Chat Transcript: Talking team dynamics, recruiting and whether to play on or not

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat. We're roughly three weeks away from ND's scheduled season opener, Sept. 12, with Duke. A reminder to please include your name and hometown along with your question.

Eric Hansen: Let's dive right in.

Jeremy from Goshen: I know Tommy Rees says he wants to run the ball more. What changes/adjustments do you expect to see on offense this year?

Eric Hansen: Jeremy, Tommy does want to run the ball more and MORE EFFECTIVELY. He should have the offensive line to do that. We'll see how the running backs and Ian Book fit into that ambition. My sense is that we will see an improved running team, but a balanced offense. I think Rees will do a good job of basing his game plans on his personnel and not try to force his personnel into his game plans. I think you'll see a wide variety of formations and personnel groups. Beyond that, there will be a lot of familiarity to what ND has been running the past few years. Given the pandemic, almost no spring ball and training camp disruptions, there's a beauty in keeping things fairly simple.

Kevin Conn from Stanley, N.C.: Do you really think we are going to have a football season? I have front-row tickets to the Wake Forest game in Charlotte. Do you think there will be fans in the stands? Thank you, and as always GO IRISH.

Eric Hansen: Kevin, the most honest answer continues to be "I don't know." There's no precedent from which to draw. What I can say is the 76 FBS schools still marching forward have cleared some difficult hurdles. They are at a critical juncture, though, in their push to get to the starting line — the reintroduction of students on campus. That is proving to be problematic, including at Notre Dame. If they can navigate through that successfully, I think the season starts. What happens when teams start playing and traveling is another matter. Look, they're playing contact sports in other countries — Australian Rules Football in Australia and rugby in New Zealand, to name a couple — but the infection rate in those countries is so much lower than in the USA. The plan in Charlotte is to have some fans in the stands for the Wake Forest game. Otherwise, it makes more sense to play that game on campus in Winston-Salem. If there are outbreaks in North Carolina, that circumstance could change.

John from Walled Lake, Mich.: Hi, what are the chances Notre Dame gets Jayden Thomas or Dont'e Thornton? Also is David Abiara 100% going to decommit?

Eric Hansen: Hi John. I talked to our recruiting guy, Carter Karels, the other day. Since he follows this more closely, these are his thoughts: Good chance on Thomas, still in the running with Thornton (though ND is nowhere near the favorite), and Abiara still likely to end up at Oklahoma if that school continues to make a push for him.

Jack from Strongsville, Ohio: Hi Eric. Do you think without the ACC alignment — which became vitally important after the Big 10 and Pac-12 canceled their seasons — and ND needing to fill out the schedule, Notre Dame as an independent would have and may still need to cancel their season? Second, has there been any announcement of the anticipated capacity of Notre Dame Stadium for the home games? You are the best source for ND football news. Thanks for the outstanding work. Hope to hear you soon again on Sportsbeat!

Eric Hansen: Jack, thanks for the kind words. I think Notre Dame would have been able to fill around its original six ACC games with four or five other opponents and played through as an independent. I do think the ACC commitment of 10 league games is a better move in 2020, given the circumstances and knowing each week you, theoretically, are playing an opponent with the same high standards and protocol regarding COVID-19. I believe Notre Dame would have released its designs for stadium capacity and gameday experience this week had there not been the massive hiccup regarding a surge in COVID cases in the regular student population and moving classroom instruction to remote learning. Then came the pause in football practice. So if things clear up next week, the timing would be better (assuming everything moves forward) to look at making that announcement next week.

Mike from Rochester, N.Y.: Eric, I hope you and your family are well in these challenging times. In one of your articles this week, I believe you said grad transfer Nick McCloud was not necessarily a plug-and-play cornerback. I was kind of surprised by that. Is he an insurance policy in case the younger guys don’t develop as expected? Or is he penciled in as the starter but there’s plenty of competition that could push him back? I thought when they accepted him. they saw him as a starter who could buy the coaching staff time while they developed the younger players.

Eric Hansen: Mike, thanks, and that's an astute observation on your part. McCloud has the size, experience and intelligence to be an integral part of ND's cornerback corps. The vibe I got from Brian Kelly was that NC State doesn't have the high standards in the weight room, etc., that ND does. And so McCloud needs to meet that high standard, including work ethic, to push for a larger role. So the potential for him to be in the mix is there, but apparently it's very much on him to get there.

