After its vertical passing game opened eyes in the season opener, Notre Dame’s receiver depth took a hit Thursday when Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior receiver Lawrence Keys will sit out the rest of the season. Multiple reports first broke the news of Keys’ decision on Wednesday evening.
Keys played only five snaps in the 41-38 overtime victory at Florida State on Sunday, and he was never targeted while classmates Kevin Austin and Joe Wilkins both scored downfield touchdowns and senior Braden Lenzy was looked to, unsuccessfully, on deep routes down the sideline.
More pertinent to Keys’ playing time, junior running back Kyren Williams caught six passes on six targets for 83 yards, frequently lining up in the slot while sophomore running back Chris Tyree lined up in the backfield. With Williams’ time as a receiver increasing, that leaves fewer snaps at the slot receiver for Keys as fifth-year slot receiver Avery Davis’ backup. A shin injury slowed Keys in the final weeks of preseason practices.
“Lawrence has chosen to pursue finishing up his degree,” Kelly said. “… Lawrence will then evaluate what he wants to do after that, whether football is in the cards for him or not.”
Cutting his own season short will not save Keys any eligibility — he currently has three years left to play three seasons, and this will simply knock that down to two years left to play three seasons, otherwise known as two years left — but with 18 credit hours this semester, per Kelly, it will allow Keys to prioritize reaching graduation in December.
If that is the end of Keys’ Notre Dame career, and it would be a mild surprise if it isn’t, he will finish with 18 receptions for 185 yards in 21 games, adding six rushes for 45 yards during the 2019 season. Keys’ best chance at playing time likely came during 2020, when both Lenzy and Bennett Skowronek were slowed by hamstring issues and Davis had not yet established himself as an offensive contributor, but a concussion then slowed Keys.
With Keys’ departure, Notre Dame is down to eight — no, make that seven scholarship receivers, as sophomore Xavier Watts moved to Rover earlier in the season, Kelly revealed. That move was made in part to give Watts a chance at playing time outside of a “logjam” at receiver and in part to supplement defensive depth, a need that has only increased in recent weeks with junior Paul Moala’s torn Achilles.
That logjam at receiver is hardly a logjam anymore, though. Of the seven Irish receivers, three are seniors, Davis is a fifth-year, and three are freshmen — Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas, all former four-star recruits.
“We have great confidence in them,” Kelly said. “… I’m excited about getting a chance to see those [veterans], but also some of the young guys as they get these opportunities to play a little bit more. … Getting Lorenzo on the field, getting Deion on the field, they’re ready to play, so let’s get them going.”
Per Kelly, Styles will back up Lenzy as the field receiver, Colzie will back up Austin at the boundary, and Wilkins will work primarily behind Davis in the slot while Thomas “will be a swing guy.” With Williams playing in the slot plenty, Wilkins may also earn some swing status.
Losing a veteran a week into the season is less than ideal under any circumstances, but losing one to injury is worse than losing one to personal decisions.
Notre Dame will be without senior linebacker Shayne Simon for the rest of the season after he suffered “a pretty good labrum tear” in the opener. Losing Simon will further elevate junior linebacker J.D. Bertrand, force senior linebacker Bo Bauer to become more versatile and allow junior linebacker Jack Kiser to cross-train between Rover and Will (weakside) linebacker. Watts’ position switch further accommodates Kiser’s multiple duties.
“We have more surgeries in the first week than you would want to have,” Kelly said, a list that includes Moala and sophomore tight end Kevin Bauman (broken leg; six weeks), not to mention senior linebacker Marist Liufau suffered a season-ending injury at the very end of preseason practices. “That’s a concern. We cannot continue on this trend of having guys out for the entire season because of year-ending surgeries. We hope that we’ve gone through that and we’re going to trend on the right end of injuries.”
Freshman left tackle Blake Fisher will miss about eight weeks, per Kelly, after surgery to repair a meniscus injury. Fisher was injured shortly before the first half at Florida State, replaced by sophomore Michael Carmody.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll have him back this year,” Kelly said.
Fisher was the second freshman to start the season opener on the Irish offensive line in program history. Going off the eight-week timeline, Fisher could return with four games left in the season, plus a bowl game. If/once he appears in a fifth game — including his less than a half in Tallahassee — Fisher will have used a year of eligibility.
Logically, someone who could start on Notre Dame’s offensive line in the season opener as a freshman is not worried about a fifth year of eligibility in 2025, but the Irish may ration Fisher’s appearances around the four-game threshold, anyway, simply because little would be gained rushing him back to burn a season by one contest.
Freshman running back Logan Diggs will be available for Notre Dame this weekend, one of three players listed as “unavailable” at Florida State, conclusions to be drawn as seen fit. Junior defensive end Jordan Botelho and senior running back C’Bo Flemister are not yet cleared, per Kelly.
But other than that, coach Kelly, how was the short week after a late Sunday night game?
“The health of our team, relative to the bounce back of getting in at 4:30 in the morning on Monday, our guys have done a great job,” he said. “They got the rest necessary. Their mindset was great, that they needed to take care of themselves.”
ON FUTURE RECEIVER ELIGIBILITY
Every one of those receivers mentioned above could return to Notre Dame next season. While that is unlikely, it would take multiple breakout seasons from the trio of Austin, Lenzy and Wilkins to not expect at least two of them to be back in gold helmets in 2022. Furthermore, the Irish currently have commitments from consensus four-star receivers C.J. Williams and Tobias Merriweather in the class of 2022, the Nos. 6 and 19 receivers in the class, respectively, per rivals.com, along with three-star Amorion Walker.
— C.J. Williams brings unprecedented possibilities to Notre Dame recruiting
— Merriweather gives needed boost to Notre Dame skill position recruiting
— Sizable Louisiana receiver becomes ninth commit in Irish class of 2022