Chat Transcript: Talking Notre Dame football personnel decisions, surprises, challenges, depth

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat, with 15 days to the starting line of the 2020 season for the Irish. A reminder to please, please include your name and hometown along with your question. A lot has happened at Notre Dame and across college football in the past few hours. Let's get right to it. One of my sons is here, by the way, hopefully to help me with some tech issues and not to heckle me.

Mike from Quakertown, Pa.: Good afternoon, thanks again for taking our questions. I am not sure if you have any inside information — if anyone does, it would be you — but when campus opens up again with in-person classes, will another outbreak cause Notre Dame to send students home and shut down the season, or will they go back to online courses and move forward with football? Also, do you know if Notre Dame has been giving first-team reps to second-teamers or even third-teamers to make sure people are ready to go in the event of guys being out for positive COVID-19 tests? Thanks!

Eric Hansen: Hi Mike. It's difficult to speculate on your first question. Notre Dame feels like it has better safeguards in place now and will get better cooperation from the students. I don't see a scenario at the moment where the start of football season won't happen. But this is 2020, so what seems impossible one minute is overcome the next and vice versa sometimes. There are very few absolutes.

In terms of backups getting more practice reps, I did ask Brian Kelly about that the last time we had a Zoom with him, and he did indeed say the coaching staff had tweaked the practice structure to build more depth with more reps for backups.

Don from Brigantine Beach, N.J.: Hi Eric. Who do you think will be our starting wide receivers when we open up our season? I sure hope Javon McKinley gets a good look from the coaching staff. Thank you.

Eric Hansen: Had Kevin Austin been healthy, I think we would have been looking at Austin, Lawrence Keys III and Braden Lenzy, with a lot of Ben Skowronek mixed in. I think Skowronek moves into the starting lineup with Austin out. Javon McKinley has a chance to earn a spot in what could be a fairly deep rotation. You don't bring a guy like that back to rot on the bench. But he is at the wide receiver position (boundary) which has the most depth.

Jim from Oakwood, Ohio: Peace and blessings for safety and good health to you and your family, Eric. My question concerns the limitations by ND this year for your (and other media) reporting. You and your South Bend Tribune colleagues have done a wonderful job, but it's obvious to a faithful reader that your stories lack your personal observations of practice and the information normally gleaned from your Q & A with coach Kelly and personal interviews of players. Do you see this changing? Is ND going to in-house media (interns or PR specialists) in an effort to control the "message" that they want to convey vs. the reporting of the professional media? Be well.

Eric Hansen: Jim, thanks for the question and the warm thoughts. Same to you and your family. I want to be careful here, because we're in a pandemic, and health and safety should come first. Having said that, there are big challenges ahead. For instance, we haven't had access to a single player (even on Zoom) since training camp started a little over two weeks ago. Florida State, in roughly the same time frame, has made 41 different players available, as well as every assistant coach. When we talk to Kelly, we don't ask questions directly. They are chosen from a queue. This isn't a criticism. It's the look of our temporary reality, since you asked. It's my job to overcome those things and give you great coverage. That's life. And apparently it's a life with college football, which is something to celebrate.

Patrick K. from South Bend, Eric, cautiously optimistic we'll have football in 15 days. With the quick emergence of thr two freshman tight ends, do you think there's any chance Tommy Tremble could line up as one of the wide receivers, thus giving the Irish three sizable wideouts plus one or two large tight ends? It would certainly create some matchup problems, especially in the red zone or third and short. Thanks for all the legwork you do getting us up-to-date info.

Eric Hansen: Patrick, thank you for the kind words. ... Don't forget Brock Wright and George Takacs in the tight end mix as well. I think Tremble is the biggest mismatch as a tight end. And you can certainly pair him with another tight end or even play three at times. You could also move him around the formation, flexed out or in the slot. Ben Skowronek also gives you good size in the red zone as a traditional wide receiver.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Eric, since you have so much experience through these Chats of answering questions from those submitted through a queue, I think that you should offer to help coach Kelly deal with his Zoom conferences!! That way as fans we could be assured that he is not just answering the puff balls someone is choosing, but that there might be some real insightful questions presented to him. Let us know his answer. Good luck with that one!!

