After three-day pause, Notre Dame football resumes practicing

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — We’re talking about practice. And Notre Dame football was back at it Saturday.

After a three-day pause, five positive COVID-19 tests, six quarantines, and two rounds of additional testing beyond Monday’s scheduled round of all 116 players on the roster, the Irish resumed ambling toward their Sept. 12 season opener with Duke at Notre Dame Stadium.

The actual football testing numbers from Friday have not been made available yet to the public. On campus, the numbers posted Saturday at noon on the Notre Dame coronavirus dashboard for the general student population read 24 positives in 202 tests (11.9 positivity rate) with cumulative numbers since the students’ return on Aug. 3 of 372 positives in 2,235 tests.

That’s a 16.6 percent positivity rate, down from the peak of 17.2 percent reported on Tuesday.

That’s also the day ND president Rev. John Jenkins announced all on-campus classes would be shifted to remote learning through at least Sept. 2 for undergraduates. Grad students were scheduled to move back to in-person classes on Monday, but it’s not clear yet if that actually will take place.

In an email seeking clarification on whether the football numbers are included in the general student COVID-19 stats, the answer was yes, they are. But Friday's football numbers were not included in the Saturday noon report, as they weren't available at that time.

Jenkins in his Tuesday live-stream address conceded that he initially was inclined to send all the students home for the rest of the semester immediately. After consultation with St. Joseph County Deputy Health Officer Mark Fox, Jenkins settled on two weeks of online learning for the ND undergrads, effective Wednesday.

If at the end of that period (Sept. 2), the case numbers and positivity rate haven’t shown marked improvement, Jenkins said he’ll revert to his initial notion of sending the students home.

It’s unclear if that also would mean the end of the runway for a fall football season for Notre Dame, a philosophical question that may have a different answer than it did when Jenkins pondered it back in the spring.

At that time, both Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick couldn’t envision a football season with no students on campus when presented that hypothetical.

Jenkins was scheduled to appear on CBS news magazine show Face The Nation on Sunday morning, but he canceled, according to one of the show's producers. 

Notre Dame, coming off an 11-2 season in 2019, opened training camp on Aug. 12. Jenkins on Tuesday gave football the green light to proceed, but Monday’s test results prompted the Irish to cancel Wednesday’s practice.

The reason given in a two-sentence press release was “an abundance of caution.” That persisted on Thursday and Friday as well.

Heading into last week, the football team had a 0.64% positivity rate since arriving in mid-June for voluntary workouts. And that Aug. 12 report included two positives registered since the return of students.

Prior to that one football player tested positive upon arrival and one other tested positive since the initial round of testing, for a total of four positives for the summer.

But the combined results from Monday’s and Wednesday’s tests yielded five more positives for a total of nine since mid-June. Six additional players were quarantined as the result of contact tracing.

The release did not indicate how many of the five positives were symptomatic, only that all five players were in isolation.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly in a Zoom conference call with the media on Monday, acknowledged tweaking the practice format to give more reps to backups than in previous training camps because of the greater possibility they’d need to play meaningful downs due to COVID-19.

"You have to be aware of that,” he said. “I'm not paralyzed by it, but you have to be realistic. Just as though I have to have a replacement for me and our coaches all have replacements if, in fact, they were to get sick, we have to think in those lines as it relates to our starters as well.

“We have to pay attention to it. We have to practice accordingly. But it's not changing us to the point where our frontline players are not getting prepared properly for being the best players they can be.

“You have to have a plan. You have to make sure (the backups) get the proper reps, so if they're called upon, they can go out and execute and help you win."

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, here throwing a pass Aug. 12 during the first training camp practice, was back practicing Saturday with this Irish teammates after a three-day interruption.