Brian Kelly provides a peek into Notre Dame football's process during COVID-19

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Yep, there’s an app for that.

For building a college football team in a period of social distancing with no clear end point, while trying to help flatten the curve for the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“It’s called ‘Strength Builder’,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday during an interview with Darin Pritchett and me on the Budweister’s Weekday SportsBeat radio show on WSBT (96.1).

But what is making it work so well for the Irish, three weeks into a world without sporting events and now separated from each other by as many as 7,300 miles, is the strong leadership structure.

That structure, in a time of online everything, includes Irish players, and also branches out to mental health and academic supports as well.

Wide receiver Xavier Watts warms up during Notre Dame’s first spring football practice, Thursday at the Irish Athletics Center.

What it hasn’t included is actual football terminology and instruction.

So no installation of new coordinator Tommy Rees’ offense. No online cornerback drills from corners coach Mike Mickens. No critique of how incumbent starting QB Ian Book is reading defenses on video.

“We haven’t touched that yet,” Kelly said. “Look, we have never entered into this realm of online teaching before. It’s new territory for our professors and new territory for our coaches. And in some instances it’s invigorating, because we really are in a hands-on position with our student-athletes.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of logistics and making sure our guys have the proper Zoom (video conferencing) techniques relative to being in the meetings and on time. So it’s really been about structure from an academic standpoint.

“It’s been about a unified and uniform weight training and conditioning program, and then beginning next week we’ll start individual meetings and then position meetings, talking a little bit of football.

“But there’s plenty of time for football. We wanted to make sure that the structure was there first and foremost academically with those transitions, and then to have a kind of uniform conditioning program for our football team.

“Those are the most important things right now. We can get to the football. We’ll have some time. If we’re playing in the fall, we’ll have enough time to catch up on the football.”

In terms of how the app works to enhance the strength/conditioning aspect of team-building, players can use their smartphones, laptops or tablets to complete the daily workouts, then send them to the coaching and strength staffs.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, here watching spring practice on March 5, will get his chance soon to resume teaching football to his players — but now online.

Players minimally are doing strength-band resistance training, though some players have access to home gyms or weights at a remote location to supplement their workouts.

“We get a daily (report when) a full workout is completed,” Kelly said. “So we can track the progress of our players. Pretty handy from that standpoint.

“We sent them three different resistance bands that allow them to do a full workout. We then have subsequent pod meetings, which each one of our strength coaches meet with a group of players to make sure that they’re getting their workouts, and whether they need to change the resistance on each one of them.

“So we feel really good about the organization of that and how we’ve been able to do that from a technology standpoint.”

The player-led SWAT teams Kelly implements throughout the year to foster both academic and athletic accountability, are also in play — from a distance now and online.

“You have to bring structure first,” Kelly said. “If it’s everybody for themselves, then these teams really can’t operate efficiently. The first thing we did is when we built our academic structure, we have responsibilities relative to the academic pieces in our academic resource program.

“In other words, individuals that are on SWAT teams have responsibilities in terms of tutors and the writing resource center and all of those additional responsibilities. They are held accountable by not only their position coaches, but by the SWAT team leaders.

“They’ll lose points and obviously put their team in jeopardy week to week as to how they handle their responsibilities.”

Here are some of Kelly’s thoughts on other topics related to the Notre Dame football program and coaxing it forward during these unusual times and circumstances:

• On whether the June-arriving freshmen can be a part of the ND team online workouts remotely as well. That group includes RB Chris Tyree, OT Tosh Baker, WR Jordan Johnson and TE Michael Mayer:

“They have the opportunity to be involved with what we’re doing, and they have the workout opportunities.  Because of their high school availability, some have easier access. So we have obviously asked each one of them what they would prefer.

“Once they’ve signed a National Letter of Intent, we’re able to send them strength and conditioning information, so each one of them has those options to be with us relative to the workouts we’re doing.”

• On recruiting challenges and whether there’s an emphasis from the ND coaches to the prospects to slow down their decision timelines, to give them a chance to visit the Notre Dame campus down the road:

“We want them to complete the recruiting cycle. We’ve been at it for quite some time here, with especially the ’21 class. We put a lot of time, a lot of effort into building relationships.

“We don’t want them to all of a sudden say, ‘We’re ready to make a decision,’ unless of course it’s Notre Dame. If they’re going to choose Notre Dame, we’re all for that.

“But if they’re saying, ‘We’re ready to make a decision on another school and we haven’t seen Notre Dame, we’re obviously saying, ‘Look, complete the recruiting process. Let it play out. Don’t make a decision under duress with the uncertainty of the times. This will pass.’ … So we’re doing a lot of that.

