2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 57 of 163

56 ✦ BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2020 FOOTBALL PREVIEW WIDE RECEIVERS H aving "young veterans" might sound like an oxymoron, but it aptly describes Notre Dame's 2020 wide receiver roster. It begins with junior Kevin Austin and Northwestern graduate transfer Ben Skow- ronek, who combined for 12 catches last year — all by Skowronek. That's because Austin was suspended from seeing game action for a rules infrac- tion, while an ankle injury sidelined Skow- ronek, who had been selected as a captain for the 2019 Wildcats. Like fellow Floridians Kevin Stepherson and Dexter Williams, who were each sus- pended the first four games in 2017 and 2018, Austin is expected to return with a vengeance. Stepherson returned for the final eight 2017 regular-season games and averaged 18.9 yards per catch with five scores before getting dismissed from school. Williams helped make the 2018 College Football Play- off run possible by romping for 995 yards, 6.3 yards per carry and 12 scores in his nine games. In the lone spring practice held March 5, the 6-2, 210-pound and former top-100 re- cruit Austin was a conspicuous figure with his play-making attributes and was immedi- ately inserted with the first group. "He's always had the talent," head coach Brian Kelly said following the session. "He's obviously doing the things right, both on and off the field. His development has been one that we're really pleased with." The boundary receiver position (W) has been an integral aspect of Kelly's offense — evidenced by current pros Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin and Chase Clay- pool each starring there the past three years. Austin will vie for reps there with yet another relatively new "young veteran" in fifth-year senior Javon McKinley. Ranked the nation's No. 59 overall player by Rivals in 2016, McKinley has had his own personal setbacks with injuries and off-the-field mis- haps, but finally caught his first career passes as a senior last year, 11 of them for a 24.4- yard average and four touchdowns. Meanwhile, Skowronek has zero recep- tions in a Notre Dame uniform but at North- western snared 110 that averaged 13.4 yards over 43 games, and helped the Wildcats win the Big Ten West Division in 2018. Joining Austin as third-year figures in the program are Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III, Joe Wilkins and Micah Jones. The quintet of juniors have a combined 24 catches among them through two seasons, which reiterates the "veteran inexperience" theme. Minus the graduated duo of team MVP/ second-round pick Claypool and captain/ two-year starter Chris Finke, wide receiver — similar to running back — has the look for now of a "by-committee" rotation based on having niche roles. Skowronek has had the most collegiate production — but not in this offense. Austin has the most potential star power — but cannot become an enigma. Lenzy provides a game-breaking dimen- sion — but durability for a full season must first be proven. Keys has been classified by Kelly as a pro- totype slot receiver — but he must first seize the role on an offense where running backs could be split out more or double-tight-end alignments might be used regularly. ✦ SOMETHING OLD , SOMETHING NEW Veteran new faces are expected to boost pass-catching production After serving as the backup for Chris Finke last year, Lawrence Keys III returns with the most receptions among 2019 Fighting Irish wideouts. PHOTO BY KEN MARTIN

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