Chuck from Westfield, Ind.: Good morning. Did the young man who was in Germany return to campus?

Eric Hansen: Yes, and I hope to do something on Alexander Ehrensberger's travel saga at some point, but the freshman defensive end from Germany finally did make it back and has been participating in training camp.

James from Columbus: Hi Eric. Running back looks to be somewhat of a question. Do you think the offensive line can dominate to a level that will elevate the tailbacks' play? I'm thinking along the lines of Josh Adams and "33 trucking" gang. Thanks for the chats. It helps restore a bit of normalcy.

Eric Hansen: James, I wrote about this recently. So if you want more depth to this answer, this link would be a great place to start.

Defining season awaits Jeff Quinn and Notre Dame's offensive line as camp kicks off

I do think the line will be a much better run-blocking team, in part because they have the talent to do so, in part because Tommy Rees will demand/coax that out of them, and in part because the chemistry between the offensive coaches will be better.

Jeff from Schererville, Ind.: Since I've asked about this year's ND Insider Football Preview in previous chats, I want to write this time to compliment you, Carter, Tyler, Tom and anyone else who had a hand in producing this year's issue. The only things different about this year's preview are the shape (newspaper vs. magazine) and the circumstances. Everything else is the same type of in-depth, high-quality journalism that we've come to expect from the ND Insider staff over the years, including the all-2000s team, which was a fun walk down memory lane. Keep up your good work and stay healthy!

Eric Hansen: Jeff, if there were fabulous prizes to be given out in this chat, you would have just earned one. Thanks so much for the feedback and for being part of the chat today.

John from Jackson, Miss.: Is there likely to be any positive recruiting impact for the schools still playing if they actually play football this fall? I guess, do you think it's likely that if ND is competing with a school from the Pac-12 or the Big Ten that they will make a point about the conferences' decision to cancel?

Eric Hansen: I do think there's a recruiting advantage for schools that will play this fall ... if the season starts and finishes. In Notre Dame's case, for instance, prospects who have questions about what a Tommy Rees offense looks like and how they might fit into it will be able to see that on Saturdays. It also keeps those schools front and center in recruits' minds.

Jim K. from Oakwood, Ohio: Eric, Peace and blessings of good health to you and your family. And thank you for your time and expertise during the chat. I applaud you for your Analysis article on Wednesday, which I found to be nuanced and strong on the science emphasizing our, and the students’, responsibility to follow the advice of medical experts if we want safety and college football. My question concerns your mention of the comments by Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly about “the ethical question of whether it’s right to play on without students on campus ... and their answer of 'no.'” What is the ethical standard? Is compliance mandatory or is it advisory? And which organization(s) adopted it? Secondly, we have the Indiana “rolling 7 day positivity average of 7.7%,” the declining ND campus daily rate of 15.2% and the team’s 1.1% rate since mid-June, so I don’t accept the reasoning that the team should be punished (by not playing) for the sins of non-compliance by the student body. I favor the UNC decision to play even if the Sept. 2 data is adverse. Be safe.

Eric Hansen: Jim, thanks for reading and for the nice feedback. The optics of the concept of student-athletes and how that plays against COVID-19, I'll get into a little more depth in some questions I see in the queue. I should note that on today's ND coronavirus dashboard, new cases in the general student population are down by more than half from yesterday and the positivity rate at ND was 8.9 percent in the latest report, both good numbers if they keep trending in that direction. To answer your question, I don't think compliance is mandatory about playing through if the student experience is altered. I think it comes down to whether you think — given the context of a pandemic — it aligns with your school's mission, and are you willing to put up with the criticism if you do play through?

John Cortesio from Parts Unknown: While it is hugely disappointing to watch the NCAA football season fade into obscurity, reflecting at age 83, what is one season out of your life in the grand scheme of things? As a parent of two football players and as a child of a ND grad, class of ‘31, I feel the angst, regret, indecision, apprehension and concern over the effect of COVIE-19. Who actually determines the the future of ND football? Father Jenkins or Jack Swarbrick? Or both?

Eric Hansen: Jack Swarbrick's perspective matters, but Father Jenkins has the first and last word. And that's the case on just about every FBS college campus. The presidents in the Big 10 and Pac-12, for instance, decided to punt fall football, not the ADs.

