Notre Dame is officially in game-preparation mode, with only five days until the team's season-opener on the road against Louisville. It's an odd week because the Irish don't play until Labor Day, but Notre Dame is trying to make it as normal as possible, with coach Brian Kelly doing his weekly press conference today instead of the Monday before the game.
There wasn't a whole lot surprising in Kelly's first pregame press conference. He of course played up Louisville's success this decade: six eight-win seasons in the last seven years and a Heisman Trophy winner in 2016. That, of course, glosses over the fact that the Cardinals went 2-10 in 2018 and are bringing in an entirely new coaching staff under former Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield. Kelly praised Satterfield and said the Irish expect a battle.
"This is a program that expects to win in all phases," Kelly said. "All of their programs are quite successful. This is a winning environment at Louisville, and they have high expectations. We're going to be prepared for that. The stadium is one where there will be an exciting crowd there. It is a football town. It is a great stadium to play in. Our guys will be ready to play in an electric atmosphere."
The Louisville player Kelly mentioned that most stood out on tape was left tackle Mekhi Becton, a 6-foot-7, 370-pound returning starter who looks to be an NFL prospect. Becton has a seven-foot wingspan and will provide a nice early-season challenge for Notre Dame defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, both of whom expect to have big seasons.
Notre Dame also released its depth chart for Week 1 today, a lineup that featured few surprises. The most unexpected move was probably at cornerback, where fifth-year senior Shaun Crawford will start opposite Troy Pride Jr. The battle to move into Julian Love's vacated starting corner spot played out in camp and Crawford overtook the early favorite, Donte Vaughn, who was limited for a few practices with a mild quad injury. Vaughn will still get plenty of playing time, as will Tariq Bracy, but this is Crawford's spot for now, which makes it a feel-good story. Crawford has suffered three season-ending injuries in his Irish career and to come all the way back (he did not play at all in 2018) to start in Week 1, is a testament to his resilience.
"I have always felt that he was going to overcome this again, because that's the kind of spirit he has," Kelly said of Crawford. "He's exactly where I thought he would be. Going to be playing a major role in the success of this football team."
The other big news from the release of the depth chart was at wide receiver, where Lawrence Keys III will start alongside Chase Claypool and Chris Finke. Keys, a redshirt freshman, will get the starting nod after prospective starter Michael Young broke his collarbone in camp. Keys did not play last season, but will have to play an important role right away in 2019. He beat out Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins for the spot.
"He started to come on in the spring, showed some consistency in performance," Kelly said of Keys. "We were able to add some sandbags to his pockets, put on a little weight. We felt like he needed to be sturdier physically. He did a great job in the off-season of really attending to that. He's kept his weight on.
"I think (being) assignment-correct has been another thing that he's really worked on. We need to rely on players that we know they're going to be there and line up the right way, be relied on that they're going to be accountable. He's been really accountable in all those areas.
"Then you just take his athleticism. Everybody can see that when he touches the ball he's got great speed. One of the things that he does that's a little bit different than all of our guys is that he catches the ball at full speed. Some guys have to throttle down a little bit. He can catch it at full speed. That's a great trait to have."
Kelly also discussed the status of sophomore receiver Kevin Austin, who appeared in 10 games last season before staying home for the USC and Syracuse road games because of a "coach's decision" and returning to the field against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. It seemed as though Austin would get the Dexter Williams non-suspension/suspension for the first four games of the season, but now reports have it that he will be out for the entire year for undisclosed reasons. Kelly would only say that Austin is on the roster and remains enrolled at Notre Dame, but declined to comment further. He didn't dispute the reports and it's safe to say it's unlikely we'll see Austin, who caught five passes for 90 yards last season, in 2019.