Eric Hansen: Tom. Haha. I think whoever selects the questions will do a good job, but the format is less than ideal and it makes it difficult to answer a follow-up question.

Bob from Loganville, Ga.: Started to tune into SportsBeat periodically over the last several weeks (it's been tough since sports talk is no longer about sports) and have not heard your insight. Are you taking a break or have you left the weekday show. Your insight and grounded, reasonable and logical insights is the main reason I tune in.

Eric Hansen: Thanks Bob. My best answer is I don't know. I am not angry and understand the pandemic prompted people in our business to make some tough business decisions. I haven't been on the air since late March. Thanks for the kind words, and I hope I have an answer soon.

Erik from Granger, Ind.: Thanks for being here! Are we at 85 scholarships after the recent medical disqualifications? And do the two players who could have gone on academic scholarship (Bertrand and Liufau?) still have that option?

Eric Hansen: Erik, thank you for being here. With the transferring out of John Olmstead, Notre Dame is at 85. Marist Liufau and JD Bertrand have been part of that 85 since they arrived on campus and will always be as long as they're here. Olmstead's transfer allows one-time walk-on Colin Grunhard to stay on scholarship. And if you want to see how the scholarships break down by position and class, go here:

Mike McFadden from South Williamsport, Pa.: It seems that no one knows what the tiebreaker is for the ACC championship game is. If THREE teams have a 9-1 record, who gets into the game? And then assume they do not play each other? And then assume FOUR teams go 8-2? Thanks for answering this question Eric. Can't wait for Duke to get here!

Eric Hansen: You came to the right place. The formula is modified a bit, because there are no divisions this year, but it still works:

Jeff from Phoenix: Hey Eric, I have a question about the medical disqualifications of Isaiah Robertson and especially Trevor Speights. I realize medical information can be sensitive and understandably limited from the ND football staff. But how was Speights recruited as a grad transfer to supposedly compete for a running back position, and then declared medically ineligible? Did something come up recently or did someone not do their homework in the recruiting process? And will Robertson be able to transfer to another school and become "un-disqualified?"

Eric Hansen: Jeff, both of those questions are more complicated than they might seem. Let me try to untangle them. Isaiah Robertson declined to tell SB Trib colleague Tyler James what his injury issue was when the two communicated. ND declined comment as well. If Robertson finds an NCAA school as a landing spot, he's going to have to go through a rather complicated process of proving he's able to compete and have that medically certified. Michael Deeb was able to do that a few years ago, but he was changing from playing football to playing baseball.

With a lot of grad transfers, you're rolling the dice on their injury history. We've seen that with Avery Sebastian, Freddy Canteen and Cam Smith struggling to stay healthy once they arrived at ND. Cody Riggs did stay healthy and was a starter. With Speights the upside was apparently worth the risk, and what did ND lose by taking that risk? Really nothing.

Mike Foreman from Nyona Lake, Ind.: Was wondering if the kid from a small school that made Mr. Football in Indiana two years ago will ever play at ND. I know Jack worked his back side off in high school, and I would sure like to see a kid from a small school make it at ND. Of course, I am talking about Jack Kiser. Just wondered if you think it will ever happen for him?

Eric Hansen: Mike, Jack Kiser made a strong first impression when he arrived and got past his injury last year and continues to do so. He's grown into an inside linebacker and is one of many options competing for playing time at the buck linebacker. He has a very promising future and a pretty nice present as well.

Charlie from the Dominican Republic: Let's assume the season is normal from here on out. Other than Clemson, which team on the current schedule should scare ND the most? UNC seems to be a popular pick, but I worry about Louisville.

Eric Hansen: I'm going to go with the popular pick of North Carolina. I had Louisville on my preaseaon AP Top 25 ballot as well, so I'd include the Cardinals as well.

Knucklehead Dave from Niles: Eric, thanks for your years of great work and insight. We are fortunate to have you. What do we know about Nolan Ziegler’s foot speed, if anything? If he’s growing this fast seems, unlikely he’ll end up a safety.