Clemdog from Longmont, Colo.: Hi Eric, as always great job and chats. Just general question on college football and your take: Do you see this sport turning into free agency? Decommits, some entering transfer portal and etc.? This could turn into a total mess if not controlled. If it’s in our favor, I don’t mined just saying.

Eric Hansen: If you're talking about 2020, what ISN'T a mess about this year in college football? I do think once college football and high school football gets back to a more normal rhythm, recruiting will settle into its normal patterns, but player movement among players already in college will increase. There still are some kinks to be worked through in that process, but eventually transferring will become a less entangled process.

NC Domer in Raleigh, N.C.: Thank you for the chat. A local writer here in Raleigh made the point that with UNC (and now NC State) shutting down school but continuing football, it’s now more clear than ever that at many Power 5 universities there are students and athletes, but not student-athletes. Is this perceived hypocrisy so substantial that a place like ND will forego football if it turns out to be unsafe to return to in-person classes?

Eric Hansen: There are a few variances on this question in the queue, and I'll try to answer each specifically. I don't think criticism will drive Notre Dame's decision one way or another. What will? No. 1, is it safe for football to continue? No. 2, is there way to play football and still align with the university's mission? No. 3, does ND need to consider the ACC's commitment to let ND plays as a member in 2020 and align its answer with the conference as a whole? I think there's a path to answer yes on all those counts. And I think it's the right answer.

Ryan from Alliance, Ohio: I hope it doesn't come to this, but if the season ends up getting canceled, do you see Ian Book returning next season? Or any other seniors or draft-eligible players?

Eric Hansen: If you're asking me if fall football goes away, but there is a winter/spring season in its place, I would say yes on Book. If Book aspires to play in the NFL, he needs another season to change the perception that he is not a draftable prospect. If there was no 2020 season, fall or spring, I have a harder time seeing him coming back in 2021. As far as the other seniors, let's cross that bridge if/when we get there.

Jonathan from Parts Unknown: We’ve read that Brendon Clark has a high upside but has been inconsistent in practice. He’s got talent behind him on the depth chart. What are the chances that he is the Week 1 starter next year, and should we feel good about the prospect of him taking over?

Eric Hansen: The unknowns in that equation are these: Does ND play this fall? Does Tyler Buchner play high school ball in the spring in California or does he enroll at ND in January, as planned? Does Clark develop significantly in 2020 regardless of circumstances? Just kind of guessing at the answers to those questions, I think Clark and Buchner will be competing next August for the starting job. I think Buchner is a special enough talent to win that competition, but Clark starting would not surprise me. I do like his upside and his composure.

Bruce from Dayton, Ohio: Hi Eric. Hope you and your family are staying safe and healthy. In the past, Jack Swarbrick stated he did not see football happening if students were not on campus. If ND does send the students home in the next week or two, do you still think that will be the case? A lot of things have changed in the past several weeks. Does the ACC affiliation play into it now? As well as the soon-to-be, new quicker testing methods. Also a very strong case can be made that the players are actually much safer in the controlled environment, as it was before the students returned to campus. Thank you for keeping us updated.

Eric Hansen: Bruce, thank you. I answered part of this already, but here's what I'll add: Teams that are not playing this fall (Big Ten, Pac-12, etc.) are going to continue to have team workouts for their players. So is there a difference in keeping the players in South Bend to work out for several months or keeping them in South Bend to play games really any different from an ethical/optics standpoint? I don't think so. Maybe for the folks who have to throw a label on everything, but not for me. And let's keep in mind, the players came out and said they absolutely want to move forward and play, so it's not like they're being forced to and exploited.

Willy K. from Bethesda, Md.: Eric, love reading your updates and inside information about the Irish. Both my grandfather and uncle used to work for the team. I'm a diehard fan. Two questions: First, will the NCAA allow teams to carry more than 85 scholarship players next year? Second, with Jahmir Smith and Chris Tyree getting so much attention recently, do you think there is still a role for Avery Davis in the offense? I feel like he is a very versatile player that could line up in the backfield but motion out to the slot. Similar to Jafar Armstrong. Could we see two-back sets like the Syracuse game at Yankee stadium a few years ago?

