Notre Dame signed four wide receivers in the 2018 recruiting class: Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Micah Jones, and Lawrence Keys. The most high profile of the quartet was Austin; a top 100 receiver from Florida who dominated the summer camp circuit and was very highly sought after. Lenzy received a ton of fanfare and attention due to his track and field background and explosiveness. He is a state champion sprinter from Oregon, a state very well known for track and field, and signing a player like him gets everyone excited. A track star at receiver, who wouldn’t get excited about that? Jones was the first receiver to commit to the class and has a niche as the big, possession guy a la Miles Boykin.
This leaves Lawrence Keys, who committed and signed to the Irish on National Signing Day in 2018. He was a bit of a throw in, a nice little surprise. He was a four star player, but outside the top 200, from Louisiana and because of his small stature, was viewed as more of a project. He’d need time to develop, so let’s put him on the back burner.
Keys quickly made his mark on the practice field though for his quickness, route running, and sure hands. Brian Kelly raised speculation he might even see time in the playoffs after some positive comments regarding Keys at practice. This was ultimately overblown, as the media tends to do, but the trend line with Keys has been persistent and it has continued into the spring.
Playing Out Of The Slot
Keys is currently slotted (pun intended) behind potential captain Chris Finke at the Z position for the offense and possesses a similar skill set. Both players know how to find creases in the defense and to get open consistently. They both have strong hands and are shifty after the catch.
For as good as Finke is as a receiver, and he is very good, Keys does have a gear in the open field that not only does Finke not possess, but is perhaps the tops on the team. He can accelerate in an instant, move in and out of traffic with great quickness, and explode away from defenders. Notre Dame hasn’t seen that in recent years, aside from the 66 yard catch and run from Michael Young last season and a 38 yard crossing route from Kevin Austin.
Because of his ability with the ball in his hands, Keys has also been used as a runner on jet sweeps, something they’ve also experimented with Finke and has worked at catching punts as well. This isn’t to say Keys is a threat to Finke, the latter of which will likely lead the team in catches, but they are similar players who bring similar skills to the position and he can move in and out of the lineup without the game plan or scheme having to change.
What To Expect In 2019
The trouble with reporting on what’s happening in spring practice is trying to gauge how any of this translates to the field in 2019. The fact is he is playing behind Finke, who is embedded into the lineup, and while Notre Dame likes to rotate their receivers, it’s hard to envision anyone other than the top 3 or 4 receivers getting a ton of work in the passing game, given that the ball will also be spread out to the tight ends and running backs. Between starters Claypool, Finke, and Young, with Austin coming on strong lately, can Keys have an impact as the 5th guy?
This is a question I asked of Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated on their weekly podcast, and he responded favorably to the prospects of Keys having a greater impact than Michael Young had on the team last season. (The question comes at the 17:28 second mark of the podcast.)
It’s notable that Prister believes Keys and Finke can share the field together, and that he’ll have a greater impact than Young’s seven catch, 138 yard performance from last season. The confidence at which he spoke suggests to me that Keys is in higher standing with the staff and the team that we currently think. Not to try and put out numbers, but if he can double what Young put up last season, that’s a real impact on what likely be a very quality offense. It would also be a nice spring board into 2020 for a player who would then have three seasons of eligibility remaining.