Chat Transcript: Talking running backs, COVID contingencies, O-line concerns, recruiting

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat for mid-June. The Irish players have begun to return to campus and will then quarantine before being tested for COVID-19 next week. Voluntary summer workouts are set to begin June 22.

But you have questions now, and we'll get to them, but first: Please remember to include your name and hometown with your question(s). Eric Hansen: You know the rules: No fighting, drinking, gambling, spitting or bare feet. No 17-part questions. NO MANIFESTOS.

Off we go.

Dave from Alpha, N.J.: Hi Eric. I hope you’re safe and sound. In addressing both the running back and wide receiver positions, I think the Irish will be best suited if Jafar Armstrong moves to the slot. I truly believe he would be a matchup nightmare in the open field, one on one.This would also save him from the constant pounding of being a running back due to his series of nagging injuries. I also believe we have enough young running backs to distribute the ball for an effective ground game. Do you think this possible switch will be addressed?

Eric Hansen: Dave, thanks for the question and the nice sentiments. Safe and sound here. I would not move Jafar, and I don't think the coaching staff will either for a variety of reasons:

1) Despite the injuries, he'll start camp as ND's No. 1 option at running back. And because of the reconfigured offseason schedule, there won't be as much time/opportunity to stage a more open competition. I still think he would prevail — if healthy.

2) Armstrong can still line up in the slot or on the outside as a receiver AS A RUNNING BACK. He gives you playbook and schematic flexibility.

3) I don't think his injuries have necessarily come from being a running back vs. being a wide receiver. Certainly the abdominal tear was a freaky injury.

4) He would be the No. 2 option at best in the slot, behind Lawrence Keys III and possibly behind Avery Davis as well.

Frank from St. Louis: Any reason to worry that USC and Stanford may not play us this year?

Eric Hansen: Even though the Pac-12 has expressed its desire to play non-conference teams, I don't think the full commitment is there. And some of the Pac-12 states are the areas where there are some significant COVID-19 outbreaks currently. Remember, a lot can change (especially for the better) between now and football season. There, for instance, could be effective therapeutics available. Wisconsin is another game that could either be replaced or moved to South Bend. I wrote about some of the schedule uncertainty last week.

Tom from Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eric, appreciate all the work you put in to keep us informed. Pick your poison or answer both if you choose! Which position group has the most to prove headed into the season? O-line with everyone back or DBs with a sixth-year, two transfers and the sophomore stud? ... OR with all the rule changes that have occurred over the years with the kicking game — immediate release on punts and kickoffs moved up — will the impact of special teams continue to dwindle in college football?

Eric Hansen: Thank you. From your options, I would pick defensive backs, though Kyle Hamilton can make up for a lot of growing pains. If I could write in a candidate, I would pick running backs. ... To your special teams question, I think kickoff is the only area I see the importance being minimized.

Steve from Las Vegas, Nev.: If during the season Brian Kelly tests positive for COVID-19, who would be the temporary head coach? Who would fill in if Tommy Rees or Clark Lea tested positive?

Eric Hansen: Now this is me speculating, Brian Kelly didn't go into detail when he chatted with us the other day. As long as you weren't missing all three at the same time, I would say Mike Elston for head coach, Mike Elston for defensive coordinator, and a collaboration at offensive coordinator with Kelly calling plays.

Bob "IrishMcCarthy" from Pennsylvania: Hi Eric. Love your work, and it’s much appreciated. My question is with offensive line coach Jeff Quinn after losing out on most of their top O-line recruits and the criticism he’s taken the last couple years of his coaching and again recruiting problems that this could be his last if they don’t preform like a top five line in the country and raise his stock as a great O-line coach? Or does Brian Kelly keep him and maybe help him with recruiting somehow?