“It’s a lot more difficult at Notre Dame, because all of our players (potential recruits) are scattered throughout the country and we’re pulling them out of a (wide) geographical area. It’s not like we’re recruiting from three hours from our home base.

“If we were, it would be a lot easier during this time. So, yeah it’s a lot more difficult, but it requires all of our coaches, including myself, to be on the phone a lot more. Doing a lot more FaceTime, a lot more interaction with the student-athlete and getting them to complete this process.”

• On what the best-case scenario for the 2020 season looks like today:

“It would be ideal if we could be back and operational sometime in the middle of June. It looks like it’s going to be very difficult to get a spring ball in, but I’m sure that there’s going to be some conditioning activities.

“But everybody across the board is going to be dealing with that. So I don’t know that there’s going to be any real competitive disadvantage from that perspective.

“So the ideal would be the middle of June. What precautions are going to be needed to take in these situations? Hopefully, that there’s a (COVID-19) test up that is one that maybe the student-athletes and coaching staff and support staff can take. And then we’ll deal with how we deal with spectators.

“Maybe they have to wear masks before they can go into a game. There are a lot of things, that from common sense, we can make this thing happen if in fact people continue to use good judgment.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly addresses attendees at the Irish Invasion football camp June 9 at ND. It's an event that's not likely to happen this year.

“You know we’ve got 80 percent of the country staying at home. If we continue safe distancing, if we use masks, if we continue to not overload our hospitals and health care, I think we have a great chance of getting to that spot.

“But it’s going to be really incumbent on us this next month to be smart and to be safe. If we do that, I think the realistic and best opportunity for us is the middle of June.

“As I stated on ESPN, I think June 15 is ideal. I think July 1 is the drop-dead date in the sense July 1 has got to be the date that we have to start working out by July 1. That’s important for us to get our guys in a conditioning manner to play football.”

• On whether players recuperating from injuries and surgeries have the access they need to rehab apparatus and physical therapy:

"We have five players that have been really worked on in terms of the interaction, 12 guys total that are doing some form of PT (physical therapy). But no one is on a critical care kind of scenario, where they’re missing an apparatus or need a piece of machinery that is necessary for them to get their work.

“A lot of it can be done with resistance bands. A lot of it can be done with their own body weight. In our last meeting — and we’ll have another one today with our medical team — there was nobody that was lagging behind relative to where this stoppage would cause anybody to not be prepared and ready to be back with us when we resume.

“So we feel like we’re in a pretty good place there. (ND head trainer) Rob Hunt and his staff are checking on our guys daily and making sure they have all their needs. And if they don’t, we’re sending them what they need. So I think we’ve got a pretty good system in place right now to care for our players.”

• On what effect almost no spring practice may have on team development and whether it’s a problem some programs got more spring sessions in than others:

“Would I have liked 15? Sure,” said Kelly, whose team had one session in before the balance of the spring practices was canceled. “But I’m not going to go into the season with trepidation that we’re not going to get prepared to play whomever we need to play.

“We’ve got a veteran football team that knows how to play the game. I watched our first practice. I kind of know what we have — we have a great staff.

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams runs through a drill during the team's first spring football practice on March 5. The balance of the spring practices were canceled due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“If we have the ample opportunity to condition and prepare our football team from a physical standpoint, we’re not going to fall into a position where we’re not going to be prepared to be the best version of the 2020 football team.”

• On the three former players — Julian Love, Josh Adams and Troy Niklas — who came back to school this semester to get their degrees and how they are progressing through this process:

“Well the last I know is that all three of them were scheduled to graduate. My last conversation before we shut down, before we left for spring break, I think it was the Friday before we left, Josh Adams was in our computer lounge in the Gug working on a paper.

“And just having a conversation with him and how focused he was: ‘Coach, I’m getting this done. I’m going to get this completed.'

“So just knowing those guys and how committed they were and given the current circumstances, I’m very confident that all three of those guys will be finding their way through this current situation to get their degrees.”

• On his message to Notre Dame football fans:

“Stay positive. We have a choice. We could be negative and think about a lot of things that could go wrong, or we can think positive.

“I’ve always chosen to think in the most positive terms that we’re going to have this pandemic under control to where we can resume in some sort of normalcy, where we can play college football in the fall.

“Look, if anybody can really predict what can happen next week, they should be in the stock market. I heard (ESPN analyst) Kirk Herbstreit come out and say, ‘No way.’ Kirk does not know what he’s talking about. Really? For him to talk in those terms, he’s not a scientist. He’s a college football analyst.

“We’ll let the scientists determine those things. We’ll prepare and know what we need to do and put things in play, knowing full well that we’ll need some preparation time. But we’re going to stay positive and prepare as if we’re going to have a season in the fall.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said there has been very little emphasis on actual football the past three weeks during the remote team-building process.