Brian Kelly weighs in on the lingering unknowns heading into Notre Dame's 2020 season
SOUTH BEND — The biggest “if” that Brian Kelly is confronted with is no longer whether there will be a college football season, but whether it will actually play out the way it is currently scheduled.
A day after the Notre Dame players began returning to campus in waves and quarantining at the Morris Inn, the Irish 11th-year head football coach met with the media (via Zoom) to reveal more details about what the first season of ND football in 102 years to be staged during a pandemic is beginning to look like.
The absolutes revealed last week are that ND will test all players and staff for COVID-19, both diagnostic and antibody tests, beginning Monday through June 19. Online summer school classes also start Monday, and voluntary workouts are set to begin June 22.
Social change nationwide and the formation of a team unity council closer to home, to advance the conversation of racial equality, is a big part of the big picture and something to be explored in more depth in the coming days and weeks.
For now, here are the most significant football developments and issues at ND beyond Kelly’s vision for creating profound and lasting change off the field:
The biggest remaining unknowns about the Irish 12-game regular-season schedule encompass the two games against Pac-12 teams (Oct. 10 at home against Stanford and Nov. 28 at USC), and three neutral-site games slated to take place in NFL Stadiums.
Those games are a Sept. 26 against Wake Forest at the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.; technically an ND home game Oct. 3 against Wisconsin at the Packers’ Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., and a Nov. 14 matchup against Georgia Tech at the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Pac-12 teams are still toying with a conference-only schedule and variations beyond that in an effort to minimize COVID-19 concerns. The league hasn’t committed to that yet or the original schedules, for that matter. Same with the Big Ten, which could affect the Wisconsin game on a couple of fronts.
“We’re waiting for some further clarification on those things,” Kelly said, “but we’ve got some backup plans as well.”
The possible move out of the NFL stadiums isn’t so much a safety issue as it was in the decision to move the season opener with Navy from Dublin, Ireland, to Annapolis, Md. Economics may drive the NFL stadium outcomes.
And in a season when so many other sports are counting on maxing out football revenue at their respective schools way more than usual, it would be fiscally irresponsible not to explore on-campus options.
“The NFL is talking about capping attendance at stadiums,” Kelly said, “so questions come up like: Does it make sense to go to an NFL stadium that seats 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 and have 25,000 or 30,000 in it? And impact the gate to a level where you can’t afford to be there, because it becomes a losing proposition?
“Those are things that have to be worked out. We’ve got a couple of months, but I think these are the things that people should keep an eye on that still need to be massaged.”
Virtual recruiting continues
When given the chance, Kelly passed Tuesday on lamenting how much the canceling of on-campus recruiting visits since March have eroded some momentum in building his 2021 recruiting class.
The reality is the on-campus visit to Notre Dame is typically the school’s trump card in a given cycle, so the Irish coaches have invested in upping their game on virtual campus tours.
The NCAA has extended the ban of on-campus recruiting through at least the end of July, and Kelly and his staff are preparing for that to continue well beyond that date.
“We seem to think that with all the precautions that are being taken relative to your own campus, relative to testing, how is it you can fly in a family that hasn’t been tested,” Kelly said, “put them up on your campus, in your hotels, and let them walk around campus freely?
“I just think it’s going to be hard to navigate through this in the fall. There’s still work to be done. I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly. If it does happen, we’ll be excited about it, but we’ll be very cautious and we’ll have to ask a lot of questions.
“We’re operating as if you will not visit this campus this recruiting season, and we’ll have to take our campus to you.”
The power of positive (test) thinking
During the early phases of the ND players’ return to campus, Irish team meetings will stay in the Zoom conference call realm before eventually moving to the more conventional in-person format.
Players and staff will undergo COVID-19 testing every time ND moves into a different phase of its preseason prep, with each phase allowing larger groups and more freedom. Testing during the season will happen once a week.
The school has not yet finalized its policy when it comes to revealing positive tests.
If there is an outbreak, beyond an isolated positive or two, the Irish are prepared to pivot back to virtual meetings. Equally as important, though, was examining a plan if Kelly or his assistants tested positive.
“The first thing we tried to make certain that we all were aware of was make sure you have a replacement, because what happens when you go down?” Kelly said.
“What happens if (offensive coordinator) Tommy Rees gets sick? Where do we go? And for that matter, what happens if I go down for two to three weeks? Where are we going?
“The mandate was, ‘Let’s not be in silos when it comes to information. Let’s share information so everybody clearly knows what path we want to take with regard to everything that we’re doing.’”
Weighing in on new additions
Recently added grad transfers Trevor Speights and Nick McCloud will start online summer school with their new teammates next week and then jump into voluntary workouts on campus shortly thereafter.
Both Speights, a 5-foot-11, 203-pound running back from Stanford, and McCloud, a 6-1, 190-pound cornerback from NC State are expected to be much more than roster insurance and instead challenge for significant playing time.
“We wanted maturity, player maturity as well as veteran maturity,” Kelly said of the decision to add two more grad transfers this spring. “These guys are guys that we did our research on.
“In talking to coaches, they’re well-respected in their locker rooms by their teammates. So we’re inserting guys into a strong culture, a winning culture, that we don’t have to be concerned with.
“Secondly, they’ve got a pedigree. Although we know Trevor has been banged up, we feel very confident, after sharing medical information with our team, that with a clean bill of health he is going to be a really fine football player for us.
“So we feel like we’ve added both ends — maturity in the locker room and guys that can play at those positions of need at a high level. They were ‘need’ positions for us, and we addressed them.”
The Irish earlier added grad transfer wide receiver Ben Skowronek from Northwestern and safety Isaiah Pryor from Ohio State, both of whom enrolled at ND in January.
Wait and see and wait some more
The NCAA on Thursday is expected to reveal a uniform six-week window for all FBS teams for team-required conditioning, film study walkthroughs and training camp.
If the reported first draft turns out to be the final one, Notre Dame won’t move into its camp phase until Aug. 7 or Aug. 8.
The earliest Kelly will be able to glean answers about his team that he normally has a feel for in the spring will be weeks after that, since 14 of ND’s 15 spring practices were canceled because of the pandemic.
Kelly said he will use the two-week period before training camp to do the schematic/play installs the Irish missed out on in the spring.
“There won’t be an opportunity to see the (players’) skills on display,” he said. “You’re going to have to get into football-related activities and movement. We’ll be a few weeks into camp before we’re really able to make those football-impact kind of decisions.”
Because of the reconfigured runway to the season and truncated spring, Kelly anticipates starting the season with a smaller version of the ND playbook. But not for long.
“I want everybody to be prepared that there will be more to come after week 1,” he said.