The Importance Of Kevin Austin for Notre Dame Football

The most intriguing story line of spring practice for the University of Notre Dame is the play of soon to be junior wide receiver Kevin Austin. In case you haven’t been keeping up to speed on him or the team recently, a recap: Austin was the 82nd ranked player overall in the 2018 recruiting class out of Florida, he caught five passes as a freshman that season, missed the final few games and all of 2019 due to a disciplinary issue, and is finally eligible again for the football team heading into 2020.

The talk around him over the last several months has been borderline mythical. Because he was able to practice and work with the scout team, Austin has been matched up against Notre Dame’s #1 defense all season. Those players have some strong feelings about the type of talent Kevin Austin is. In the linked article by the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James, Chase Claypool, Khalid Kareem, and Troy Pride take turns gushing over Austin, surely lamenting that this incredible player who is ripping them apart in practice can’t help the team on Saturday’s.

Players talking about teammates this way isn’t really a thing; generally, players are complimentary but measured when discussing the youth. There are two younger players who have garnered the type of hype we’ve heard from their elder statesmen: Austin and Kyle Hamilton.

Following Notre Dame’s opening practice last week, Pete Sampson of The Athletic said on the Irish Illustrated podcast that Austin exceeded his own expectations, and those expectations were already very high. This puts fans in a tough position because we haven’t seen him play in over a year and we’ve all been burned by spring hype before. But, if people are wrong, they are all wrong, because the excitement is coming from all quarters. And it’s more than welcome, because Austin is one of the most important players on the offense.

The Need For An A1 Receiver

Every quarterback wants to have his guy. The guy who he can trust to take a chance with at any point in the game. Ian Book had that in 2018 with Miles Boykin, then last season with Chase Claypool. Those two players are gone and there is no clear replacement to assume that role, certainly none with any sort of track record. Kevin Austin, more than any other player currently on the roster, was signed to be that guy.

Austin has the size at 6-2, 210 to matchup favorably against corner and win jump balls and contested catches. He has the speed to get over top of the defense. He is an exceptional route runner who can change direction on a dime. And he has the hands to pluck the ball out of the air with ease. Austin is very good.

I don’t think every team needs an A1 receiver like Austin or Boykin or Claypool. Ohio State, for example, hasn’t had someone like that very often and they’ve got a great offense. But, for this team, without the type of running game that can dominate and overwhelm teams week to week, they need that safety net to keep the chains moving, to hit big plays, and be a reliable target for Ian Book and the quarterbacks. A guy you can throw the ball to even if the coverage is tight. Based on everything we’ve heard so far, Austin can be that guy.

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How Much Should We Expect?

The hype train starts to slow down a bit once you get to thinking about how the evidence for Austin being incredible is high school tape, a catch and run against Navy, and some on the record quotes from practice. Even if Austin is as advertised, is it a bit much to expect that Austin will go from five career catches and sitting out a season to being a true #1 receiver on a team with playoff aspirations? The answer is probably yes, but it’s important to note we have seen this before.

In 2014, Will Fuller made the jump from being a six catch freshman who got some spot duty, to being a 76 reception, 1,000+  yard, 14 touchdown receiver the very next season. In 2016, Equanimeous St. Brown went from 1 reception in 2015 to hauling in 58 receptions for 961 yards and nine touchdowns. I think either of those outcomes from Austin would be considered great successes and, barring health, completely reasonable.

It doesn’t work in Austin’s favor that he didn’t see game action at all last season.  There is no substitute for game experience, but he was able to practice all season and it was against Notre Dame’s top corner Troy Pride. He wasn’t playing in games, but he wasn’t just sitting around either. He was improving his game, he was lifting weights, he was growing as an all-around player. He’s also going to be a junior. His body ought to be fully ready to go and it seems that it is.

There are plenty of reasons to think he can jump right in and be dominant. Notre Dame needs that from him, and because he’s the only guy on the roster who appears ready to fill that role, that makes him one of the most important players on the team.

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