The picture hit Notre Dame football’s official social media channels June 21, its subject yelling in excitement with his chest puffed and arms flexed as they hung by his side.
It was confirmation that surely elicited relief followed by cautious excitement from Irish fans who saw it. Kevin Austin Jr., the player in the photo, is healthy and participating in Notre Dame’s summer workouts. The senior wide receiver with a hefty figurative weight placed upon his shoulders is oh-so-close to taking the field, which he will when fall camp opens in about a month.
His returned lined up with the timeline head coach Brian Kelly laid out in early June. He would participate in workouts, at first in a limited capacity.
“We’re going to gradually work him into a running program,” Kelly said then. “We’re not going to throw him right back out there immediately.”
His progress has ramped up since. He will enter 2021 fall camp in the same spot he was a year ago: expected to be a go-to weapon on an offense that needs to replace a departed No. 1 receiver, but surrounded by unknowns. He has played in just two games since 2019 and has six career catches. And yet the Irish receiving corps’ ceiling appears to be tied to him more than any other member of it.
His supposed 2020 breakout after a 2019 suspension was ruined by a pair of fractures to his fifth metatarsal. The first came in training camp and knocked him out for more than two months. He elected to rehab it instead of undergoing a bone graft procedure, which would have ended his season then.
Austin returned for Notre Dame’s Oct. 10 win over Florida State and played three snaps. He caught one pass in 22 snaps the following week against Louisville, though he had a touchdown reception overturned upon review.
“This was more about a young man wanting to try the 1 percent chance of coming back,” Kelly told BlueandGold.com last week. “We knew this was a very difficult injury.”
In practice before an Oct. 24 trip to Pittsburgh, though, Austin re-broke it. This time, there was no avoiding the graft and lengthy recovery time.
“We knew what we needed to do,” Kelly said. “We needed to do a bone graft. He wanted to try and come back without the bone graft. With the bone graft, he would’ve been out for the season. He wanted to try and play again. We were very skeptical of it. He wanted to give it a shot. He came back, worked his way back to practice and broke it again.”
Austin’s recovery held him out of spring practice. The goal was always to be ready for fall camp and have participated in summer workouts.
He appears to be on schedule.
“Now that he has had the graft, that foot is stable, it’s secure and he’s now finally got his chance,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t played a lot of football, so we’re not expecting him to go out and Moss everybody. He’s going to be a good player for us, but it’s going to take a little time.”