Eric Hansen: Hi Dave and thanks. I did mention his speed (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and his projections as a college linebacker in my recent story: Nolan Ziegler grows into burgeoning prospect, commits to Notre Dame

Paul from Lititz, Pa.: Eric, glad you are back to help us through this unusual season. What is your opinion of Brendon Clark? Has he been able to get enough work in to be a viable backup option? Coach Kelly seemed to project a need for better consistency. I’d be nervous if Ian were to suffer an injury. What is your heart-felt opinion of Clark’s abilities to be next man up?

Eric Hansen: Paul, thanks. I like Brendon Clark's potential quite a bit. I like his arm, his composure, his athleticism. I don't like his lack of game experience, which isn't his fault. I'm sure they're investing a lot to get him ready, but there'd be a dropoff, especially against good defensive teams.

Lawrence from Denver: Hi Eric. i realize you don’t have a lot of access, but can you name one or two on-field surprises since spring practice was canceled? What do we know about this football team that we didn’t last year?

Eric Hansen: I would say RB Kyren Williams and TE Kevin Bauman fit that surprise profile on offense. DE Ovie Oghoufo and CB Clarence Lewis would qualify on defense ... as well as the other freshman cornerbacks. What we know that we didn't know last year is this team showed remarkable leadership and discipline through adversity.

Chad from Denver: I know attendance by fans at games will vary based on location, but will media be allowed to attend or will that be a game-by-game decision? Love your work and thanks for your insights.

Eric Hansen: Chad, thanks for the kind words. We just got word Wednesdau that there will be limited media in the press box at home games (one person per outlet) and three ND media members total able to attend road games. Those are ACC rules.

Tim in Atlanta: Is there any way that ND coaches insist that Tyler Buchner plays one more year in high school? After playing only one year (against inferior competition), it would benefit him to play in the spring in California. What do you think?

Eric Hansen: I think they can have that conversation, and I think answer could somewhat depend on whether ND makes it through its entire season this fall or gets its season interrupted and then finishes in the spring. Let's say ND plays a regular fall season, and spring football looks like it's going to be back to normal. My sense is that Buchner would benefit more from being at ND in that scenario. And I think he, his family and the Irish coaches would think so too. Interesting question, for sure.

Rick from Peoria, Ill.: Eric, looking for some insight on what the team is doing different this year as it pertains to room and board. Love the chats. Thanks for all you do. Stay safe!!

Eric Hansen: Thanks Rick. Lots of grab-and-go meals, No training table buffets. Lots of players living off campus, with freshmen and sophomores able to do that this year as an exception.

Ron from Dover, Del.: Kind of surprised by Isaiah Robertson and John Olmstead opting to look to transfer at this time. Any opinion why now and what is driving their desire to transfer.

Eric Hansen: There wasn't a clear path, or even an encouraging one, toward playing time now or in the future for Olmstead. Robertson was similarly buried on the depth chart before he was medically disqualified.

Harvey from South Philly: E, always a pleasure to chat. I will be in South Bend from Sept. 10 to the 13th. Will there be a game in town on the 12th? A Big Kevin Bauman fan. Should have seen him on the B-Ball court. Will he see the field this year? Be Safe. Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Hi Harvey. The Duke game is 15 days away on Sept. 12. I don't think you'll be able to get into the stadium, unless you are related to one of the players. Be safe as well. As far as Bauman, yes he'll play this season. Lots of good, young talent at the tight end position.

Ted Hardman from Parts Unknown: Will there be a Navy game this year?

Eric Hansen: Not against Notre Dame.

Doug from Virginia Beach: Thanks for the chats! Has there been any word on fans in the stadium or tailgating? Will there be ways to watch the game on campus without being in the stadium, like a big projector screen set up outside? Thanks again for your thoughts!

Eric Hansen: Very, very soon, now that the university has sorted through its decision to reinstate in-person instruction.

