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Notre Dame opens spring practice largely healthy, not to mention warm

Kevin Austin spring

SOUTH BEND, IN - APRIL 13: Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. (4) adjusts his helmet in action during the Notre Dame Football Blue and Gold Spring game on April 13, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Northwestern Indiana has certainly seen worse March mornings than one with temperatures in the 30s accompanied by some wind, but Notre Dame avoided even those elements as it opened spring practice in the Irish Athletics Center on Thursday. The finished-in-2019 IAC was used at points in the fall, but its greatest purpose was always intended as this portion of the year, when snow, cold rain or just typical Midwestern miserableness often forced Notre Dame into the cramped quarters of the Loftus Sports Center.

Worries over Irish health appear to have been exaggerated. While Notre Dame will be without a couple of linebackers for the spring and a few offensive linemen for at least another couple weeks, no unexpected injuries popped up since the Camping World Bowl.

Before delving into the list of known hamperings, one of the likely stories of spring ran with the first-string Thursday. As much as Irish head coach Brian Kelly wants to tamper the expectations around rising junior Kevin Austin, that train has already left the station.

“I don’t put up a depth chart, per se,” Kelly said. “I don’t push that with our coaches. We don’t like to talk in those terms, but someone’s got to go out there. What we like to talk to our team about is, there’s competitive opportunities out here, but somebody’s got to go out there with 11 guys. Kevin was out there today, and you can see he’s a guy who can make plays.”

Kelly went on to name a handful of other receivers who can also make plays, but the fact remains that Austin taking snaps with fifth-year quarterback Ian Book behind center is a leap from last preseason when Austin was with the scout team as part of an unspoken suspension.

“He’s always had the talent,” Kelly said. “He’s obviously doing the things right both on and off the field. His development has been one that we’re really pleased with. That’s why you’re seeing a lot more of him on a day like today.”

One of the receivers Kelly mentioned when trying to defer praise from Austin was fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley, who is all-but-confirmed as eligible for an extra season. At Notre Dame, an academic panel has the final say regarding graduate student-athletes, and that decision will not officially come until mid-May, but Kelly said he does not expect any issues.

Not among the receivers mentioned was rising senior Isaiah Robertson, who did not play in 2019 after moving from the defensive backfield and was not at practice Thursday.

“He’s still on scholarship,” Kelly said. “He’s still with us. He’s working on some things academically. We’ve given him some time to take care of some things he needs to work on.”

The rest of the personnel report focuses on injuries …

Right tackle Robert Hainsey: Limited by a November ankle injury.Right guard Tommy Kraemer: Limited by an October knee injury.“Those guys are going to continue to work through and will be able to do virtually everything during the spring, so we’re pleased with their progress.”

Left guard Aaron Banks: Will miss the spring due to a foot fracture.

Linebackers Jack Lamb (hip) and Shayne Simon (knee): “Lamb’s about three weeks out before we can move him to the next level in his progression. Shayne Simon is doing great, he’ll be full-go for (preseason) camp.”

Early-enrolled freshman receiver Jay Brunelle had a shoulder surgery to clean up a high school injury and will miss the spring.Northwestern graduate transfer receiver Bennett Skowronek: “Skowronek is about 90 percent (recovered) from his ankle, he’s doing much better.”

Defensive end Daelin Hayes (September shoulder) and offensive tackle Quinn Carroll (August ACL) will both be “modified a little bit” this spring.

Receiver-turned-cornerback Cam Hart is in “aggressive shadow,” to use Kelly’s term, as he recovers from a shoulder injury. “We’re probably pushing the envelope a little bit with Cam. He really wants to be out there. We’re being very cautious, but aggressive with Cam.”

Sixth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford has a “little bit of a hamstring” issue, nothing to worry about with more than a week off before Notre Dame’s next practice.

Yes, a 12-day break before the Irish resume spring practices, thanks to spring break. By then, those weather concerns might be dismissed entirely. Then again, this is the Midwest …

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