Chat Transcript: Talking Notre Dame's depth, strategy, personnel and very little COVID

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat. Beginning next week, the live chat will take place on Wednesday at noon ET for the balance of the season. As for today ... please, please remember to include your name and hometown with your question. Off we go.

Ron from Dover, Del.: Glad to see Kyren Williams doing so well, but I don’t understand what has happened to Jafar Armstrong. Any opinion why has not seemed to regain his performance from two years ago? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: I wouldn't write him off, but injuries have been a constant with him. He's played very few games at ND at a full 100 percent. Depth is even more important this year, because of the possibility of isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19. If he can answer the durability question and bump up his productivity, he can get back in the mix.

Mike from Quakertown, Pa.: Hi Eric! I hope all is well. Do you envision the Big Ten or Pac-12 coming back sooner rather than later? Do you think certain bowl games might be pushed back to accommodate those two conferences? Do you think Ian Book can enter the national conversation this year in terms of being mentioned as an elite quarterback? I think he deserves more respect than he gets. Thanks!

Eric Hansen: Mike, thanks for the questions. What's sooner rather than later? In time to compete in the College Football Playoff in January? In that case, the answer is no. No, bowl games don't have to be pushed back, but there can certainly be some spring bowl games for those conference teams (big ten and Pac-12) and those from the Mountain West and MAC if those four conferences do indeed play in the winter/spring. ... If Ian Book is going to be regarded as an elite quarterback, two things have to happen. He was No. 24 nationally in passing efficiency last year with a rating of 149.14. He would need to move into the top 10 if all schools were playing and top 6 or 7 since only 76 of the 130 are. He also needs to play big in big games. His rating in his three losses as a starter: 83.65 vs. Clemson 2018, 116.35 vs. Georgia in 2019, 69.73 vs. Michigan in 2019. I think Ian Book will be a better version of himself in 2020 than he was in 2019. How much better, we'll start to learn in October.

Stancakes from Chester Va.: Hello Eric, I bring warm greetings and heartfelt prayers for your good health from beautiful downtown Chester. My question concerns the team's overall preparedness for the upcoming season. I seem to recall some timeline projections earlier this year about how much time it would take for the football team to be safely ready to compete this season. It seems, what with a later start to training camp and COVID stoppages during camp, that that time frame has been compromised. Were the original figures just speculation, or should we be concerned about a bevy of injuries this year? Be well and thanks for your very fine work. Still the easiest to follow, and the most interesting.

Eric Hansen: Stan, thanks for the kind words. Notre Dame emphasized safety/conditioning/fundamentals over playbook nuances this summer and in training camp. Not every team did that. For those players who were able to avoid isolation and quarantine on ND's team, I think they were not compromised. For those who were sidelines, it's a bit more iffy. I think throughout college football you may see more nagging-type injuries because of the uneven nature of the prep work leading up to the season. ND was fortunate in not needing or wanting to make wholesale changes in its playbook. That'll help. I still think there will be some wonkiness with ND and other teams when it comes to timing (on pass plays) and tackling. Execution may not be as crisp in September as it typically is. Having a veteran team with good leaders does help in a lot of ways, though. And ND has that.

Jeff from Phoenix: Hey Eric, I am finally allowing myself to get excited about football. But for ND this season, which receiver do you see as the favorite target of Book/Rees on a third and 15? Who do you think will return punts? Any chance it will be Chris Tyree?

Eric Hansen: Jeff, it's time to get excited. We're on the runway. ... Third and 15? Kevin Austin when he's healthy, which should be around the Florida State game on Oct. 10. Until then, I'd say Braden Lenzy or Tommy Tremble. ... Lawrence Keys had the inside track on returning punts. I'd say Tyree is a more likely candidate on kickoffs, but I wouldn't rule him out of the mix for either.

Just a point I want to make here, and not whining about it. As a reporter, you did miss a lot not seeing any practices and having to do the press conferences via Zoom. It's not anyone's fault but COVID'S, but you can't prioritize questions or necessarily get one to be asked to Kelly. They're selected from a queue, not asked directly. Again, it's my job to overcome that, but I want you to know I would have drilled down on some of these issues if we had our normal channels of confirming information. I'll continue to be persistent and rely on sources, but it's always best to get it on the record from the head coach.

Kevin from South Bend: When will ND release the depth chart?

Eric Hansen: They should release a two-deep chart on Monday. We've got our version of it right now on our website.

Joe H Williams from Green Bay Wis.: Hi Eric. Always look forward to your chats. I’m wondering how you feel our backup quarterback situation is shaping up. I know we don’t have a lot of experience behind Ian, and I’m wondering if that will mean that they will be extra careful with him in play calling and how that may affect the offense. Thanks and Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: I like Brendon Clark's potential. I just don't like his lack of game experience, but you have to live with it. At least he got into a couple of games last season as the No. 3 QB. You can be careful with Ian Book to a certain extent. If you're too careful, you paralyze your offense. And the Irish need Book's arm and legs to be successful.