Patrick from Fort Wayne, Ind.: Eric, Two weeks away and preparations are getting focused on Duke. David Cutcliffe is a savvy, offensive-minded coach with a highly rated QB, a long history in the college game and a winning record in ND Stadium. How do you think he will attack ND's defense and do you think he will have a few tricks up his sleeve? I see this game as a high-scoring affair.

Eric Hansen: David Cutcliffe, as I pointed out in my recent Duke Fun Facts story, has taken over the play-calling on offense for the first time since he's been at Duke. He will not, however, be facing Brian Van Gorder, whose 30th and final game as ND's defensive coordinator came in an upset loss to Duke. My sense is Cutcliffe, and Charlie Weis Jr. the following week, will try to isolate and test everyone on the secondary not named Kyle Hamilton. They'll also need to establish some semblance of a running game.

Jonathan from Hideaway, Texas. I noted that you recently credited Duke standout defensive end Chris Rumph with being 235 pounds. I had seen him listed at 225. Also the Blue Devils' linebackers appear to come in at 220 and below. Regardless of precise numbers, do you expect ND’s size advantage to play a significant role in week 1? Are there many teams on the schedule with the bulk to man up to Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks, Jarrett Patterson, Timmy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey?

Eric Hansen: Jonathan, I'm not sure who your source is for heights/weights. I find it useful to go right to the team's official website. As far as ND's alleged size advantage, if it were all about that, the Irish O-line would have dominated consistently in the run game, particularly in short yardage last season. They did not, though they were an outstanding pass-protection unit. I do think they'll be much better in the run game this year, and that their size AND cohesion, technique, movement and attitude will make that happen more often than not in 2020.

Don from Phoenix: Eric, Hope all is well on your end. I admit while looking forward to the season, it is hard to get into it. With no spring practice and press access limited, I've found it hard to really be excited. I am sure that will change with the first Saturday the Irish play. My question for you is while I know it's your job, how have you remained enthusiastic? Thanks for the great work.

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Don. The roller coaster ride for the past 5 1/2 months of "will they play or not," is exhausting. The pessimists make it more exhausting, but they have a right to their point of view. I am beyond enthusiastic. And what helped me is remembering why college football is special. I watched the Va Tech-ND "Enter Sandman" lead-in from 2018 the other day and sobbed. Fifteen days from now, when I hear Mike Collins' voice say "Welcome to Notre Dame Stadium," I will be likely weeping as well. ... in the press box. That's how much I love what I do and how grateful I am to have the opportunity to do it.

Mike from Parts Unknown: Eric, would ND ever consider claiming all the national championships they have been awarded by some service over time? For recruiting and prestige? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Prior to the inception of the AP poll in 1936, a lot of schools did that. Some of them have done so since.

Gil from Williamsburg, Va.: Do you think with Chris Tyree in the backfield, given his speed, we might see some screen passes as part of the play calling? Also how about some pulling guards and tackles on a la "student body" left/right running plays? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: I think all of what you suggested can and will happen, but don't expect Chris Tyree to get the bulk of the carries. He's an important part of the running back rotation, but he's not the featured back.

Mike from Parts Unknown: Any word on start times? Is this going to be a week-to-week thing or will all times be released at once?

Eric Hansen: The start times have been determined, just not announced. Expect that soon, with two nights games at home and the rest of the home schedule either 2:30 or 3:30.

Polish prince from Parts Unknown: I say good day to you. Maybe I missed it, so I'll ask you now. With the Big Ten and Pac-12 not playing football this year, can the players on those teams enter the transfer portal and be eligible to play in the conferences that choose to play this year? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Come on, folks, I asked nicely for your hometowns.

Eric Hansen: Yes the can go into the transfer portal, but there aren't a lot of schools that have roster spots open. And other than adding a kicker, how much are they going to be able to help you at this point not knowing your system?

Edward from Palm Beach, Fla.: Good day from sunny Florida. Woill we see another realignment of conferences after this latest college football fiasco? Do you think Power 5 schools go thier own way? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Hi Edward. I'm not ready to predict either, but neither of those scenarios is a reach. College sports is going to change post-pandemic because economics will drive it to do so. Whether realignment or a Power 5 separation is part of that, we'll get a better feel for in the spring.