Eric Hansen: Bob, thank you. I don't entirely agree with your premise. He closed on Jarrett Patterson late in the 2018 cycle after Quinn's promotion. He brought in a strong five-man class, highlighted by top 70 overall prospect Quinn Carroll, in 2019. In 2020, he signed two top 250 players with big upsides, in Tosh Baker and Michael Carmody. And the anchor in this 2021 class is Blake Fisher, who at No. 22 on Rivals would be the highest-ranked O-lineman to sign with the Irish since Sam Young (11) in 2006. Two other top 100 linemen are still in play this cycle, with many believing Rocco Spindler (No. 56) will end up in this class. Have there been disappointments in this cycle? Yep, but the weird curveball of not being able to stage on-campus visits has hurt ND overall across the board. Having said all that, I do think it's important for ND's offensive line, with five starters back, to play like a Joe Moore Award finalist in 2020. I don't think it's make or break for Quinn in 2020, but I think it sets the table for momentum one way or another.

Ryan from Atlanta: Hi Eric, first time poster, longtime admirer. You have covered Ohio State and Notre Dame. How can Notre Dame start winning battles in the recruiting world against the Buckeyes? Do you see ND making a play to bring back Kerry Cooks?

Eric Hansen: Ryan, thank you. I actually didn't cover THE Ohio State University. I only went to school there and learned to out the word "the" in seemingly unnecessary places. I am familiar with the program enough to answer your question. I think there are some things along those lines ND has already put into place to build its own recruiting momentum — getting Kelly more involved earlier at key junctures and evaluating and getting offers out earlier — to name a couple. I think getting back to the College Football Playoff would help. This is an oversimplified version of what should be a story we/I do once COVID-19 isn't such a factor in recruiting. ... And Kerry Cooks is back as a defensive analyst.

Paul from Fort Worth, Texas: It appears to me the virus has a disproportionate disadvantage to the Irish, given coaches are often asking players to come much farther from where they grew up than other colleges. The inability to have recruits on campus and sell all the school has to offer is really hurting. I can clearly see why many are opting for good options closer to home, despite what I view as a great opportunity in coming to Notre Dame. As a result, I feel the job being done by the staff this year is greatly underappreciated. In your opinion, am I looking at this correctly or am I off-base?

Eric Hansen: I think your view is realistic and spot on, yet I know Notre Dame wants to up its game with virtual recruiting. There is a nationwide trend in this cycle for a lot of kids wanting to stay closer to home, which is one reason why USC's recruiting has surged.

Sean from Greensboro, N.C.: Just waiting out the pandemic and eating the world’s best BBQ and hush puppies. With respect, are we ever going to get the inside story on what happened at last year’s Michigan game fiasco? Or is that story just an urban legend?

Eric Hansen: Sean, this comes up in EVERY CHAT. I am sorry that I haven't written it and even sorrier that I promised it. This is going to be the last time I address it until it's done. I did not foresee a global pandemic coming and limiting my access to in-person conversations that would help me put together a fair and thorough story. It needs, above all, to have Brian Kelly's thoughts in it. As much as you'd love to read it and I'd like to write it, it's not my top priority at the moment. A few weeks ago, we didn't even know if we'd have a 2020 season. My priority now is reporting how the season will happen and what things might look like in the weeks ahead. Rest assured, I have been gathering info along the way re Michigan. Thank you for your patience.

Dave from Granger, Ind.: Hello Eric. I feel like saying, "I miss you!" Your absence from WSBT Weekday SportsBeat is killing me. Please tell me this is just an early vacation for you or a temporary change while the show is being done remotely. The other guys are great, but you set the bar pretty high in the Notre Dame coverage world! Now to my question ... the staff seems to be getting pretty aggressive in pursuing grad transfers, and I am 100 percent on board with the effort. But do you worry at all that it may be sending a negative message to the freshmen and sophomores in those particular positions? Is there any concern of how this might affect morale or team culture? Could this approach be a detriment to their development?

