On Sunday, Notre Dame got some good news and some not-so-good news on the recruitment front from a pair of wide receivers. First, the Irish learned that speedster Braden Lenzy would return for a 5th year with the Irish, but the same cannot be said for 2021 leading receiver Kevin Austin who announced his intentions to leave for the NFL. And with that, we know the decisions of two of the four senior receivers with eligibility remaining, but Notre Dame is no closer to having a solution for a shrinking wide receiver room that needs a depth infusion.
The first shoe to drop for Notre Dame today was Kevin Austin announcing he was leaving for the NFL. After a 48 reception, 888 yard, 7 touchdown season, Austin decided it was time to explore his options in the NFL instead of returning for a 5th season. After a career full of injuries and suspensions, it felt like Austin was ready to move on for a while now. Still, the hope for Notre Dame was to sell him on the idea of another season as a WR1 improving him from a late-round, flier pick into a top 3 round pick.
In the end, Austin chose to roll the dice. Given his injury history, it’s hard to blame him after an entire, healthy season. Even if another year could have significantly enhanced his draft stock, a return in 2022 that featured any sort of significant injury could have derailed his NFL future altogether.
Not long after Notre Dame learned it would have to replace Austin, they learned that speedster Braden Lenzy was returning. Lenzy had season highs in receptions and yards with 7 for 60 in the Fiesta Bowl and ended the season with 350 yards on 32 receptions to go along with three touchdowns. Interestingly enough, at the start of the season, Lenzy said he did not intend on returning in 2022, but he ultimately decided on one more season with the Irish.
With Austin off to the NFL and Lenzy returning, Notre Dame has just five scholarship wide receivers confirmed for 2022 at the moment – assuming all underclassmen return. Lenzy j joins sophomores to be Jayden Thomas, Lorenzo Styles, and Deion Colzie, and incoming freshman Tobias Merriweather. Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, both of whom had season-ending injuries in 2021, could return as well though their decisions either haven’t been made or announced.
Even if Davis and Wilkins return, Notre Dame would have, at best, seven scholarship receivers for spring ball. That is simply not enough and is an indictment on Del Alexander, who could officially be looking for a new job sooner rather than later. While nothing official has been announced, there was rampant speculation leading up to the Fiesta Bowl that Alexander would not return in 2022.
Losing Austin was a significant loss for Notre Dame because he would have been the #1 receiver again in 2022 and would have teamed with Lorenzo Styles to give Notre Dame its best 1-2 punch in a while. Styles broke out in the Fiesta Bowl with 8 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown and showed the promise that has the Notre Dame coaching staff over the moon about the sophomore to be.
Lenzy has flashed at times over the years but hasn’t quite put together an entire season as a starter. It was clear t the beginning of the 2021 season that the staff planned to use Lenzy as a deep threat, but he and Jack Coan were never able to hit on any of the deep shots that were called over the first four games, and the Irish ultimately scrapped that offense for the one we saw over the second half of the season that focus more on quick, short passes. Even if Lenzy isn’t a go-to option in 2022, he will undoubtably be the veteran leader of a wide receiver that is likely to look much different by September.
Even before the news of Austin leaving, it seemed obvious that Notre Dame would have to dip into the transfer portal at wide receiver for 2022. With Austin’s departure, the only positive is it opens up a lot more possibilities in the portal. Had Austin and Lenzy both returned along with all the underclassmen, Notre Dame would have been top-heavy at receiver and might have had a hard time attracting any receivers in the portal. Austin leaving at least makes Notre Dame more attractive to transfer candidates. Make no mistake, though; Notre Dame would have been much better off with Austin returning.
Numbers are bad at receiver right now, and it could take a couple of recruiting cycles to rectify the situation entirely. Notre Dame has to be active in the portal and the late signing period in the short term though to fill out the room for 2022. Notre Dame offered Utah commit Justius Lowe over the weekend and will likely make a run at other late-rising receivers to fill out a wide receiver room that fell apart over the last year on Del Alexander’s watch. However, recruiting misses, transfers, and position changes have Notre Dame in dire straights depth-wise heading into 2022.