Some things at Notre Dame change: The weekly preview with Irish head coach Brian Kelly is now five days before the next game (usually a Monday), a day earlier than years past. Some things do not change: No matter when that 30-minute press conference is, some questions will not get answered precisely.
The question, as asked: “Is Kevin Austin going to play for you this year?
Kelly’s answer, in full, regarding the sophomore receiver who is reportedly suspended for the season: “Kevin Austin is on our team. I think you guys all know that I don’t talk about playing time with our guys. If I have anything to talk about with a player relative to their status, I’m going to talk about it, if I can. His situation is such that he’s still on this football team and he is still practicing with us. Other than that, I have made my statements regarding him.”
Asked to clarify if he expects Austin to remain enrolled at Notre Dame, Kelly confirmed as much. “He will be on our football team and I expect him to be with us the entire year.”
That’s that. For at least the next month, the Austin conversation will not advance, nor will it need to be brought up again. Kelly’s answer will not vary from the above, due to privacy restrictions.
With Austin joined on the sidelines by junior receiver Michael Young (broken collarbone), sophomore Lawrence Keys will get his first career start at Louisville on Monday (8 ET; ESPN), presuming the Irish line up in a usual formation with three receivers on their first snap. Keys did not play as a freshman, though he was a considered wrinkle during bowl preparations.
“He started to come on in the spring, showed some consistency in performance,” Kelly said. “We were able to add some sandbags to his pockets, put on a little weight. We felt he needed to be sturdier, physically, and he did a great job in the offseason of really attending to that. He’s kept his weight on.”
Note: Keys is still listed at just 173 pounds, but it is not as frail of an appearance anymore. His shiftiness, speed and supposed sturdiness are not the only reasons he beat out two other sophomores for the starting nod.
“You just take his athleticism, everybody can see when he touches the ball, he’s got great speed,” Kelly said. “One of the things that he does that’s a little different from all of our guys is he catches that ball at full speed. Some guys have to throttle down a little bit; he can catch it at full speed, and that’s a great trait to have.”
No other surprises popped out in Notre Dame’s depth chart. Fifth-year Asmar Bilal, junior Drew White (middle) and junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Rover) will start at linebacker, with a second unit of junior Jordan Genmark Heath, sophomore Shayne Simon or sophomore Bo Bauer, and sophomore Paul Moala, respectively.
Junior running back Jafar Armstrong is listed as the leading kick returner, with freshman running back Kyren Williams behind him. This fits a thought Kelly espoused last week, of new kickoff return rules preventing shoulder-to-shoulder wedge blocks making the ideal kick returner now someone who can break an arm tackle more than someone who can speed through a seam. In other words, running backs, not receivers as has usually been the case in the recent past.
As suggested earlier today, the only other freshmen within the two-deep are safety Kyle Hamilton, defensive tackle Jacob Lacey, punter Jay Bramblett and — more to fill out the sheet than in a practical sense — right tackle Andrew Kristofic.
At cornerback, the Irish may not have necessarily settled on a second cornerback to play full-time opposite senior Troy Pride. Fifth-year Shaun Crawford (pictured at top, circa 2016) gets the nominal nod, though, with sophomore TaRiq Bracy backing him up on the field (wide) side, while senior Donte Vaughn and sophomore Houston Griffith back up Pride on the boundary. Vaughn could rise to a starting role in certain situations that may call for Pride to handle the field duties.
Having Crawford available was never a sure thing after three season-ending injuries, but Kelly never doubted the play-maker would work his way back.
“It’s easy to think that behind the scenes there could have been conversations about, is this it for me, but formal conversations with him sitting down with me or any staffer about him not playing again never occurred,” Kelly said. “There’s always going to be those times, those low points, where you’re going through a third operation where maybe it’s not in the cards. It never happened with me and Shaun.
“I have always felt he was going to overcome this again, because that’s the kind of spirit he has. And he’s exactly where I thought he would be, playing a major role in the success of this football team.”