Eric Hansen: Dave, thanks for your kindness and concern. I've kind of tiptoed around (or even avoided) the SportsBeat question in this chat, because I want to be respectful to the station, its economic reality and the tough decisions that came with that. I have answered individual emails about it, but the flow of them is growing weekly, and so to answer in this forum may be best. I was told in late March that sagging ad revenue beyond the SportsBeat show itself, caused by the pandemic, prompted some difficult decisions. I was told the hope/goal would be to bring me back when those conditions improved. I am going to trust those words. ... As far as the grad transfer question, I don't think it sends that distressing message. Younger players still have the opportunity to beat out grad transfers, and they have done so at times in the past. I like the dynamic.

Nick from Barrington, Ill.: Play the games and fill the stands! All attendees must wear a mask at all times within the stadium (campus) environs, especially during the game; also wear a hood in the stadium for protection from the rear. Do you think this has any chance of flying? Thanks for all the chatting.

Eric Hansen: Nick, unless there is a change in therapeutics and/or vaccines, I don't see this happening in 2020. Now, the world is changing every day on this front, but I wouldn't plan on a full stadium this year at Notre Dame or any other college campus.

Tom from Georgia: Do you believe the virus protocols are pretty much out of Kelly's hands and he will basically salute smartly and carry on? I'm sure there has been some collaboration as there is with academic standards, for example. But, I think this is one area where an ND football coach really does have to answer to the higher-ups regardless any misgivings he may have.

Eric Hansen: I think he and the administration are rightly leaning heavily on the expertise of medical/science professionals. I don't sense he feels that there's any better path.

Mike from Quakertown, Pa.: Hello, I hope all is well with you and your family. I enjoyed reading your article based on coach Kelly's virtual presser. Kelly mentioned that he did not think Notre Dame was affected more or less than other schools due to the lack of in person recruiting visits. On that topic, Do you think Notre Dame would benefit from a more regional approach to recruiting instead of a national approach? Should they try to fortify the Midwest and the immediate area instead of taking swings at states like Texas and Florida and missing on top-level recruits? I know they have made inroads in Georgia, but missing out on a top recruit like Will Shipley, when he stayed close to home, also illustrates the importance of having strong regional ties. I know this whole situation was impossible to predict, but close ties with regional recruits makes it easier for people to get on campus more regularly under normal circumstances, which would make it easier in unforeseen situations, because the recruit has already been on campus. Thanks!

Eric Hansen: Mike, thank you. I think 2020 will go down as an outlier recruiting cycle nationally, not just at Notre Dame. Analysts also feel there will be a record number of decommitments in this cycle on a national basis, so fasten your seat belt. I think recruiting regionally would be a terrible idea. Sorry. Sixteen of the 22 players in the offensive two-deeps and 18 of 22 in the defensive two-deeps are from outside the Midwest.

Marie from Atlanta: Hi Eric, I hope you are doing well and thanks for having the chat. What do you think Trevor Speights will add to the running back core? His numbers at Stanford were not great. Is there some untapped potential there or is there an injury or potential transfer in the running back room, or is the coaching staff just not sold on what they currently have in the room? Since they are over the scholarship number, I was surprised they were so anxious to get him. Also with recruiting really taking a hit the past few months, it seems like it will be more important than ever this year to stay on prospects who have already committed elsewhere, with the hope there will be more decommits this year than usual. I get the sense that in past years this is something ND may not have done as well as other programs. What are you thoughts on this and the current recruiting slump? (with the exception of coach Mickens). As always thanks for your great insight. Stay safe.

Eric Hansen: Hi Marie, thanks for your questions. Let's unpack Speights first. Current ND running backs coach Lance Taylor recruited him to Stanford, and injuries have played a part in him not realizing his potential there. He was a prolific back in high school in Texas. ND opted to go with Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh in that cycle. I think Taylor sees a guy who could be a lead back in a rotation, should Armstrong get injured or not perform up to expectations. ...

I think the coaching staff is doing exactly what you are projecting in this recruiting cycle and that is staying on recruits they think are not firmly committed who were high on their boards. ... I think we need to let this cycle play itself all the way out before we evaluate the class, but not having on-campus visits is definitely a bigger hurdle for Notre Dame than it is a lot of other places.

