Friday Five: Can Notre Dame Football Wide Receiver Kevin Austin Jr.'s 2021 Season Resemble Javon McKinley's 2020?
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Friday Five: Can Kevin Austin Jr.’s 2021 Resemble Javon McKinley’s 2020?

In many ways, Javon McKinley was what Kevin Austin Jr. expected to be in 2020.

A go-to target (tied for team lead with 42 catches, four 100-yard games). A downfield threat (17.1 yards per catch). A source for explosive plays (12 20-plus yard receptions). A run-game factor (third-highest Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade among qualified receivers).

To give those more context, only Will Fuller in 2015 averaged more yards per reception in a single season among wide receivers in the Brian Kelly era who caught at least 30 passes (there have been 19). The 12 catches of at least 20 yards were more than LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr. (10 of 48 catches) and Ohio State’s Chris Olave (10 of 50 catches). Marshall is a projected Day 2 pick this year, and PFF called Olave the nation’s best returning receiver.

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football junior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.
Notre Dame is hoping for a late-career emergence from receiver Kevin Austin Jr. (Mike Miller/Blue & Gold)

Before Austin broke his foot in summer camp and re-broke it in October, that would’ve sounded pretty good for his 2020 production.

McKinley, after two non-factor games to open the year, filled the void. Notre Dame’s receivers weren’t a team strength, but they would’ve been way worse off without his emergence.

Now, for the second straight year, the Irish have to replace a good boundary receiver with high-potential but undeniably unproven options. There’s no Chase Claypool with 84 career catches waiting to take over for Miles Boykin. The production and ceiling at that position may rest on this question: Can Austin be what McKinley was in 2020?

I ask that more about narrative than production.

McKinley, a former top-100 recruit, was a senior (fifth-year, technically) who put injury problems and an off-field issue behind him and delivered a reliable, impactful season after barely contributing up until then. Maybe the timing made it feel like a career salvage rather than a breakout, but Notre Dame still gladly took it.

All of those factors apply to Austin, the No. 88 overall player in the 2018 class whose physical gifts are evident in his six career catches (and nearly a seventh, but his toe-drag touchdown against Louisville this year was overturned upon review). He should be viewed with cautious excitement heading into 2021 instead of the uncontainable hype he received leading into 2020.

On the statistical front, can Austin shake off injuries and deliver a season that nets around 50 catches, north of 700 yards and a mid-teens yards per catch?

That would’ve been good in 2020. It’s a bigger ask in 2021, but will be even more meaningful for Austin and for Notre Dame’s offense if he does it. If he’s unhealthy or too slowed by his injuries, there’s less clarity or reason for optimism at a spot where Notre Dame needs a consistent playmaker.

(For the record, Notre Dame sees former five-star recruit Jordan Johnson as a field receiver).

Notre Dame, EA Sports And NIL

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s statement that Notre Dame won’t be in the EA Sports College Football video game reboot stirred up a lot of emotion for a decision that’s both wise and likely not consequential when the video game does come out – which EA said won’t be anytime in 2021.

What will happen in 2021, though, is the introduction of name, image and likeness (NIL) allowances into NCAA rules. All Swarbrick said is Notre Dame will wait for NIL laws to be implemented and make a decision from there. He thinks players should be able to profit from their potential inclusion in the video game.

His statement didn’t directly say it, but it implied an NCAA rules failure to give student-athletes that chance will keep the Irish out of the game.

If you’re wondering when you can play as Notre Dame and win the national title with Tyler Buchner, your hopes center around the inclusion of group licensing in NIL laws. The NCAA, in an April 2020 report, called group licensing “unworkable” because there’s no players union for EA or anyone else to negotiate with like there is in pro sports.

A recently introduced Congressional bill, though, would allow group licensing if passed. That would essentially force the NCAA’s hand – and bring back the game with player names, images and likenesses instead of just generic players. Count Swarbrick among the many who’s a skeptic of the idea that a union is a prerequisite for group licensing.

“If we can’t figure out a way to allow the student-athletes to engage in group activity without having them classified as employees — that’s what the EA Sports thing is all about,” Swarbrick said Wednesday on The Paul Finebaum Show. “You can’t say, ‘No group license, so they can’t participate.' That’s not fair. How do we get them to participate under some system that allows them to do that?”

This Sports Illustrated story from last spring is good exploration of the “how” Swarbrick referenced.

Taking Big Swings

Notre Dame landing four-star Denison (Texas) running back Jadarian Price a month after offering and despite the cancellation of a scheduled campus visit suggests the Irish still have plenty of pull. Price is an out-of-region Rivals250 player who had his sights set on a couple other destinations, picked up the Notre Dame offer and promptly changed his course. Four-star 2021 running back signee Audric Estime’s recruitment went the same way.

