Players to Watch: Keep an eye on these four players when Wisconsin, Notre Dame meet

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin has quietly faded into the background the last two weeks. He needs to be a playmaker in a lot of ways Saturday against Wisconsin.

NOTRE DAME 

WR KEVIN AUSTIN JR. 

The senior went from potential All-American candidate status after the opening week against Florida State to milk-carton status following a zero-catch outing against Purdue. Where was he? Austin was targeted plenty, but just didn’t have a catch to show for it. Part of it was Jack Coan, part of it was Austin, who just seemed all out of sorts and just sort of there. 

Austin snared four passes for 91 yards and his first career touchdown that Labor Day Sunday night in Tallahassee. He’s since caught only four passes for 64 yards. Austin and Coan looked to be on the same page the first game out, but have looked like perfect strangers the last two games. With Wisconsin so stout against the run, Austin and his game-breaking potential could be a good way to keep the Badgers off balance. Notre Dame needs a lot more from No. 4. 

LB ISAIAH PRYOR 

Injuries and a penchant for defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to give a lot of different looks to opposing offenses have tag-teamed to push Pryor into a more prominent role. The graduate student/transfer from Ohio State is coming off his best game in an Irish uniform. 

Injuries have pushed Notre Dame graduate student Isaiah Pryor up the depth chart and into the rotation at the rover linebacker spot

Pryor made an Irish career high eight tackles in Saturday’s win over Purdue. That’s more than he had the first two games combined (five) and as many tackles as he had all of last season, where he appeared mainly on special teams. Now listed as an “OR” starter with Jack Kiser at will linebacker, Pryor could be a key guy to help stuff the Wisconsin sledge-hammer like run game. He knows Big Ten football. He’ll get another big dose of it Saturday. Pryor responded well against Purdue. How about an encore against Wisconsin? 

WISCONSIN 

ILB LEO CHENAL 

One of the best defenders in the Big Ten is set to step back into the Badgers’ starting lineup and make his 2021 debut. Chenal missed Wisconsin’s first two games because of COVID-19 issues. In his first season as a starter in 2020, Chenal finished second on the squad with 46 tackles and led the Badgers with three sacks. He tied for the team lead with six tackles for loss. 

Wisconsin inside linebacker Leo Chenal is set to make his debut Saturday against No. 12 Notre Dame after missing the first two games because of COVID-19.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has called the 6-2, 261-pound Chenal “freaky athletically,” as evidence of him being able to bench press 225 pounds a staggering 40 times. He gives the Badgers’ defense, the nation’s stingiest against the run (33.0 yards per game) even more swagger that tells opposing back, nope, not today. 

Chenal and fellow inside linebacker Jack Sanborn to form a devastating/tackling 1-2 punch. Notre Dame wants to establish the run and sustain long, methodical drives, but will first have to figure out a way past those two guys, especially Chenal. 

QB GRAHAM MERTZ 

Many of the pregame storylines (OK, almost all of them) surely will center on Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan as he prepares to face his former teammates and a lot of his current good friends after he spent four seasons in Madison. 

Sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz isn't very flashy but really efficient for Wisconsin.

There’s a reason why Coan didn’t return for his fifth year this fall, and that reason is Mertz, a 6-foot-3, 227-pound sophomore from Overland Park, Kansas who was on the Manning Award preseason watch list. He’s strikingly similar to Coan in the way he manages the game. He’s not going to do anything to really wow you, but he doesn’t do anything to get his team beat. Mertz doesn’t run much, or well (-31 rush yards the first two games) and likes to be steady in the pass game (326 yards through two games). 

He’s your typical Big Ten quarterback — steady and sure and not so spectacular. His two interceptions thrown this season were crushers — both occurred in the loss to Penn State and both in the red zone. 

Mertz has been borderline mediocre the first two weeks. He's bound to play well. The Irish just don't want it to be Saturday. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI