Inside Notre Dame's plan to bring its football players back to campus
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s plan to bring its football players back to campus is layered, contingency-filled and convoluted.
But most significantly, it’s now a reality.
Football student-athletes and staff will begin traveling back to campus in a 10-day window that starts Monday, with the first of three phases of voluntary workouts slated to start on June 22. That includes nine scholarship freshmen who will be starting their academic and athletic endeavors at ND for the first time.
Those initial workouts are expected to be largely limited to weight training and running, in the first two weeks.
Class instruction, meanwhile, was moved to online only after the school’s mid-March spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And as previously announced, summer school will take place online, with the first day of class of the summer session set for June 15.
The last time the Irish were together as a team was March 5, the date of the first and only spring practice session of the 15 originally scheduled that didn’t end up being canceled.
In-person classes for fall semester will begin Aug. 10, two weeks earlier than originally scheduled.
The football players will live at the on-campus Morris Inn in single-occupancy rooms this summer until moving into their fall-semester residences. They’ll also have all their meals at the Morris Inn this summer.
This is a football-only plan. The plan for athletes to return in other sports will be formulated at a later date.
Testing, retesting, contact tracing, monitoring, quarantining, isolation when needed, and COVID-19 education are all part of the big picture. In fact, once student-athletes arrive, they’ll be quarantined for a length of time (0-7 days) to be determined by how they arrived on campus (car/plane, etc.) and where they came from.
Freshman defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger, who first enrolled in January, has the most complicated path back, as he’s been back in his native Germany for the past couple of months.
Initial testing for all student-athletes and staff will take place June 15-19. Both nasal swab (PCR) diagnostic tests (at the cost of $100 a pop) and antibody tests ($50) will be given. The turnaround time to get results is expected to be 48 hours.
“With as much as we know about this virus and the transmission of this virus, I think we’ve come up with a really good plan,” ND team physician Dr. Matt Leiszler said. “That being said, there’s an element of this that’s kind of like building an airplane as you fly it, in that we’re learning so much more really every week.
“Which in some ways is fantastic. We’re learning more about this virus and we can use it to help us to keep our players and our staff safe, but it’s a moving target at times.
“And so I think at this point, in a lot of conversations with institutions across the country, I think we’ve come up with a really good plan. But it’s going to change.
“I think everyone needs to be aware that what are best practices right now may be different come August or September, October. And we need to be willing to adapt, and that’s going to be the reality.”
Reality — as we’ve seen already at campuses that include Arkansas State, Oklahoma State and Marshall — is that positive tests are going to happen.
Notre Dame’s plan for those who test positive or present symptoms before a workout is to isolate the players at a private location, away from the Morris Inn. Contact tracing then kicks in as well when that happens.
“A big part of this is going to be responsibility to each other,” said Ron Powlus, ND’s associate athletic director who oversees football. “Responsibility to each other in the sense we want to keep each other healthy and safe. We want to minimize risk.
“We want to have the opportunity to have a great season, and that comes down to some social responsibility. And that’s going to be kind of an overarching theme to this for everybody involved, all of our student-athletes, all of our students, all of our employees. And that’s going to be very thematic, to make sure it’s a successful endeavor for everyone.”
The phases of bringing the team together are as follows:
• Phase 1: Group sizes of no more than 10 people; limited building occupancy.
• Phase 2: Group sizes of no more than 50 people; limited building occupancy.
• Phase 3: Group size unlimited.
Masks will be mandatory for everyone indoors, including while lifting weights, Leiszler said.
There are timetables penciled in for each phase, but Notre Dame won’t advance to the next phase until there’s “success” at a particular stage.
“Success for us is going to be not having clusters of outbreaks,” Leiszler said. “We want to make sure with each phase that our plan is working. And so we’re trying to minimize the close contacts if and when we have an illness. We want to make sure that the things we have in place are actually working.
“So that’s what we’re going to be looking at: That we’re not having clusters of outbreaks or worse. That’s what’s going to allow us to move into the next step.”
The NCAA Division I Council has not yet announced its intentions for what the window for required workouts/training camp might look like, but it’s expected to be roughly six weeks in length.
Powlus confirmed Notre Dame won’t be staging any camp sessions at Culver Military Academy this year as it has done in recent years.
Once Notre Dame is in camp mode, it will take the medical challenges to another level with contact and tackling in practice.
“That’s the million dollar question,” ND head trainer Rob Hunt said. “It’s the uniqueness of trying to manage this virus with a contact sport. And you have to be creative and adaptable.
“Our coaches are going to have to be creative in terms of the way they structure their practices and function within the practice. All this is trying to limit the amount of contact if you can in a contact sport.
“It’s certainly easier said than done. It’s going to be a challenge for all of us. And we’ll still work through kind of what that looks like and what we think will be the best way to protect our players.”
For now, it’s about getting players comfortable with just being away from home again and being in close proximity with other people on a daily basis.
“Their experience the past 12 weeks has been different for each one of them,” Hunt said of the pandemic. “So being able to meet them where they’re at with what their expectations are with our plan and accurately take care of them in a way that they feel safe.
“One kid’s experience from the rural Midwest may look very, very different from someone that’s from New Jersey. We have to be willing to understand that their beliefs and experiences have been different from ours.
“And how do we help them get through that? How do we help serve them? How do we calm their anxiety and fears or even how do we contain the ones who have no fear?
“Our plan is a great plan, but now how do we adapt that into a very, very wide range of experiences through our kids? We’re trying to get them to all believe and feel that they’re being very well taken care of.”