Eric Hansen: Hi Willy, and thank you. The NCAA is supposed to finalize its plan today, with the expectation that all football players keep this year of eligibility whether they play or not. An aside, that could make Shaun Crawford conceivably the first seventh-year senior if he wanted to pursue that. So yes, there would have to be a variance to go over 85 scholarships. But there are some caveats there. Are all Division I schools going to be willing and able to take on the added expense of more scholarships? And do you have to put safeguards in place so that schools aren't loading up on players from the transfer portal and in recruiting to pad their rosters beyond normal expansion?

Avery has been moved to wide receiver. He's running No. 2 in the slot behind Lawrence Keys III. Kelly mentioned him the other day in complimentary terms, so he is in the big-picture plans. Sure you could use him on jet sweeps, etc. Braden Lenzy too. But in two-back sets, which ND probably will sprinkle in, I think there are better options for those than Avery.

Sean from Naples, Fla.: Seems like the coronavirus could both help and hurt ND recruiting. Help, because Note Dame chose to let their student-athletes play while the Big Ten and Pac-12 did not, obviously leaving their players frustrated, probably angry and wishing they had selected Notre Dame. The choices made could linger in the minds of recruits for some time. Hurt, because recruits engaging with the people and Notre Dame's beautiful campus are critical elements in the recruiting process. What's your take, and have you gotten any feedback from members of ND's athletic staff on the issue?

Eric Hansen: Sean, the campus visit is a big dynamic in ND's recruiting, because often it is a game-changer for kids coming a long way from home. ND has to be able to overcome this, because the likelihood of campus visits in calendar year 2020 doesn't seem to be realistic at the moment. Right now the NCAA-imposed dead period extends through Sept. 30. Yes, I've talked to members of the coaching staff, as has Carter Karels, and we've written about it as well. But 2020 is about adapting ... for all of us, not just football coaches.

Tom from Virginia: Thanks for hosting. Always good stuff. Whether or not we have football this fall seems to depend entirely upon the issue of player “safety.” In that regard, does the university release any information as to the number of players, or students for that matter, who actually have symptoms? Or do they just publish the number of those who tested positive?

Eric Hansen: Tom, thank you. There have been some inconsistencies along those lines. Initially, the athletic department reports included details regarding symptoms. The most recent one did not. Same with the university as a whole. The initial surge included info about (lack of) hospitalizations via a press release. The daily dashboard does not include that kind of info.

John from Stevensville, Mich.: Hi Eric, As always, thanks for the great job you do providing thoughts on the ND program. We know the players want the season to go forward. However, do you have any insight as to how the recent suspension of practice and on-campus classes are having on the emotional perspective of the players? Are they able to stay focused or is the uncertainty having a significant impact on the team? Thanks very much.

Eric Hansen: John, thanks. Without talking to any of them directly — and we have had zero access to them since the start of training camp — I think my answer would be incomplete. My sense is they've handled everything that's been thrown at them so far really well. And they know there's potentially more curve balls ahead.

Wallace Preston from Novi, Mich.: You do such a great job. I'd hate to disagree with you but ... in your answer to Willy K., you talked about "schools being willing and able to take on the added expense of scholarships." I had some experience with colleges and universities before I retired. So, hogwash. There is almost no added expense with an additional player. It is all accounting. Let me give you an example. If Eric Hansen gets a scholarship to ND, where are the costs? He sits in an empty chair. Does the Prof make more money? (Answer no.) Maybe Eric needs to buy his own textbook. Maybe Eric has to live off campus. Maybe Eric needs to buy his own food. Housing and food can be worked around.

Eric Hansen: Wallace. I'm going to call hogwash on you. Athletes whose seasons were eliminated in the spring were granted an extra year by the NCAA. But many schools did not invite those athletes back (either en masse or partially), because it threw off their athletic budgets. Whether you can play with the accounting is one matter, but athletic departments have to meet budgets. You dismiss room and board like those are expenses that don't matter. They do (especially if you're talking 15-20 extra bodies and not one or two). So do books and the rest of the money that is now the "cost of attendance" calculation student-athletes are entitled to these days.

For more reading on the subject, here's an excellent story from Sports Illustrated: Inflated Rosters, Financial Burdens and 'Tough Conversations': Ramifications of an Extra Year of Eligibility

Kyle from New Jersey: Hi Eric, Are you hearing anything from your sources on how/where the five players this week who tested positive may have picked up the virus? Are you hearing anything about players attending or hosting an off-campus gathering?

