Fully healthy Notre Dame football wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. finds long-awaited sustained momentum
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Fully healthy Kevin Austin Jr. finds long-awaited sustained momentum

His repetition was surely subconscious, but Kevin Austin Jr. kept using the same phrase in his long-awaited first Notre Dame media session.

Sitting at a high table on the second floor of the Irish Athletic Center Tuesday night, the senior wide receiver was asked if he has learned not to push himself too hard after the pair of foot fractures he suffered in 2020.

He started his answer with two words: “100 percent.”

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Is he part of the solution to Notre Dame’s 2020 red-zone problems?

“100 percent.”

Is the senior receiver quartet motivated by three years of delivering a modest impact?

“100 percent.”

And, most importantly, how is his twice-broken left foot holding up after a month of practice?

“I feel 100 percent,” Austin said. “I’m taking the right steps toward being the player I want to be.”

That player sure looks like a dynamic, dominant presence at receiver for an offense that needed to find one this offseason. Notre Dame had that vision for Austin when he arrived in June 2018 as the No. 88 overall recruit in his class. But multiple setbacks — both self-imposed and uncontrollable — kept him grounded and on the sideline the last two seasons.

The arrival appears imminent. The 6-2, 215-pound Austin is Notre Dame’s starting boundary receiver after an impressive fall camp. His emergence as a go-to weapon may be belated, but if it’s indeed real, the delay will soon be forgotten. It’s better than no emergence at all, which felt like a possibility at times.

Austin did not play in 2019 due to a university-imposed suspension. He played 25 total snaps across two games last year. Opting for a change of scenery would have been understandable. Yet Austin chose to stay the course.

“I have really great teammates that have helped me and supported me throughout this process, knowing I can play here and that I will play here,” Austin said. “They always say, ‘You will. You will.’ That’s great to hear. When you hear stuff like that every single day, it keeps you going, keeps you motivated and you want to come back.”

Added head coach Brian Kelly: “It’s an easy story that he transfers and moves on somewhere else, but he wanted to do it here and get a degree from Notre Dame.”

Not many players have the opportunity to claim a starting spot as a senior after two wayward seasons. But Notre Dame’s turnover and thin numbers at receiver left the door open. Austin’s never-in-doubt talent has allowed him to walk through it.

The opening existed before. The Irish needed a Myles Boykin replacement in 2019 and a Chase Claypool heir in 2020. Tripwire caught Austin before he could become either of those. Every time he built momentum, it hit a snag.

An enticing five-catch freshman sample didn’t beget a sophomore breakout. The suspension relegated him to scout-team work, where he dominated behind the curtains. Out of the doghouse after the season, he shredded Notre Dame’s defense in the first 2020 spring practice. It turned out, of course, to be the only spring practice.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.
After three uneven years, Austin is Notre Dame’s starting boundary receiver. (Chad Weaver/BGI)

The first foot fracture sideswiped 2020 fall camp and a prime opportunity to establish himself as a starter. The second ended his season and came just as he was preparing for a heavier workload in Notre Dame’s Oct. 24 game at Pitt.

“We’re getting ready to play Pitt, and he was unbelievable [in practice],” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees told BlueandGold.com in June. “There was a lot of stuff we had designed for him.”

It all went to waste when he landed awkwardly on a route and re-broke his foot two days prior to the game. Even though Austin shined in that week’s practice, he said he could still feel soreness in his foot and “was pushing myself too much.” The shroud of mystery regained its grip on him. The maddening pattern continued.

Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop.

But now, finally a smooth stretch and sustained momentum.

Austin says he feels more confident in himself than he did in March 2020 — his last on-field work at full health prior to fall camp. Notre Dame initially planned to ease him into fall camp and perhaps even into the season, but Austin’s ahead-of-schedule progress ripped up those intentions.

“We’ve been training so hard running-wise,” Austin said. “They just wanted to see in the first couple weeks if cutting-wise I’d be the same player I was. Once they saw that, they knew I could fully go take all the reps I need to take.”

Those reps have been full of big plays and bereft of foot pain. There’s no tepidness, he said. No voice in his head reminding him of what happened last year. No mental jitters every time he lands after leaving his feet to make a catch.

“I don’t feel anything,” Austin said. “No pain, no tweakiness. Nothing. That’s the confidence I have going into this season.”

And in turn, he’s giving Notre Dame every reason to be 100 percent confident in him.

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