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Monday, January 03, 2022 2:10 am

Lenzy, Austin announce 2022 plans: Notre Dame receiver breakdown

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame starting wide receivers Kevin Austin Jr. and Braden Lenzy, who combined to account for 34% of Notre Dame's receiving yards this season, announced their 2022 plans Sunday afternoon. Austin will forego his final two years of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft, while Lenzy, who also has two years of eligibility remaining, will return to the Irish next season.

Austin was Notre Dame's No. 1 receiver this season, finishing with 48 catches for 888 yards and seven touchdowns. He turned in three 100-yard performances in 2021, including two straight to end the campaign against Stanford and Oklahoma State. In the Fiesta Bowl against the Cowboys on Saturday, Austin hauled in six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, the score coming with barely a minute left, cutting the Irish deficit to 37-35. 

"To the Notre Dame community and fans: Thank you from the bottom of my heart for making these four years the best of my life," Austin said in a statement announcing his decision to depart. "I will always cherish our time together and your unwavering support through the many ups and downs is something I will be eternally grateful for. You make me proud to call myself an alumni from the greatest school in the world."

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Austin's path to being Notre Dame's top pass-catcher was a circuitous one. He came in as a top 100 recruit in the 2018 class and flashed some big-play ability with five catches for 90 yards as a true freshman. But he spent the entire 2019 season unofficially suspended and did not play a down for the Irish. Expected to be the team's top target in 2020, he missed nearly the all of the season with a foot injury, catching only one pass for 18 yards.

Then came 2021, when Austin was a reliable deep-ball threat and the Notre Dame receiver the Irish could most count on to be open on any given play. His two touchdown catches against Wisconsin (one each from Jack Coan and Drew Pyne) helped put Notre Dame in position to win even before the late flurry of Badgers turnovers sealed the victory. He's a big, strong receiver with good leaping ability, but he had a few high-profile drops this season and he made only one catch for 17 yards against Cincinnati, the best defensive back group the Irish faced. He will probably be a mid-to-late round draft pick.

Lenzy has been a three-year contributor for the Irish and Notre Dame has shown an ability to maximize the speed of the former Oregon high school track star since he arrived on campus. As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Lenzy caught 11 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns and added 13 carries, mostly jet sweeps and end-arounds that gave him the ball in space, for 200 yards and two more scores. 

The 5-11, 180-pound receiver's 2020 was hampered by a series of nagging injuries, including one to his hamstring, which sapped some of that blazing speed and made him less effective as an open-field weapon. But Lenzy returned to form in 2021, catching 32 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns and running five times for 69 yards (though the end-arounds that worked so well in 2019 were not viable at the start of the season because of Notre Dame's then-porous offensive line). He finished the season with one of the most productive games of his career, reeling in a career-high seven passes (on a team-high 15 targets) for 60 yards against an Oklahoma State secondary that played surprisingly soft coverage for much of the game. 

Lenzy did not release a statement announcing his decision beyond a tweet reading "I'll be back." The next step in his development is to become an every-down downfield threat; he did not beat opposing corners over the top often this season despite his top-end speed.

Lenzy's return is a huge boost for a position group that is maybe the thinnest on the roster. After Lawrence Keys III opted to transfer early in the season and Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins Jr. suffered season-ending knee injuries, the Irish had only five scholarship receivers available down the stretch of the season. True freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr. blossomed into an all-levels threat and could be the team's No. 1 target next season, but fellow freshmen Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas remain mostly unknown commodities.

Worse for the Irish, two of the three wide receivers in their 2022 recruiting class decommitted in the days leading up to the Dec. 15 National Signing Day: Amorion Walker signed with Michigan instead, while highly-touted CJ Williams will choose between USC and UCLA in the coming days. Notre Dame will bring in Tobias Merriweather, the No. 124 recruit in the country and 18th-ranked receiver, as a true freshman in 2022, but the Irish are still looking for young reinforcements at wideout and could turn to the transfer portal or even the remaining unsigned members of the 2022 class to fill out the roster there. Notre Dame is also waiting on stay-or-go decisions from Davis and Wilkins, which should come in the next few weeks. If both of those veterans – who would be in line to start in 2022 – depart, the Irish will be desperately thin on the outside, not the position in which a team wants to find itself with what is likely to be a first-year starter at quarterback next season.

dsinn@jg.net


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