RK from Sartell, Minn.: Love your work, Eric. Stay safe! What’s the vibe on campus? Is this the group to get us to the top? Also, tell me we are going to land a big fish in recruiting soon ... please?

Eric Hansen: RK, thank you. For the first time since mid-March, there are actually people on campus to create a vibe, though still not very many. I maintain this has a CHANCE to be Brian Kelly's best team, and the pandemic hasn't changed that for the worse. As far as big fish, I think ND will land some, but not in the near future in this cycle. Then again, this has been the weirdest cycle ever, so who knows?

John from Glenview: Hi Eric! I really miss you on SportsBeat and hope you’re able to come back someday. It’s just not the same without you! That being said, a number of publications don’t see ND as a championship contender this year. You previously stated you thought this was a team that could compete for a championship. Do you still feel that way and how much, if at all, do you feel the pandemic affects their chances to win it? Also, what’s the one thing that must happen if we are able to win this year’s championship? Thanks and stay safe!

Eric Hansen: John, thanks for the support. I don't think I said "championship contender." If I did, I meant playoff contender. And there's a difference. Getting to the playoff and winning two games in the playoff are two very different things. I actually think the construction of ND's team — leadership, returning players, scheme consistency — gives it a boost during the pandemic. The ONE thing to win a title? Every little thing, every question mark, every if, must fall perfectly into place.

Ed from Duluth, Ga: Eric, if the Pac-12 plays a conference-only schedule, will Notre Dame add ACC teams to the schedule? Would you see them playing an all-ACC schedule under any circumstances in 2020. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Ed, I don't think it's possible to do that. You'd have to be able to pick opponents that have common available dates. I don't think an all-ACC schedule in 2020 is either possible or desirable.

Adam from Grand Rapids,Mich.: Hi Eric! Do you see Avery Davis making an impact in the slot this year? And just for fun, whats your prediction for Chris Tyree touchdowns this season?

Eric Hansen: I would never give up on Avery Davis, given his athletic ability and drive. I think he'll be in the wide receiver rotation, just not as a starter. I think no spring practice hurts a player like him, who's switching positions. Prediction for Tyree TDs, including returns? I'll go conservative and say three.

Joey from Westernport, Md,: What round do you think Ian Book will go in the NFL Draft?

Eric Hansen: It really depends a lot on how he plays this season, and even then I think there's a ceiling of maybe rounds 6-7 because of his size and arm strength.

ND Harvey from Philly, Pa.: E, Good morning, hope all is well. Do you see all games being played at ND Stadium this season during the day? Personally, not a big fan of night games. Thank you. Stay Safe. Go IRISH!!!!

Eric Hansen: Stanford and Clemson are the two home games scheduled for prime time. I'm not sure there's a compelling health reason to move either game.

Terence Connors from Rochelle Park, N.J.: Eric, thanks for taking these questions. What are your feelings about Jeff Quinn? Is he REALLY a good enough O-line coach AND recruiter to make a difference at ND. Or will coach Brian Kelly be looking to upgrade after this season? As we see at many of the other top programs, you need to do both very well. Also do you think Tommy Rees will prove to be a good hire? I feel that had Notre Dame been coming off an unsuccessful campaign. like 2016, coach Kelly Would have been “ forced” to go out and hire a Joe Moorhead. But, being that the year was reasonably successful, he fell back on promoting from within. Obviously, we don’t know at this point if this will be the right move, but what are your thoughts on this? Thanks again and Go Irish!

Eric Hansen: Hi Terence, thanks for your questions. I think this is a defining year for Jeff Quinn. As I mentioned earlier, not to the point where it's make or break, but it's going to push him in one direction of the other. I think Jeff has been in a tough position because of who he followed (Harry Hiestand) and because a lot of media thought he was a lousy/lazy hire. I think he's in a position this year to change the perception of himself. And with an offensive coordinator (Tommy Rees) who's in harmony with him, I like his chances much better than had Chip Long stayed. ... I do think Tommy Rees will prove out to be a good hire. It took me a while to arrive there, but that's where I'm putting my chips. And I don't think promoting from within is necessarily "falling back." Was it falling back when Clark Lea was promoted?

