austin showed for his teammates would be repaid later when he was fighting through his injury issues in 2020. He credited the coaching staff, his teammates and his family for uplifting him when doubts could have crept into his mind.
“I have really great teammates that have really helped and supported me throughout this process knowing that I can play here and that I will play here,” Austin said. “They always said I will. ‘You will. You will. You will.’ So that’s always great to hear.
“When you hear stuff like that every single day, it keeps you going, keeps you motivated, keeps you wanting to come back.”
A player struggling with uncertainty sometimes finds his way to a transfer closer to home. Austin, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., could have looked into heading to Miami, where transfers from across the country have become a significant roster import. Plenty of other programs in his home state probably would have welcomed Austin too.
“Look, easy story, right?” said head coach Brian Kelly. “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."
Now Austin gets his chance to start a much-anticipated, breakout season in Tallahassee, Fla.
“All of it (the injuries, suspension, being so far away from home) is enough to break somebody down,” Hamilton said. “Coming from Kev, he’s one of the nicest guys, the most genuine, funny. It’s like he’s a brighten-your-day-when-he-walks-in-the-room type of guy.
“You would never know all the stuff that he’s been through to get to this point. He’s just kept a positive attitude when he was with us over on scout team. Even though the whole team knows he should be with the 1s on the offense, he’s trying his hardest every day on scout team and giving us great looks. And that just goes to show what kind of guy he is, on and off the field.”
Bringing big plays to the Irish offense
Austin doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of many Notre Dame wide receivers in the Kelly Era. He’s not as tall as Claypool, Miles Boykin and Equanimeous St. Brown. He doesn’t quite have the blazing speed of Will Fuller either.
He might just be an amalgamation of the bunch.
As the No. 15 wide receiver and No. 88 overall in the 2018 recruiting class, Austin was ranked higher by Rivals than any of those four previously mentioned NFL Draft picks from Notre Dame.
Part of what has always made Austin such a tantalizing prospect was his ability to break open big plays. In his senior season at Coconut Creek (Fla.) North Broward Prep, Austin set a Broward County record with 329 receiving yards in a rout of Somerset Academy. He did so on just seven catches, five of which went for touchdowns.
Even this week, Austin described what he can bring Notre Dame’s offense pretty succinctly.
“Explosive plays,” Austin said. “After I catch ball, what I’m going to do with it.”
Rees wants to tap into that too.
“His explosiveness, his run after the catch, is something that is different than guys we’ve had in the past,” Rees said. “He catches it, stops right on the sideline, tight turns left, dips and all of a sudden a 10-yard completion on third-and-6 turns into 25 yards down the field. That ability to be explosive after the catch is something that’s pretty unique.”
If Austin’s ever going to make the transition from practice legend to elite college receiver, he couldn’t pick a better place to start rising than in the Sunshine State.
“I’m taking the right steps,” Austin said, “to becoming the player that I want to be.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.