It wouldn’t be a Notre Dame off-season if there wasn’t some mystery surrounding the status of at least one potential playmaker for the Irish. Two years ago it was Kevin Stepherson. Last year it was Dexter Williams. This year it’s sophomore wide receiver Kevin Austin. Just like the last two years with Stepherson and Williams, there have been rumblings all off-season that Austin may not be available at the start of the season.
Brian Kelly’s been asked about the status of Austin a few times at random times this off-season and every time he’s been asked he’s been non-committal just like he was when he was asked about Williams and Stepherson the last few years.
Just as a reminder for everyone, if there is some sort of disciplinary action levied against Austin currently, Brian Kelly is legally prohibited from commenting due to privacy laws.
On the Irish Illustrated podcast last week though, everyone seemed to indicate that they’ve heard Austin will miss some time at the beginning of the season though there was some disagreement on just how much time. Everyone seemed to be resigned to the idea that Austin wouldn’t be available for at least the first two weeks of the season if not longer.
Missing the first two games of the year wouldn’t be the end of the worth for Notre Dame with Austin. The Irish have more than enough firepower to get past Louisville and New Mexico even if Austin is forced to observe from the sidelines.
Week three is where it gets interesting though since that is when the Irish make their trip to Athens to take on Georgia. That’s the kind of game in which Notre Dame needs all hands on deck. When Georgia invaded Notre Dame in 2017, they did not have the luxury of Kevin Stepherson’s field stretching speed in their narrow loss to the Bulldogs. Given Notre Dame’s struggles moving the ball that night, having Stepherson that night would have come in handy.
There are still a couple things to unpack here though. For starters, is Austin actually suspended right now? We really won’t know for certain until games start and Austin doesn’t play any snaps. Last year Williams dressed for the first four games, but didn’t see the field until the Stanford beatdown. So eve if Kelly says this summer that Austin will be dressed for Louisville, it really offers no clarity.
Next, where would Austin be on the depth chart September 2 when Notre Dame makes that trip to Louisville all things being equal? Would he start over Michael Young? If the answer to that is yes, then how Notre Dame handles reps in the summer will be interesting.
When Stepherson was in his exile two years ago, it was pretty apparent in practice. Stepherson was essentially running with the 4th string that summer. He was clearly one of the best two wide receivers on that team and it wasn’t close. The longer that lingered, the more it became clear he would be out to start the year.
Last year, Notre Dame didn’t quite handle Dexter Williams the same way in practice. Williams got plenty of reps in fall camp and even though it was being widely reported that Williams would miss the first four games of the year, it was not nearly as evident based on practice reps.
If it looks like Austin is clearly one of Notre Dame’s best receivers, the staff could elect to still give him a good share of reps throughout camp to prepare for later in the season – especially if he will be making the trip to Athens. This is, of course, if Austin isn’t available week one. Given all the smoke and how we’ve seen the same situation play out each of the last two summers, it’s probably a safe assumption he won’t be though.
If Austin seems primed for more of a complimentary role this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Austin get reps similar to how Stepherson got them in fall camp 2017 with Notre Dame getting the likes of Braden Lenzy more reps on the outside. Javon McKinley, who’s reportedly had a bit of a resurgence could see some of those reps too.
For Notre Dame fans, this is all a familiar frustrating storyline here. Stepherson was clearly one of Notre Dame’s most lethal offensive weapons in 2017 and we all saw what Williams did once he was back on the field last year. If Austin follows in the same path, it’ll be three years in a row a playmaker from the state of Florida will start the year on the sidelines instead of, potentially, in the starting lineup.
Notre Dame’s recent focus on Georgia versus Florida in recruiting may just hint that this is a trend the staff is well aware of and trying to avoid in the future as well. We’ve already seen Notre Dame start to shift some of its focus from California where the Irish have not had as much success in recent years with recruits once they’ve reached campus. Perhaps we see more of a shift from Florida as well.
As for Austin, he could hold the key for just how improved the Notre Dame receiving corps is this year. It is pretty widely believed that Notre Dame will have more speed and athleticism on the field this year, and it’s also pretty widely believed that Austin might just be the most talented receiver on the roster.
Expect Brian Kelly to be asked about Austin during his first press conference in August and then again a few more times once open practices reveal how many reps he’s getting throughout camp. Don’t expect too much clarity on the situation to Monday, September 2 though.