Hansen: Brian Kelly's new normal for Notre Dame of being prepared is the right strategy

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly looked like a hologram Wednesday afternoon on a Zoom conference chat with the media, but his words wafted out normalcy.

In a stretch of sports journalism in which there seems to be an alarming pattern of one-upmanship to paint the darkest possible, worst-case scenario when it comes to the COVID-19/sports cocktail, the Notre Dame head football coach wasn’t just refreshing.

He was pragmatic.

And someday that is going to be an investment that shows up in his team’s bottom line.

There is nothing in a wave of social distancing and all-too-frequent smalltalk about one’s personal toilet paper stash that has altered the possibility that the next Notre Dame football team that runs through the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium has the chance to be the best of the 11 Kelly has assembled while in South Bend.

The Ian Book-Tommy Rees connection, for instance, becomes a more competitive advantage with each passing day.

An even bigger one potentially is the reality that Kelly and the Irish are continuing to prepare for a time when the headlines start to align with a return of some kind to sports. Instead of waiting and wallowing.

“I’ve been really focused much more on the day to day and really trying to create a structured environment for our football team,” Kelly said when pressed for his reaction to a speculative bigger-picture take.

“All I can tell you is it’s going to be a new normal. We’re going to have to adjust. And what that looks like is probably going to be something different than what we know now. I think we’re all prepared and ready for it.

“I don’t think we know all the implications of what it is that football looks like without fans and how that all works other than I know this: We’re preparing to play. I’m working on that every single day, and from my perspective we’re preparing as a staff that we’re going to have to make adjustments.

“And we know that when we do get the green light to go back, it’s not going to be, ‘OK everybody’s good. Don’t worry about this virus.’ We’re going to have to take some precautions and do some things differently.”

Notre Dame’s ability to quickly pivot to doing things differently already has been impressive. The snapshot of what that looks like already has changed significantly in some areas since Kelly appeared on WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat radio show just last week.

For one, the coaching staff has started to implement actual football meetings into the daily routine, when before the football piece was purely about conditioning.

We also now know May 15 is a significant day on the calendar. That’s the day Notre Dame provost Tom Burish has designated when a decision is likely to be made about the second session of summer school.

Notre Dame already had committed to the first session being online, which means three impact freshmen — running back Chris Tyree, wide receiver Jordan Johnson and tight end Jordan Johnson — will start their academic pursuits there in mid-June and won’t get in sync with their teammates in person until at least July, it appears.

The same holds true for six other members of the freshman class who were expected to arrive on campus in June to enroll for the first time — offensive tackles Tosh Baker and Michael Carmody, tight end Kevin Bauman, defensive lineman Aidan Keanaaina, cornerback Clarence Lewis and long snapper Alex Peitsch.

Because those nine already have access to the workouts the eight early-enrolled freshmen and ND’s veteran players are doing now, they could conceivably be on equal footing when the team finally does convene.

Kelly is not taking for granted that the May 15 date could yield some unexpected good news, either, should progress on the COVID-19 front accelerate faster-than-current projections.

That’s why he has scheduled a big recruiting weekend for June, just in case.

“We’re going to look at what the NCAA is saying about no on-campus (visits) until May 31,” Kelly said. “We will obviously certainly abide by those, but we want to leave open the opportunity for June and July if the NCAA does in fact come back and say that is an open opportunity.

“Our university has made it clear that there’s no in-person classes until July 6. So that’s why this May 15 date will be an opportunity to discuss further whether there will be any exceptions to this. I haven’t been given any assurances that that will happen. It’s just the opportunity to have that discussion as we move forward.”

Already Kelly has shifted the model of what a player development will look like when the Irish are cleared for team activities.

Cardiovascular health, usually a given, moves to the top of the priority list.

“We’ve got to be careful not to push too fast to stay away from soft tissue injuries or we get into stress fracture issues and things of that nature,” Kelly added. “All of a sudden, when everybody’s allowed to go out and play, everybody wants to get at it right away.

“Everybody’s got to be very patient. We’ve got to be very smart. We’ve got to do this thing the right way and not forget that this is a team game. And really do a good job of building your team, first and foremost, and then not rushing at this where you put some guys in harm’s way.”

At one point during Wednesday's catch-up with the media, Kelly was asked to describe a typical day for him during the coronavirus outbreak. He obliged, but there’s a good chance the answer will have a short shelf life.

And that’s a good thing. In a world with suddenly a shortage of absolutes, being ready for changes — including good ones — gives the 2020 Irish a welcome edge.

“I think that’s probably the biggest thing — we’re an adaptable creature in a sense that we can find ways to get through the most difficult times,” Kelly said. “As long as we are disciplined and we stay on this course, we’re going to get through this and we’re going to learn from it.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be the same from it, but the adaptability and the ability to now do some things that we were never asked to do before is going to make us stronger because of it.”

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly meets with the media Wednesday during a Zoom conference call.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads the team out before the start of the season opener against Louisville, Sept. 2, at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Ky.
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly meets with the media Wednesday during a Zoom conference call.