Clancy from Sheboygan, Wis.: Hi Eric, thanks for hosting these Q-&-A's. It's time for my annual question about Javon McKinley. He really shined last year when given the opportunity, and there is zero coverage about him this year. What can you tell us about him?

Eric Hansen: He's in the rotation, so that means he'll have an opportunity to prove himself. He's a nice, physical presence and an outstanding blocker. His biggest games last season were against Bowling Green and New Mexico, and he didn't play in the final four games of the season. Kevin Austin's injury provides him more of a platform to show himself. I think he can be a contributor.

Martin from Orlando: Can our offensive line dominate in the running game? Pass protection seems excellent.  Bread and butter, though, is the domination on a third and 2. Can they get it done?

Eric Hansen: They were not good at it last season, as evidenced by ND’s No. 106 ranking in Football Outsiders’ power success rate. That’s defined by the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. The Irish achieved that 62 percent of the time. I wrote about this at the start of training camp that there are a lot of factors that are aligning for that ranking to drastically improve. My expectation is that it will indeed happen.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Good afternoon, Eric. I surely hope that all is well with you and your family. My question has to do with some of the position movement we saw this week. I kind of like having a big back in the mix to help pound down an opponent, but I think this is more about cross-training in preparation for any quarantines that might hit the team during the season. Your thoughts? Also, I really like the way C'Bo runs with the ball. He runs low with good balance and attacks the tackler. How do you think he will be used this year? Thanks again for bringing us all closer to ND football. Go Irish!!

Eric Hansen: Tom, thanks for the good wishes. I hope you and your family are safely navigating the pandemic as well. I think there are a lot of players cross training to guard against a position group being depleted. For the record, Osita Ekownu is listed as a running back on the just-released updated roster. Although he may ultimately end up back at linebacker full time at some point next year, C.J. Prosise moved to running back from wide receiver under similar circumstances in 2015 and was such a revelation at the new position, he never moved back. Osita won't be needed at linebacker this year, it would seem. Brian Kelly views C'Bo very similarly to the way you described. He's definitely in the mix at running back for playing time.

Jeremy from Goshen: Everyone is very hard on Ian Book about not winning big games, and I don't think it's completely fair. In the big games, Notre Dame's running game disappears and puts it all on Ian Book's shoulders. In order to win the big game, ND needs to be more physical running the ball and putting Book in better situations. What do you think? Is that a fair assessment?

Eric Hansen: The running game hasn't been good in those big games either, admittedly. But if you're an elite quarterback, which is what the question was, you are part of the solution not part of the problem. I think it's reasonable to expect improvement in big games in both areas.

Jim-from Oregonia, Ohio: Hey Eric, hope all is well with you and the family and wishing you a great Labor Day weekend. I am close to violating one of the rules of "no bare feet." I do have my socks on, though, so hoping that passes. Anyway, what is the word regarding the Buck linebacker? Additionally, what is happening at safety opposite Kyle Hamilton? I love me some Shaun Crawford, but that is a really undersized safety. Houston Griffith, Isaiah Pryor, Lithcfiekd Ajavon, etc., not cutting the mustard? I am really liking that Kyren Williams is coming into his own, and I think he and Chris Tyree could be formidable.

Eric Hansen: Jim, those two questions are two that I had submitted last week during the Kelly Zoom call that never made it out of the queue. From what I understand, I'd expect Jordan Genmark Heath to at least start the season as the No. 1 Buck option, but expect Jack Lamb to perhaps play in the dime packages on third down as he did last season until he got hurt. Shayne Simon is surging, so he could eventually overtake both of them if he can maintain that momentum. Again, given the need for depth this season, you could see all three contributing. I think Crawford cross training at safety is more of a product of only having five safeties at the start of camp and the cornerbacks overachieving in camp. KJ Wallace is also getting some safety reps now to boost the numbers. I fully expect Griffith and Pryor to play a lot. ... Maybe DJ Brown at times. Socks-only is a good look and well within the chat rules. Carry on.

Jeff from York, Pa.: Hi Eric, I was wondering if you know who will be televising the away games. Have ABC or ESPN made any announcements about the games they plan to carry this year? Also, is the ACC Network — the one channel I do not receive — planning on showing any ND games this season?

Eric Hansen: The network schedules (other than NBC) are coming together slowly and deliberately because of the pandemic. There will be times we won't know what the TV arrangement is until a week before a road game. Yes, the ACC Network is in play. Given the limited inventory available to the networks and ND's high ranking, I don't anticipate too many of those games on the ACC Network, however.

GB from Wasilla, Alaska: Hello Eric. It looks like it is almost ready to happen. I saw the video of the grounds crew painting the ACC logo on the field. I was surprised that Kyle Hamilton was not named to the preseason All-ACC team. Were you surprised also? Was it because he is only a sophomore? Will the reporters be able to be in the press box? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Hello GB in Alaska. I did vote for Hamilton on the ACC team and for the AP All-America team as well. The ACC has some very good safeties. I think part of the issue with the ACC team — not just for him, but for guys like Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer — is that there's a lack of familiarity among some of the ACC media regarding ND's personnel. ... There will be very limited access to the press box, one person per media outlet at the most. ... spaced 12 feet apart for safety reasons.