Eric Hansen: I think it would be extremely irresponsible to report something like that unless there was absolute evidence one way or another on that. Given how disciplined the team was all summer, it would be out of character to be reckless now.

Mike from Quakertown, Pa.: Hi Eric, thanks for taking our questions. The developments in college football have been such a roller coaster ride. I had hope that we would see the Irish play this fall when the ACC decided to soldier on with a season. But the recent COVID-19 outbreak on Notre Dame's campus has taken the wind out of my sails. Do you see any possibility of the Irish still playing if on-campus classes are shut down permanently? For example, can instruction be online with the option of still using some student and campus facilities, or do you think that once the live education component is taken away, football will have to stop as well? Thanks for your time!

Eric Hansen: That's a question Father Jenkins hopes not to be confronted with, but it could come to that. Certainly, his opinion in the spring would have produced a "no" answer to that question. But time and circumstances have changed, so I don't think that's the automatic response anymore. It certainly isn't the response at some other campuses.

Johnny from Howard's Beach, N.Y.: Which team will be better in your estimation: 2020, 2021,2022 Notre Dame football team? Which offense would you pick? Which D? Thank you.

Eric Hansen: It's hard to say, because the rosters of the 2021 team and the 2022 squad are still being assembled. That 2022 squad has to play Ohio State AND Clemson that season, so yuck. I'm going to stick with the 2020 Irish.

Pat from Evergreen Colo.: Eric, If things get as bad as it looks like they could, I am concerned about ND Insider and the SBT surviving. I plan to renew my membership to ND Insider even if ND does not play football. If it comes to it, will you let us know what we can do to help keep the SBT and ND Insider financially viable?

Eric Hansen: Pat, thanks so much for the kind sentiments. For newspapers and media operations everywhere, subscribing helps all of us. Pat you've done your part. Again, thank you.

Jeremy from Goshen: Do you expect ND to take more deep shots on offense with the improved team speed of Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys? Having Keys or Lenzy in the slot running a seam route has me drooling.

Eric Hansen: I like the speed of the 2020 wide receiver corps, but Chase Claypool, Chris Finke and Cole Kmet weren't exactly slow. I think it has more to do with Book's ability to be accurate on those deep throws than it does speed or lack of speed. And there is room for improvement there, with Book.

Steve from Chicago: Do you know if they are separating position groups, so as not to decimate a position prior to games during practice? Not sure how this would work, but keeping first string apart from second string?

Eric Hansen: Steve, we're supposed to be getting some info on that next week ... but that's not guaranteed. Watching the practice videos and looking at the practice photos that have been shared with us, it doesn't appear to be the case. But remember that activity is outside and that helps. Now meetings may be a different matter. I suspect those are taking place on Zoom, but I need to get confirmation.

Kane from Goshen: Eric, if you had to bet your life savings, who would be the next commit?

Eric Hansen: There's less risk there than you might guess. And it is a guess, but I'll go with wide receiver Jayden Thomas.

Miley Virus from Houston, Texas: Assuming we have a season (which nobody "needs" but we all desperately crave), what improvements have the Irish made to match up better against Clemson? Last time we played, our defense was stout until we lost our stud DB (Julian Love) to an in-game injury, and then immediately the game got out of hand. Has the 2020 squad truly built more depth or established more balance (e.g. more consistent pass rush) to challenge the Fighting Trevors?

Eric Hansen: Love the name by the way ... I think ND in 2020 is better in some ways than 2018 and not in others. The 2020 version of Ian Book would seem to be an upgrade. The 2020 O-Line is better, older. But the skill positions on offense are unproven. ... I think this defense will be better against the run, but the pass rush and secondary play are unknowns. If all of those unknowns turn out to be positives, then yes, there will be a progression.

Kane from Goshen: Are the Irish in a good position to land Titus Mokiao-Atimalala?

Eric Hansen: I would say yes, but he'd like to take some visits. That might not be possible.

Kane from Goshen: Should Irish fans be nervous that we have not offered a 2022 QB?

Eric Hansen: No, because they've offered scholarships to two of them.

Eric Hansen: OK, that's going to be it for this week. I'm going to try to shift into weekly mode going forward as long as fall football is a reality. Thanks for all the great questions. I'll announce next week's chat on my Twitter account: @EHansenNDI

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