Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly embraces the details of pursuing football amid pandemic

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Even hydration requires micro-managing at Notre Dame football practices.

The Irish had a plan in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its first practice of the preseason Wednesday. Each player was assigned their own water bottle and it was stationed at a kiosk around the practice fields.

But after one practice, head coach Brian Kelly learned that players weren’t as good as hydrating themselves as the training staff was when it distributed water bottles pre-pandemic.

Between 15 and 17 players lost about three percent of their body weight during Wednesday’s practice, Kelly said. That was more than double the typical amount of players that lose significant water weight during a practice.

The staff has adjusted to make sure players are keeping hydrated as the Irish continued practice Thursday with helmets and Friday with shoulder pads for the first time.

“That’s a small thing,” Kelly said, “but it’s important to keep an eye on because you can’t continue to lose over three percent of your body weight in water weight because it’s going to start to affect you.”

Footballs were sprayed with disinfectant after most throws. Coaches wore masks as they barked out orders. Players were required to have a mask with them to wear whenever they took off their helmet.

There have been so many wrinkles added to the daily routine, that everything feels new to Kelly.

“I’ve been doing it for 30 years,” Kelly said. “I feel like a first-year head coach.

“Everything that I’m doing, I’m looking at some of the science that we have. I’m talking to our players at great length after practice to get a sense of where they are. Meeting with the staff, trying to get as much information as possible as we plan out what we’re doing.”

Daily planning requires rigidity and flexibility. Notre Dame can only have its locker room, which has lockers for 120 players, at 50 percent capacity at all times. Food service is being provided with non-contact methods.

And even though Notre Dame is currently less than a month away from its first scheduled game against Duke on Sept. 12, Kelly hasn’t committed to when his team will start tackling — something his players haven’t done since the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28, 2019.

“We have a schedule, but it’s so important right now and prudent to be extremely flexible in terms of what you’re doing,” Kelly said. “We’re on track. (Thursday) again we’re just in helmets. We did some pretty good things (Wednesday).

“(Director of football performance) coach (Matt) Balis did a really good job from a conditioning standpoint. The guys handled some high player loads.”

Kelly is confident the Irish will be able to handle football development while working through all the COVID-19 precautions.

“There are many more challenges than whether we’re going to be executing a scoop block on a three technique and whether we can run the right coverages in certain situations,” Kelly said. “We’re going to get to that and we’re going to be OK there.

“It’s managing all these other things that can be taxing and consuming and require such a great attention to detail from our players. They have been unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. How taxing does this become over the long haul?

“That’s why it’s so important that we do so many things to lighten their load in a very difficult situation. We’re challenged in all those other areas — less about the blocking and tackling, though we’ve been away from it a long time — and more about all these other challenges.”

The football team navigated its summer workouts without any major virus outbreaks. Only two players tested positive in June and July and both recovered to return to team activities. The latest hiccup came Wednesday before the first practice when the program announced two more players tested positive Monday and seven others were quarantined as a result of contact tracing.

Questions about contact tracing were submitted to Notre Dame’s athletic communications staff to ask Kelly during a 27-minute press conference on Zoom, but those questions were withheld to be addressed by sources other than Kelly at a future date.

There are logistics still to be explained as Notre Dame moves forward with its football season. Will entire position groups need to be quarantined if one player at that position tests positive? Can practices be organized to mitigate contact tracing? Have players been given the option to live outside of the residence halls despite the current three-year requirement for all students? Is it better for teammates to live together or apart?

The protocol Notre Dame put in place when the football players were housed at the Morris Inn this summer seemed to work. But whatever structure is put in place, it only works if the players, staff and students around them remain committed to preventing coronavirus spread.

Of the 619 COVID-19 tests administered to Notre Dame football players and staff, only four have produced positive results.

It’s an encouraging start, but it’s only a start. Certainly a football coach knows the importance of maintaining the same intensity through the end.

“You’re not going to go through a pandemic without having positive tests,” Kelly said. “We’re going to continue to be transparent. We’re going to have our good days and we’re going to have our bad days.

“We’ve been vigilant when it comes to education. We have an informed student body. We have one that understands that their behavior will dictate in a large degree how positivity rates go up and down.

“Many are concerned about what it’s going to be like when campus gets going. This is really about practicing good habits. If you do that, you have a good chance of being successful in a very difficult time. Notre Dame, so far, has understood that.

We saw this, right, when we flattened the curve as a country. And then we got all giddy and thought we had it licked. This is something that you have to do for a long time. This is hard. This is where you have to really show some grit and stick with it day in and day out or it’s going to jump up and really get to you. We’ve seen that nationally.

“Good start, long way to go. Both for our football team and for our campus. We have to stay vigilant.”

Head coach Brian Kelly wore a mask at Notre Dame football’s first preseason practice Wednesday. All Irish coaches are required to wear masks at practice.