Depleted receiver depth distracts from Notre Dame’s rare calm offseason

Associated Press

Notre Dame had a calm offseason, a blessing when dealing with a physical sport played by 18- to 22-year-olds. Despite the recent attrition in the receiving corps — headlined by Monday’s reports of a season-long suspension for Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Austin — the drama, concern and unknown has not exceeded its normal level. Rather, the last eight months have been smoother around the program than usual. It’s just that all the unexpected issues have come at one broad position, with Austin joining junior tight end Cole Kmet and junior receiver Michael Young on the sideline, the latter two each recovering from a broken collarbone.

There always seems to be at least three moments of bad news for Notre Dame between its bowl game and its season opener. Those pieces of roster removal usually cover the spectrum.

Before 2018, senior running back Dexter Williams was silently suspended for four games; senior cornerback Shaun Crawford tore his ACL days before the season opener; junior receiver Kevin Stepherson was dismissed from the program, as were running backs Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes; and veteran cornerback Nick Watkins transferred following spring practices, creating a hole not felt until the second quarter of the Cotton Bowl.

Before 2017, Stepherson was silently suspended for four games; junior safety Alohi Gilman was not granted an eligibility waiver by the NCAA; senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage retired due to medical issues; and interior offensive linemen Parker Boudreaux and Tristen Hoge both transferred, foreshadowing the need to move a tackle to center this season in sophomore Jarrett Patterson.

Before 2016, the arrest of five players two weeks before the first game resulted in the dismissal of senior safety Max Redfield; the same night cornerback Devin Butler was arrested in a separate incident, though he was also already injured; and sophomore tight end Alizé Mack was suspended for the season due to academic concerns.

Looking at just those few recent seasons, it becomes quite clear this is a time of relative stability for the Irish roster. (Knocks on wood, because no one wants to see any football roster depleted unnecessarily.)

Without Austin, the wait for Kmet’s and Young’s returns may become excruciating for Notre Dame. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said last week the earliest either could return is four weeks after their respective injuries. For Kmet, that would be Sept. 8, the beginning of the week preparing for New Mexico. For Young, Sept. 17, four days before No. 9 Notre Dame faces No. 3 Georgia. But, to reiterate, those are best-case scenarios.

“Each one is different,” Kelly said. “[Kmet] is, two-and-a-half weeks, he’s catching the football already. Who knows.

“The doctors say at four weeks you can take a CAT scan to see what it looks like inside-out. If it heals inside-out, then you’re cleared to play, and we go from there. We say four to whatever, relative to his injury.”

That “whatever” could conceivably stretch up to 10 weeks, which would mean more than half the season lost for either or both Kmet and/or Young. As long as they are sidelined, the career receptions among available Irish receivers and tight ends are as follows:

Senior Chase Claypool: 84 catches
Fifth-year Chris Finke: 65
Junior tight end Brock Wright: Two
Senior receiver Javon McKinley, junior receiver Isaiah Robertson, sophomore receivers Lawrence Keys, Joe Wilkins, Braden Lenzy and Michah Jones, freshmen receivers Cam Hart and Kendall Abdur-Rahman, and sophomore tight ends Tommy Tremble and George Takacs: Zero

No, Austin’s five catches for 90 yards would not have drastically changed that portrayal, but when losing his readily-apparent talent along with Kmet’s 17 catches and Young’s 11, the gross effect adds up.

How does Notre Dame go about reducing the net loss? That answer may come from a sophomore receiver or from a running back.

Irish sophomore receiver Lawrence Keys has speed and shiftiness to spare, yet his next catch will be his first. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Keys will get the start on Monday at Louisville (8 ET; ESPN), with Wilkins and Lenzy likely to see at least a handful of snaps. Since they arrived on campus, Keys has been the most ready of the group.

“He was the one that [understood] the playbook first,” Irish receivers coach Del Alexander said on Wednesday. “He was the one that came to camp and studied during the summer and took some of the information and applied it right away. Because of where he was physically, we needed to develop him a little bit there. He got hurt, and then he hit a wall.

“I saw pretty early that he was a person that could handle what we were doing mentally. It was just physically bringing him along.”

Wilkins has been consistent in most practices, as well, while Lenzy flashes big-play ability interrupted by an inability to get off press coverage or track the ball. Keys essentially combines the good qualities of the other two to this point.

He was likely to play all along, though, his time increased by Young’s injury, not Austin’s sidelining. The loss of the latter skillset is solved more by physical players, not one short of 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds.

“We try to be very multiple: two tight ends, two backs or three backs,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said last week. “… I always want to try to get our best 11 out there, whoever that might be, so I’m never having playmakers standing next to me.”

One sentence later, Long was pointing to freshman running back Kyren Williams as a possibility, along with junior running back Jafar Armstrong. When discussing the passing game, Long did not need to include senior running back Tony Jones, a proven producer in that facet.

Irish freshman running back Kyren Williams has impressed the coaching staff as much with his work in the passing game as with his rushing ability. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Kyren Williams has had a great camp, so we’ve got to find things that he can do and do well,” Long said. “Jafar is just as good of a receiver as he is a tailback. That will kind of help alleviate some of the losses we might have had.

“Those guys were always part of the game plan, so we just kind of move forward with those packages and see what those guys can do.”

Lining up one running back out wide while keeping another in the backfield already puts a defense in a bind. Now, Long might go so far as to keep two in the backfield with the third out wide. If nothing else, both Armstrong and Jones are more experienced than any of the sophomore receivers; asking the running backs to run a route may instill more confidence. That confidence may fill the void left by Austin’s undisputed talent.

Such options remain because only Notre Dame’s pass-catchers have been struck by the inevitable annual strifes. Junior left guard Aaron Banks’ foot surgery has proven minor; the transfer of safety Derrik Allen does not impact any of 2019’s rotations; even Claypool’s ankle surgery looks to be a piece of the past.

This Irish offseason has been simpler than most, aside from the one particular position.