I bring these up to make another point.

Notre Dame needs to keep taking big recruiting shots, because recruitments like Price’s and Estime’s show the consequences of not making the shots aren’t as dire as many think.

I hate to keep using this example, but it’s one everyone knows: Notre Dame didn’t connect when it swung for top-50 running back Will Shipley last spring, but still landed the No. 6 RB class in 2021, per Rivals recruiting director Mike Farrell. Both players were offered after Shipley’s Clemson commitment and pledged without visited.

A top-six haul at a position comprised of guys who were technically “Plan B” targets is a strong ending. It’s certainly no worse than Notre Dame's recent recruiting results, and when combined with the program’s player development acumen, ought to keep the floor high and College Football Playoff contention the norm.

Notre Dame has surged to the top of top-100 linebacker Niuafe “Junior” Tuihalamaka's list since it offered in January
Notre Dame has surged to the top of top-100 linebacker Niuafe “Junior” Tuihalamaka's list since it offered in January (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

But the goal is to keep raising the ceiling. Connecting on big swings is the best way to get closer to toppling teams in the playoff.

The 2022 cycle feels like it has no shortages of attempts. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has offered five top-100 linebackers since taking the job in early January. Notre Dame is chasing Ohio State cornerback commit Jyaire Brown. It’s battling the Buckeyes for two Rivals250 running backs (Dallan Hayden and Nicholas Singleton) and five-star offensive tackle Zach Rice (along with North Carolina).

There are other examples too. The Irish have to land a few of them if they want to push higher up in the recruiting rankings. That’s easier to do when the swings are more frequent. Batting average on them doesn’t matter. Especially when recent history shows missing doesn’t wreck the outlook at that position.

Wayward Ball Security

Notre Dame basketball is once again near the top of the leaderboard in lowest turnover rate. The Irish are 13th nationally, giving the ball away on only 15.3 percent of their possessions.

Typical of a Mike Brey team. Expected of a team that plays a seven-man rotation of upperclassmen.

And even more reason to be confused by several second-half meltdowns where they have thrown the ball everywhere to spoil leads. The same team that rarely commits turnovers on the whole – and at an ACC-best 14.6 percent clip in league games – has fallen apart when opponents have turned up the heat on the ball or started trapping.

It’s beyond explanation at this point. The notable sloppy and costly (except for one) second halves:

• Dec. 8 vs. Ohio State: 35 possessions, seven turnovers (20%), blew 11-point second-half lead

• Dec. 12 at Kentucky: 33 possessions, 12 turnovers (36.6%), won 64-63 despite 48-26 halftime lead

• Jan. 10 at Virginia Tech: 34 possessions, seven turnovers (20.5%), blew seven-point halftime lead

• Feb. 7 at Georgia Tech: 35 possessions, nine turnovers (25.7%), blew 15-point halftime lead

• Feb. 20 at Syracuse: 30 possessions, 8 turnovers (26.6%), blew 20-point second-half lead

Notre Dame shot better than 50 percent in the second half against Ohio State and Georgia Tech, but it didn’t matter. Hard to win shootouts or quell an expected run if you’re not getting shots up often enough.

With Notre Dame’s suspect defense and need to win shootouts, there’s essentially no room for error with ball security. This group should make fewer of the errors that it does in the moments it does. That’s on everyone.

Shot Quality Matters

Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball junior forward Nate Laszewski
Junior forward Nate Laszewski's efficiency is rooted in his shot selection. (ACC)

After an 0-8 game in a Tuesday loss at Louisville, Notre Dame junior forward Nate Laszewski is no longer on pace to be the first major-conference player since 1996-97 to shoot 60 percent from the field, 50 percent on three-pointers and average at least 7.5 rebounds per game. He missed all six of his threes Tuesday, lowering his season percentage to 47.2. He’s still above the other two marks, at 61.8 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds per game.

Whether he reaches that rare air or not, it’s an impressive season that speaks to his all-around development. It also highlights the importance of shot selection. A player doesn’t hit those possessions by being a chucker. Laszewski is anything but.

Per ShotQuality, a new analytic that measures exactly what it says, he’s in the 95th percentile in ShotQuality points per possession. Here’s why: he takes 81 percent of his shots at the rim or on three-point attempts, the highest rate on the team and the 30th-best among the nearly 900 players who have shot the ball on at least 200 possessions. Every three-pointer he has made this year has been assisted.

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