Analysis: Notre Dame opens training camp in a swirl of uncertainty but with strong resolve

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame football finally gets to wade into a pool of normalcy Wednesday afternoon when it belatedly opens training camp.

But with no real national championship to play for, diluted All-America teams ahead on which to land, and an overrun transfer portal of promising players desperate to become new teammates and nowhere on the roster to stash them ...

And still the uncertainty of how long even that reality will perpetuate.

Head coach Brian Kelly was scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday evening in a post-practice setting, albeit via a Zoom call, for the first time since the Irish staged their one and only spring practice on March 5. Those plans were scratched Tuesday night.

The other 14 spring practices, including the annual Blue-Gold Game, were canceled. And Notre Dame football — college football, for that matter — has been one big hypothetical ever since, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The inconsistency of whether to dance with the virus at the Power 5 level of college football or defer to spring — or perhaps eventually not at all in the 2020-21 school year — played out painfully and enigmatically on Tuesday.

Notre Dame is a temporary-yet-full member of the Atlantic Coast Conference for its 2020 football season, still set to begin Sept. 12 at home against Duke. And Tuesday an infectious disease specialist from Duke, Dr. Cameron Wolfe, provided encouraging words for the near future of ACC football in his role as the league’s chairman of the conference’s medical advisory team.

His advice? Move forward.

“Can we safely have two teams meet on the field? I would say yes.” Wolfe told the Sports Business Daily. “Will it be tough? Yes. Will it be expensive and hard and lots of work? For sure.

“But I do believe you can sufficiently mitigate the risk of bringing COVID onto the football field or into the training room at a level that’s no different than living as a student on campus.”

Florida State president John Thrasher, in a roundtable Tuesday morning that included Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, took it a step further.

“Frankly, what we want to send is a message to some of the other schools that may be teetering on whether or not to play football,” he said. “We think it’s in the best interests of our student athletes.”

Hours later, first the Big Ten, then the Pac-12 eliminated fall sports in their respective conferences, based largely on the medical advice they’ve been given.

The #WeWantToPlay player movement, hastily but impressively organized late Sunday night by players from both of those conferences and most prominently Clemson All-America quarterback Trevor Lawrence from other leagues, created a wave of passion Monday that was quashed Tuesday in at least two Power 5 leagues.

The Big 12 met Tuesday night and decided it won't follow the Big Ten/Pac-12 lead and opt out at this time. Instead, those 10 teams will proceed with a later starting date, Sept. 26.

The SEC seems as resolute as the ACC to keep going. For now three Group of 5 leagues are still in play with them — the American Athletic Conference, the Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA.

The SEC and ACC, in fact, released statements within 10 minutes of each other, confirming their earlier sentiments, just about the time the Big 12 was to get started with its 6 p.m. EDT confab.

“The ACC will continue to make decisions based on medical advice, inclusive of our Medical Advisory Group, local and state health guidelines, and do so in a way that appropriately coincides with our universities’ academic missions.

“The safety of our students, staff and overall campus communities will always be our top priority, and we are pleased with the protocols being administered on our 15 campuses. We will continue to allow our process that has been in place for months and has served us well.

“We understand the need to stay flexible and be prepared to adjust as medical information and the landscape evolves.”

It’s against that backdrop, that swirl of inconsistency and ambiguity that makes it difficult for everyone — players, coaches, fans, media — to slip into pure football mode on a day when it deserves to be so.

The extent of wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.’s foot injury, the potential impact of a record four grad transfers, the progress of prodigies like Chris Tyree, Jordan Johnson and Michael Mayer, pass-rush concerns, and whether Kelly is still chippy about offensive line questions should carry the day — whenever he finally does connect with the media.

But it’s hard with such a scrambled big picture.

Will Notre Dame continue to march into history? Or into an eventual apocalyptic chapter for college football, and, in some ways, all of college sports given college football’s financial burden in those models?

In either case, the Irish are doing the right thing and what the players deserve.

They’re trying.

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams runs a drill during the team’s first and only spring football practice, March 5 at the Irish Indoor Athletics Center. The Irish kick off training camp on Wednesday.