Denny from Liberty Hill, Texas. Since players will not lose a year of eligibility this year, it seems that there will be no redshirt rules in effect. Is this the case allowing redshirts to happen in following years as usual? This would allow players on active teams an extra season than those on inactive teams as well as a sixth year with the four-game limit

Eric Hansen: Denny, I'm not sure I understand your question entirely, so I may mess up the answer. It would make sense to not have any redshirts in 2020, and I think they will, go back to traditional redshirt rules after this season. It seems to be a rule that everyone can get behind.

Jim from Lexington, N.C.: I truly hope we will get through this season and all goes well. Unfortunately, I do not think this is possible. My question is when did sports get so important over education, common sense and science to take a back seat. I know lots of money and resources are involved, but we must first take care, and I sorely believe Notre Dame 's leadership has taken a step back with the others.

Eric Hansen: Jim, I really hesitated to take this question, because you come off in it as the guy who screams "Hey kids, get off my lawn." And, unfortunately, my answer will too. You answered your own question, but my answer is different. Why does playing football mean education, science and common sense are taking a back seat? Why can't all those concepts exist together? I don't believe one must be sacrificed for the good of the others. And I'll add this, I think trying to play this season is good for the mental health of the players, who are students, and for many fans, who need a dose of normalcy and fun in their lives right now. Now get off my lawn.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Good afternoon, Eric. I hope that you and all your family are well and staying safe. The Covid-19 restrictions are like a huge case of cabin fever, even for us people here in the South. My question has to do with the class of 2019. By my count only three freshmen were in more than four games, thus using a year of eligibility: Kyle Hamilton, Jacob Lacey and Jay Bramblett. The class was pretty well-rated, so there were a lot of good players we haven't seen much of. Excluding the offensive linemen, who usually take a little longer develop, what players other than Hamilton, Lacey and Bramblett, from the 2019 group do you expect to make quality contributions this year?

Eric Hansen: Other than the three you mentioned, I'd expect Kyren Williams and Isaiah Foskey to surge into larger roles. From a depth and/or special teams standpoint, expect Isaiah Rutherford, Jack Kiser, Marist Liufau, Osita Ekwonu and Howard Cross to be among those sophomores making an impact.

Phil from Litchfield, Conn.: Hi Eric. Will the lack of this year’s preparation make offenses start slow and defenses be relatively stronger at the start? I’m thinking of all-star games when they handicap the defenses with no blitzing and no zones, etc. while the offenses have a harder time prepping the scheme and playbook. In general, do you think we should be betting the under in college football for the first few weeks?

Eric Hansen: I am NOT giving betting advice. So please don't count on me for that. In fact, you may want to bet on the opposite of what I suggest. But I think which side of the ball starts more quickly this season is up to the team makeup. If you're got a veteran offense and a young defense, your offense is going to be ahead. And vice versa. I don't think the pandemic gives an advantage to once side of the ball over the other.

Jake from Parts Unknown: Eric, say the season plays out and there is are conference champions, is there any talk of a playoff format or does season end with just conference champions? Also, if there is a spring season, how does that affect these teams playing in the fall?

Eric Hansen: The College Football Playoff is going to cap the fall season, so yes there is a four-team playoff format again. If there is a spring season for the Big Ten, Pac-12 and others, it doesn't affect the fall participants in the least at this point.

Todd from Midland, Texas: Hi Eric. I’m curious if you have any perspective on how the other ACC schools view Notre Dame’s alliance with the ACC? Seemed like Mark Richt and Virginia Tech’s coach were originally annoyed by the relationship, but I haven’t noticed any negative comments since. Do you see any great rivalries budding out of this relationship? Thanks!

Eric Hansen: I think there's always going to be some resentment, but I've heard less of it this year with ND being a temporary full member. Clemson-ND, which play on 2022 and 2023, seems to be moving in the rivalry direction.

Eric Hansen: That's going to do it for this week. Thanks for all the great questions. We'll probably go Friday again next week, then slide back into normal Thursday mode for game week and the balance of the season.

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