Former Notre Dame WR Kevin Austin Jr. embracing chance with Jacksonville Jaguars

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Kevin Austin Jr. wanted to be drafted -- expected to be drafted -- and when it didn’t happen, he was naturally annoyed.

Not angry, though.

The former Notre Dame wide receiver doesn’t have the so-called chip on his shoulder and isn’t vowing to make every team that passed on him pay. He just figures it is another unusual part of his path to the NFL.

“I’ve gotten over it,” Austin said of not being picked in April's draft. “Everything happens for a reason. I’m a God man. So I realize that God, he does things for a reason, so I have no quarrels about anything, about not being drafted. I have a chance to compete to be on a team right now, so that’s all I could ask for.”

That team is the Jacksonville Jaguars, who gave Austin a three-year contract and guaranteed him $230,000. Though the Jaguars spent big money in free agency on receivers Christian Kirk ($37 million guaranteed, $18 million annually) and Zay Jones ($14 million guaranteed, $8 million annually), and Marvin Jones Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr. and Laquon Treadwell return as the top three pass-catchers from 2021, there is an opportunity for Austin to make the roster.

Jones is in the final year of his contract with the Jaguars, Treadwell is on a one-year deal, and Shenault struggled in his second season. He was tied for second in the NFL with eight drops and had issues with running the wrong routes late into the season, so 2022 is a prove-it season for the former second-round draft pick.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Austin is comparable in size to Shenault (6-1, 227), but Austin ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, markedly faster than the 4.58 Shenault ran in 2020. However, Austin is more of a raw prospect than Shenault (121 receptions in 30 NFL games) because he had just 54 catches for 996 yards and 7 touchdowns for the Irish from 2018 to 2021.

Austin played in only five games as a freshman in 2018 and missed his entire sophomore season due to a suspension for violating team rules. He played in only one game in 2020 because he twice broke his left foot, but he played in every game last season and caught 48 passes for 888 yards and 7 touchdowns, including 23 catches over the final five games.

His most important game was Notre Dame’s fourth in 2021, when the Irish faced the Cincinnati Bearcats. Austin was matched up at times with cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, who would go on to be the fourth overall pick by the New York Jets. Austin managed just one catch for 17 yards in a 24-13 loss.

“He played against some good corners early and struggled,” said Del Alexander, who was Austin’s position coach at Notre Dame and is now the receivers coach at Georgia Tech. “The Cincinnati corner stuffed him a bit, [and] he had to learn from that.”

Austin bounced back later in the season, though, as he set a career high with 139 yards receiving against Navy in November and finished his career with back-to-back 100 yard games against Stanford and Oklahoma State. He had a solid combine, too, so Alexander believed those things, as well as Austin’s ability and ball skills, would get him drafted. He was projected as a mid-round pick, and when his name wasn’t called, Alexander said he was stunned.

“I was texting with coach [Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tom] Rees during the draft,” Alexander said. “Something’s got to happen for this kid. I was absolutely shocked it didn’t.

“He took the high road, which is another sign of his maturity. I told him, ‘That’s OK, I’m pissed off for you.’”

Had Austin not missed nearly two full seasons, he likely would have been drafted, Alexander said. And maybe high, too, because as a freshman, he appeared to be on a similar trajectory to former Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool, whom the Pittsburgh Steelers selected in the second round (No. 49 overall) in 2020. Alexander said Austin was a little more advanced as a freshman than Claypool.

“He’s got some potential,” Alexander said. “He hasn’t even scratched the surface.”

Austin’s season-long suspension in 2019 could have been a factor for some teams. Jaguars GM Trent Baalke said the team took 20-30 players off its board because of character concerns, but Austin clearly wasn’t one of them, and head coach Doug Pederson said the team was “fine with everything” it found out.

It did come up in the pre-draft process in interviews, and Austin said he answered teams’ questions truthfully and told them that he was an immature kid his first two seasons in South Bend, Indiana, but he has grown significantly with help from staff, coaches and teammates.

“I’ve just moved on from it,” he said. “I’ve just become more mature. I just moved on from that past life of mine and just going forward and hopefully competing in the NFL at a really high level.”

The Jaguars are giving him that chance, and he’s grateful.

“At the end of the day, that’s all I really wanted to do,” he said. “I’m a football player. That’s all I really wanted. That’s all I could do.”