Notebook: Notre Dame starts to refocus on football after adjusting to off-campus structure

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Before Brian Kelly felt comfortable asking his players to dive back into football-specific meetings, the Notre Dame head coach created a list of priorities to accomplish.

First, he wanted to make sure all his players were healthy and safe after Notre Dame’s campus started shutting down in mid-March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Secondly, he wanted to help guide their transition to online classes. Then came plans to coordinate strength and conditioning programs and offer nutritional guidance.

With that structure put in place over the last few weeks, Kelly recently gave the green light for assistant coaches to start leading virtual position meetings with their players.

“We’ve had some installation as if it was spring practice,” Kelly said Wednesday in a video press conference on Zoom in which reporters could submit questions for him to answer. “We’ve added to our playbook through these meetings. We’re using video. We’re using some of the technology that Zoom has where we can have some handouts. We’ve started those up and are making some pretty good progress.”

Days are long for Kelly as he works through his own technological shortcomings and tries to keep tabs on all parts of the Notre Dame football machine. Wednesday included an update from director of football operations Olivia Mitchell on the program’s tentative summer camp plans, an account from head football equipment manager Chris Bacsik on the gear he’s been sending to the team and a report from head football trainer Rob Hunt on the rehab process of several players.

Then Kelly makes time to speak with his coaching staff and communicate with recruits and their parents. The constant updates have become a daily routine.

Kelly has chosen to operate as if college football will return as planned later this year — because there’s no other way to keep his team prepared through the uncertainty — while understanding that many of the decisions required for football to resume will happen above his pay grade.

To keep everything moving in the right direction, Kelly can lean on the program’s sizable support staff. Director of football performance Matt Balis put together a portal for players to keep up with their workouts. Director of sports nutrition Kari Oliver can determine which players are in need of good meals. Everything that typically happens in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex is now taking place across the country.

For as much technology is involved with the operation, a lot of it comes down to relying on student-athletes to keep themselves motivated and healthy. It’s almost as if Kelly is back coaching at Grand Valley State in the ‘90s when all the players weren’t together year-round on campus and they had to get on the phone to keep in touch.

“I know that our players — in particular those that are in their last season of competition — are certainly anxious and want this to be the best season that they’ve ever had at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “They want it to be a championship season. So we’re getting a lot of calls, a lot of inquiries, and we’re there for them. No doubt, this is a bit old school from that perspective.”

Notre Dame’s offseason workout program already provided a structure for teammates to motivate each other. The roster is split into groups — called SWAT teams — with leaders to hold them accountable.

That responsibility has been extended to the current circumstances. Kelly was scheduled to meet with the SWAT team captains Wednesday evening.

“We don’t want them to have to feel like every time they make a call to one of their SWAT team members, it’s a negative situation,” Kelly said. “We want it to be a positive, a program builder as well. It’s just that fine balance of making sure they keep the players on their team to the standard but also rewarding them.’’

The 12 SWAT team captains are quarterback Ian Book, offensive linemen Robert Hainsey, Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer, defensive linemen Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Daelin Hayes, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, tight end Brock Wright, linebacker Drew White, cornerback Shaun Crawford and running back Mick Assaf.

NFL Draft prep

Notre Dame’s Pro Day was supposed to be last week.

With its cancellation, several former Notre Dame football players lost a chance to impress NFL personnel on campus through workouts and meetings. Some of the players have recorded their own private workouts to help promote themselves. Kelly’s trying to help them as well.

“Part of my day is talking to GMs, assistant GMs, head coaches,” Kelly said.

Kelly estimated that six players will likely be drafted, but he believes there are another six who can play in the NFL and deserve a chance in a camp.

“It’s just really promoting them and really talking about their assets and their ability to play at the next level,” Kelly said.

Notre Dame has taken an extra measure to share with NFL teams some of its internal GPS data it records to track a player’s fitness level and ability. The NFL Draft remains scheduled for April 23-25.

“We’re trying to help and assist in any way we can with all of those players that are eligible to move into the NFL Draft.”

Extra points

• Though Notre Dame’s graduating seniors won’t be able to gather on campus for a commencement ceremony this year, Kelly said he’s working with Fighting Irish Media to put together a video dedicated to the graduating class.

“We’re going to make sure it is a special moment for all those who were going to walk,” Kelly said. “That’s an empty spot for them right now. A lot of our players that I’ve talked to are feeling that effect — that they’re not going to be able to have that special moment.

“Look, it’s hard at Notre Dame. Those guys have worked so hard in the classroom, on the field, have given up so much. To not have that great moment, that crescendo moment of walking across that stage, it’s a pretty empty feeling.”

Notre Dame announced last week that the university will be hold an online commencement May 17 with plans to celebrate the 2020 class on campus next year.

• The position battles that could have provided clarity this spring will have to wait until Notre Dame resumes practices on campus. Kelly is confident that his staff will be able to work through that in a smaller time frame when given the chance.

“All the teams that are going to be on our schedule will have the similar question. So there’s no competitive disadvantage from that standpoint. But everybody will have the same challenges of kind of going through preseason camp trying to make those kinds of decisions that they wish they would have had earlier.

“But if that’s the worst that we have — that means we’re back playing football, we’re back evaluating — we’ll be able to manage that.”

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book is one of eight SWAT team captains helping the Irish navigate offseason workouts from home.