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Eric, It's always "Great" to chat with you again. Which backup QB will see more playing time and do you think that coach Brian Kelly may get them in the game for more than "clean-up" work?

Eric Hansen: Hi Ken. I think without spring practice and knowing what you already know about Brendon Clark, I think he's got to be the choice. I'm not sure having spring practice would have changed that, by the way. I don't see ND trying to force him into game action during high-leverage situations, but because of the threat of COVID taking out a player for two weeks, I could see clean-up work starting at an earlier juncture in the game than in years past.

Mike McFadden from South Williamsport, Pa.: I realize you do not substitute players into a game until you are sure the "win" is in the books. However, I always see coach Brian Kelly put in the backup QB for only the last one or two offensive series, and then he only has them hand off the ball for running plays — even on third and long. I know that runs the clock, but that is exactly the point. A dropped ball will stop the clock for maybe more offensive plays later. How does his process or thinking give any real valuable QB experience for later in the year or next year? Thanks Eric.

Eric Hansen: Mike, Brian Kelly is of the opinion that you play for THIS week and for THIS year. And there are times even your starting quarterback needs as many game reps as he can get. With the Irish having a third-year starter for the first time since Jimmy Clausen, there may not be that urgency this season.

Chuck Finkbiner from Westfield, Ind.: Good morning, Eric. Three questions: Why do we not incorporate Avery Davis in a pass option or the Wildcat? Will we have to wear face masks on campus and in the stadium on football weekends? Will ND have a band this year? Thanks so much for your great work. God bless you, my friend

Eric Hansen: Chuck, God Bless you. 1) They do not incorporate Avery Davis on the pass option or Wildcat on a regular basis, because Ian Book is a better passer and, at 4.9 yards per carry in 2019, he's a pretty good runner. 2) Yes, masks on campus and at the games. 3) Have no idea about the band. My sense is there would be, but I wouldn't think they'd travel.

Tom D. from Lansing, Mich.: Appreciate you taking my question, Eric, and hope your family is well. I'm concerned about recruiting. We seem to be spinning our wheels and settling for 3-star prospects recently. The gap can't be closed if we're signing 3- and 4-stars, while Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama are getting 4- and 5-stars. Plus, we seem to be losing to Michigan in head-to-heads and are struggling to hold onto our best commits. Talk me off the ledge, please! Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Tom, I would play less attention to the star rankings this cycle than in any other. There are very limited way to evaluate prospects because of the pandemic, especially in national/regional settings. I'd pay more attention to the offer list. The most recent Irish 3-star (Rivals) commit, Ryan Barnes of Maryland, had offers from LSU, Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Oregon, Penn State, and USC, among others. Does that sound like a 3-star prospect? Keep in mind Kyle Hamilton was a 3-star prospect when he received his Notre Dame offer two cycles ago. Two words, patience and perspective. There's a long way to go.

Lawrence from Denver: Is there any chance that Trevor Speights was just injured/overshadowed at Stanford, and next year he looks more like A) his high school self than B) his college self? Can you put a percentage chance in option A?

Eric Hansen: That's what Notre Dame is counting on. Option A.

Dillon Begley from Union, Mich.: Hello Eric, I am a newer subscriber to ND Insider. Loving the content so far. As a local and a student of the tri-campus community, being enrolled at Holy Cross College, I have some questions on your thoughts on attendance for home games. I read earlier that Jack Swarbick had hoped to have maybe one third of the stadium occupied or maybe less. He also said that he was prioritizing students and faculty and season ticket-holders first. Do you think that is still the case, if any fans will be allowed at all? I’m also wondering what the effect on student tickets would be specifically. I’m worried that being a Holy Cross student they may cut us off this year. Also, what about box seats and premium seating? Any word on that? Thank you

Eric Hansen: Dillon, thanks for those excellent questions. I am hoping to get with Jack Swarbrick next week if possible. I do believe students and faculty/staff are the No. 1 priority in the stadium. It's easiest to control that group, based on university protocols. There may be an easing-in of adding outside fans to that gradually during the season. I would imagine there are several models still in play. But consider this, several companies have antibody therapies in human trials already. If one of those eliminates the lethality of COVID-19 and is available in some capacity by September, as projected, the dynamic can change dramatically. That's a fancy way of saying I don't know and nobody knows. But I do plan to pursue a conversation with Jack Swarbrick to fill in some of the blanks.

