Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football’s 25 Most Important Players: No. 12, Wide Receiver Kevin Austin
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Notre Dame’s 25 Most Important Players: No. 12, Kevin Austin

Throughout July, BlueandGold.com is counting down the 25 most pivotal figures whom Notre Dame will rely on to get back to the College Football Playoff in 2020.

This is not necessarily about who is the best player or the top pro prospect. It’s more along the lines of individuals that need to either emerge, remain a centerpiece or significantly elevate their production to facilitate the Fighting Irish goal of climbing toward championship timber.

Much is based on talent and impact, but a premium is also placed on these questions: 1) If you subtracted this individual from the roster, how much of a setback would it be? 2) If this less proven player emerges and makes an impact, how much does that raise the ceiling (or lower it, if a breakout does not happen as expected)? The players and their ranking were determined by vote from five BlueandGold.com writers.

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Coming in the countdown at No. 12 is senior wide receiver Kevin Austin, who collected 61 points in our poll.

Why Austin Is Ranked No. 12

We do try to avoid the “P” word in these projections.

When that word — potential — is used, it is viewed as the code for relying more on image than having achieved anything of actual substance. Ranchers have referred to it as “all hat, no cattle.”

That’s where the 6-2, 210-pound junior Austin stands in this countdown. The physical attributes and star power are present to become the next alpha receiver in the Notre Dame lineup.

“Kevin Austin is going to be a star,” Fighting Irish second-round draft pick Chase Claypool said at the Indianapolis Combine this winter when asked who could be the next top Fighting Irish wideout. “I’ve been saying it all along. He’s a super-good player … Kevin Austin will really break out.”

The caveat: After two years at Notre Dame, Austin has recorded only five catches for 90 yards.

All of those grabs came as a 2018 freshman, before his playing time diminished in the back half of the season for undisclosed reasons.

Then in 2019, he was suspended from partaking in game action because of multiple violations involving university and team standards. He was still allowed to practice, which was beneficial, but off-the-field lessons had to be learned. Instead of bolting, he accepted the punishment and, per head coach Brian Kelly, matured from it.

Austin was a part of five-man receiver haul in 2018 that included speedster Braden Lenzy, slot Lawrence Keys III, plus Micah Jones and Joe Wilkins.

Not as fast as former track star Lenzy nor as rangy as the 6-4½ Jones, Austin possessed the best combination of size, speed and strength among the quintet, which made him the highest ranked pass catcher (No. 88 nationally by Rivals) in the group.

Austin’s Status Entering The Season?

In 2020, Notre Dame must replace its top three pass catchers from last year in second-round choices Claypool (66 catches for 1,037 yards and 13 touchdowns) and tight end Cole Kmet (43 catches for 515 yards and six scores), plus slot Chris Finke (41 catches for 456 yards and four touchdowns).

That’s 150 catches for 2,008 yards and 23 scores among them, thereby opening the door for someone with Austin’s skill sets to make a meteoric leap in playing time and production.

At the lone spring practice (March 5) before cancellations occurred, Austin was aligned at the boundary position, known as the W, that has produced an NFL Draft pick each of the past three years: Claypool (second round in 2020), Miles Boykin (third round in 2019) and then-junior Equanimeous St. Brown (sixth round in 2018 ).

In the past if a player was coming off a suspension, he had to gradually earn his way back in practice and then in the rotation while earning trust among staff and teammates. Yet in the March 5 practice, Austin was conspicuous from the outset, lining up with the top unit and making several highlight-reel plays.

“He’s always had the talent,” Kelly said afterward. “He’s obviously doing things right both on and off the field. His development has been one that we’re really pleased with. That’s why you’re seeing a lot more of him on a day like [today].”

Keys is the top returning Fighting Irish wideout from last year, grabbing 13 passes for 134 yards while apprenticing behind Finke. With no alpha figure currently in the position group, Austin possesses the highest ceiling to thrive in that type of capacity.

Notre Dame junior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.
Junior Kevin Austin steps in at boundary receiver, where three straight Notre Dame players have been drafted each of the past three seasons. (Gregory Bull/AP)

What Would Be Considered A Successful Individual Season?

For starters, no more off-field violations. Another highly promising former Notre Dame wideout named Kevin (Stepherson in 2016-17), and likewise from Florida, didn’t learn from such previous mishaps, which is why he is now at Jacksonville State.

It has not been unusual under Kelly for wideouts to go from non-factors one year to studs the next:

Will Fuller grabbed only six passes as a freshman — and the next year he snared 76 for 1,094 yards and a single-season school-record 15 receiving touchdowns, before becoming a first-round selection after his junior campaign (Classmate Corey Robinson also had nine catches as a freshman but 40 as a sophomore.)

• As a 2015 freshman, St. Brown had one reception. The ensuing year he latched on to 58 for 961 yards and nine scores, and then turned pro as a junior.

• Through his first three seasons, Boykin had 18 catches (although the last was a spectacular game-winning 55-yard touchdown to defeat LSU in the Citrus Bowl). As a senior, he reeled in 59 passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns.

Because Austin is not yet a senior, is coming off a year without game action, and we anticipate more balanced distribution among a wideout corps that includes Northwestern graduate transfer Ben Skowronek (110 career catches), a tight end group led by junior Tommy Tremble (16 catches and four touchdowns in a No. 2 role last year) and former wideout Jafar Armstrong having caught 27 career passes, the stats probably won’t be as glittering as they were for Fuller and others.

However, 35 to 45 catches, 500 to 600 yards and five or six touchdowns might be a conceivable base line.

Behind The Ranking

The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press poll. Five BlueandGold.com writers submitted their ballots, and each position on the ballot was given a point value. The top ranking was worth 25 points, No. 2 was worth 24, No. 3 worth 23 and so on down until No. 25, which was worth one point. The players with the 25 highest point totals made the list.

Individual rankings:

Patrick Engel: 15

Lou Somogyi: 9

Mike Singer: 8

Todd Burlage: 25

Andrew Mentock: 12

Burlage on his ranking: “This junior receiver was a headliner March 5 in the lone Notre Dame spring practice. But to this point in his career, Austin’s reliability and production have not matched his potential and promise, and it’s a difficult assumption believing that he’ll reach those heights this season.”

Prior Top 25 Profiles

No. 13 Jarrett Patterson

No. 14: Jafar Armstrong

No. 15: Nick McCloud

No. 16: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa

No. 17: Shaun Crawford

No. 18: Houston Griffith

No. 19: Lawrence Keys III

No. 20: Chris Tyree

No. 21: Aaron Banks

No. 22: Bennett Skowronek

No. 23: Tommy Kraemer

No. 24: Isaiah Pryor

No. 25: Kurt Hinish

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