Notre Dame’s 25 Most Important Players: No. 19, Lawrence Keys III
Over the next month, BlueandGold.com will feature a countdown of the 25 most pivotal figures counted on to help lead Notre Dame 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 who 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 a 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.
At No. 19 in our countdown, is junior slot receiver Lawrence Keys III, who collected 30 points in our poll.
Why Keys Is Ranked 19th
During the first 10 years of the Brian Kelly era, the slot position hasn’t been a focal point of the passing attack like the boundary (W) or even field spot (X), but primarily a complementary role.
Theo Riddick was the “supporting actor” at slot (Z) to a Michael Floyd in 2010-11 before moving to running back. Former running back recruit Amir Carlisle later made the transition to slot, as did C.J. Prosise — before shifting to running back as a senior, a la Riddick.
Meanwhile, more diminutive figures such as Robby Toma and Chris Finke started at the position on 12-0 regular season teams in 2012 and 2018, with former walk-on Finke also serving as a captain last season as a fifth-year senior.
At 5-10, 173, Keys fits the mold of Toma and Finke, and his weight is the lowest on the roster.
Like classmate and fellow wideout Braden Lenzy, Keys was nowhere ready physically to compete at the Football Bowl Subdivision level as a 2018 freshman, so he redshirted.
Last year he took the next step while apprenticing behind Finke, and demonstrated his forte of finding seams while gaining separation from defenders. Quietly, he established himself as a capable backup to Finke during the 2019 spring.
“He probably doesn’t get enough recognition for what he can do,” Kelly said of Keys near the end of the 2019 spring. “He’s a top notch college receiver in the slot. He can catch screen passes, drive routes, option routes … as consistent as I can remember of having a true slot receiver.”
He finished the year having snared 13 passes (134 yards) — which is actually the most among any returning figure at the three wide receiver spots.
Keys’ Status Entering The Season
After two years of starting while in the shadow of third-round pick Miles Boykin and second-round selection Chase Claypool, Finke has exhausted his eligibility as one of the top overachievers in the program’s history.
Although he wasn’t the primary figure in the passing attack, Finke totaled 90 catches the past two years for 1,027 yards (11.4 yards per catch) and six touchdowns. He also took over as the top punt return man his last four years, finishing 19th nationally last year (9.0 yards per return average) and 23rd the year prior (9.8).
With three years of eligibility remaining, there is no reason to believe Keys — whose size is nearly identical to Finke’s — isn’t capable of having a similar development in his career.
He also will be one of the top candidates for the punt return role (one for six yards last year), although junior wide receiver Kevin Austin and sophomore running back Kyren Williams also were fielding punts in the lone practice we viewed this spring.
The opportunity at slot is there for the taking, as the supporting cast behind Keys at the lone spring practice held March 5 were senior Avery Davis and sophomore Kendall Abdur-Rahman, two former high school quarterbacks, with the speedster Davis having also been auditioned at cornerback and running back during his Fighting Irish career.
Keys fits the archetype of the slot figure with his size, quickness and route running skills that are highlighted by quick, sharp cuts to find space.
What Would Be Considered A Successful Individual Season?
Because there isn’t an established alpha receiver on the 2020 roster at this point, it’s a little more difficult at this point foreseeing someone emerge with the type of seasons that Boykin in 2018 (59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns) or Claypool in 2019 (66 catches for 1,037 yards and 13 scores) had.
Both had tremendous springs where it became evident they would be the featured “1” receiver. With only one practice held this spring before the coronavirus forced cancellation, no one was able to distinguish himself.
Keys’ classmates Austin (W) and Lenzy (X) might possess more stature and game-breaking attributes, but Austin has not seen game action since 2018 (five catches as a freshman) before serving a 2019 suspension, while Lenzy must demonstrate consistent durability over the course of a season. That's why the addition of Northwestern graduate transfer Ben Skowronek (110 career catches) was important to lend some stability/experience to the receiver room.
Like so many of his predecessors at slot, Keys likely will be a complementary cog rather than the prime target, especially in what is expected to be a vast rotation with various alignments, from running back Jafar Armstrong splitting out wide to using multiple tight end formations.
We don’t anticipate Keys to produce the numbers yet the veteran Finke did the past two years, but perhaps something in between what Carlisle did in 2014 (23 catches, 309 yards, 13.4 average per catch and three scores) and 2015 (31 receptions, 351 yards, 11.3 average and one score).
Yards after catch (YAC) will be particularly interesting to track.
Behind The Ranking
The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press top 25. 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.
Patrick Engel: 24
Lou Somogyi: 20
Mike Singer: Not ranked
Todd Burlage: 9
Andrew Mentock: 21
Burlage on why he ranked Keys so high: “Succeeding graduated senior Chris Finke at the slot receiver provides an important role and perfect chance for Keys, a junior, to take a broad step toward prominence that he needs to make good on.”
Prior Top 25 Profiles