Lawrence from Denver: Can I get a percentage probability of Trevor Speights version A? Or would you go over or under my 15% chance?

Eric Hansen: I don't have anything to base that percentage on until I see him play in pads at full speed in August. I'll be happy to do so then.

Dale from Placerville, Calif. Hi Eric. With Jafar Armstrong prone to injuries — and I think he at times runs tentatively — does C'Bo Flemister have a good chance of more carries? He runs hard, looks for contact. Also, watching old highlights during the pandemic, I love hearing the voice of Tony Roberts, great energy. Wash your hands and keep wearing a mask! Stay safe. Thanks for the chats.

Eric Hansen: Dale, C'Bo Flemister was surging at the end of last season. He had momentum going into the spring. I don't see him as a potential No. 1 back, but he has surprised me already. If Jafar isn't healthy, I'd say Trevor Speights has the inside track. And I do think Chris Tyree WILL be a factor in the running back rotation, just not as a starter.

Mike Karwoski from Parts Unknown: If they sell a reduced number of seats, how will they enforce social distancing at Notre Dame Stadium? Not only in the seating areas, but also when people crowd together to enter the stadium, go to concession stands and bathrooms, and finally when leaving the stadium?

Eric Hansen: Mike, I know there have been lots of discussions along those lines. I hope to have more details soon. I have read about models at other schools, where, for instance, you dismiss the crowd one section at a time after the game.

Tom from Georgia: I believe all schools can not touch any player who decides to not show up during this voluntary period. Come July 8, this might change, but I do not know. Do you believe there is any circumstance where ND would not honor a scholarship for any varsity athlete who decides the risks of sport are just too much? I would expect the NCAA to create limit exceptions, but who knows with that bunch?

Eric Hansen: Brian Kelly has said no one's scholarship would be pulled if they elected to skip the voluntary workouts. I think there will be compassion and understanding if there are concerns once the workouts are no longer mandatory, specifically, if an athlete has, let's say a risk factor such as diabetes or asthma.

GB from Wasilla, Alaska: I just want to ask about recruiting. In this interview with Tom Lemming, Lemming states that ND often does not offer early enough and that they should offer anyone they are interested in early, because many recruits get offended if they are not offered early. He also states that there are only about 16 or 17 schools that have a reasonable chance of being a national champion and that to do so is mainly because of recruiting. He said that Alabama already has over 100 offers out for next year, and that schools like Alabama, Clemson, OSU, Georgia and LSU has staffs as big as 10 people just for recruiting.

A recent ND blog [Irish Sports Daily] recently had an article about the teams that develop 3-star players. Some were surprising. like TCU, Michigan State, Boston College, Washington and Utah. The high ranking schools that "coach up" their players are LSU (the leader), Florida and OSU. What do you think ND needs to do to remedy these situations?

Eric Hansen: GB, I'm not sure when that Lemming interview was conducted and I didn't have time to listen to the whole thing without taking too much time away from the chat. What I do know is that Tom told me at the end of the 2020 cycle that this was Kelly's best recruiting staff ever and that he was impressed with how many offers were out to kids in the 2021 and 2022 classes at that juncture. I don't understand your question about the article you cited, nor am I familiar with that article. Can ND do better in recruiting? Absolutely. Is this cycling wonky and weird? Absolutely. Again this is better addressed in story form than in chat. ... And I don't want to overreact in the middle of a cycle.

Eric Hansen: That's going to do it for today. Thanks for all the great questions. I'll be back sometime later this month to do it all again.

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