Kevin from Tampa, Fla.: Eric, will you have access to the home games inside the stadium? If so, will the press coverage be limited? Without much coverage this year, it's hard to get a feel for this team and expectations. I do feel good about this year's team as long as Ian Book is solid and consistent. I have no feel for the running game at this point. The better it is, the better Book will be in my opinion. What are your thoughts on the team and running game, Mr. Expert? Thanks again for these chats and be safe.

Eric Hansen: Kevin, our coverage team of four will rotate covering games in person (one at a time). The rest of us will work from home. All postgame interviews will be done on Zoom, so it'll be the same access whether you're in your home office or the press box. Being there in person, though, affords you to pick up on the atmosphere and some of the nuances of the game. I hope you got a chance to read our 28-page special section and all of our daily coverage. It is a challenge to have seen one practice since August of 2019. The eye test helps in evaluating a team. That Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree have worked their way into key roles at running back, I think, bodes well for the running game. If the offensive line is as good as I think it will be, the running game won't be elite, but it will be above average to well above average.

Javi from Parkland, Fla.: This season will only have some conferences playing, so if ND is able to reach the College Football Playoff and go on to win it all, will there be an asterisk in this championship. Will the Big Ten and Pac-12 cry foul? Go Irish!

Eric Hansen: Javi, they can cry all they want, but they're the ones who pulled the plug on their own seasons. I would say, when you remove 54 of the 130 teams from competition, there will be plenty of asterisks to go around ... for the national title, for the Heisman, for All-America teams, etc. It'd be still quite an accomplishment to win a title when the entire SEC and Clemson were still in the mix.

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Eric, hope you all are doing OK and staying safe. Two-fold question: Will coach Rees be able to call all of the plays without coach Kelly jumping in? And, who will coach Kelly pick as captains this year? Thanks mucho.  And "GO IRISH" !!!!

Eric Hansen: Hi Ken. Tommy Rees will be able to call the plays relatively unimpeded. I think when it comes to going for it on fourth-and-4 or going for two points after a TD, Kelly is going to make those calls or at least have veto power ... as he should. i would expect the captain announcement to come Monday of next week.

Skip from Houston: Please help me understand what it means and the implications that 2020 will not count against the four years of eligibility. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: I asked Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick about this Thursday when we talked, and he indicated there's quite a bit of clarification the NCAA will need to provide in the coming months. Essentially, the NCAA is not counting this season against any player's eligibility. So no one on the roster will have expired eligibility at the end of the season. That's true of teams that are playing in the fall and those not playing in the fall, as well as individual players who opt out and those who play on. But it's going to create financial problems and roster management issues in the offseason that will have to be untangled. It actually makes my head hurt thinking about it and the math involved, because this has implications beyond 2021.

Denny from Liberty Hill, Texas: There seems to be some talk of the Pac-12 and Big Ten trying to get seasons underway earlier than 2021. These were some of the biggest crybabies to exclude Notre Dame from the playoffs recently, because we didn't have the "Thirteenth Data point!" Your thoughts on including them if they get in a six- or eight-game season ending in line with current active schools? I say the shoe is on the other foot.

Eric Hansen: The NCAA Football Oversight Committee came out with some guidelines for winter/spring football yesterday in terms of max number of games played (8) and when the season had to be concluded (April 17). The Division I council will vote on those recommendations in less than two weeks. Unless the Big Ten and Pac-12 started in October and finished in December -- which doesn't appear to be in the cards -- there's no way for them to be included in the College Football Playoff mix. They were talking about starting in November at the earliest and finishing next semester.

Michael from Chicago: Apologies if you already covered this, but I took note of some interesting quotes from a Rocco Spindler interview about his committment: "Some people say that coach (Jeff) Quinn hasn't developed guys, but if you look, he has developed two- and three-star guys at small schools and he really hasn't got his own guys until now." "For how young he is, I don't believe he's going to go anywhere soon. I believe he's going to be at Notre Dame for the next five to eight years." (about Tommy Rees). "Coach Kelly, I believe, will have a five-year extension. No word is out yet, but I believe that is going to happen." Is this company line or do you believe/know there is more to those stories?

Eric Hansen: Rocco Spindler is as intelligent as he is talented. These are his honest impressions, and they could happen. But football is filled with surprises, and you just never know. He did his homework and is happy with his decision for a lot of good reasons.

Gabby from Dover, Del.: Thanks for all of your hard work, especially this year. Did you get a chance to ask the AD about how South Florida ended up being the school added to the schedule this year and when he thinks ND would play the road game in this series?

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Gabby. I didn't go down that road with him. And the Sept. 19 game actually has to be played for the other games in the series to become a reality. When we get to USF week, it'll be a good time to address that with him. Thanks for the reminder.

Jim from Oakwood, Ohio: Peace and blessings to you and your family for continued good health. I know you don’t normally “listen” to the NBC broadcasts while you report on the games. 1) Will this year be different, since you will rotate in and out of the press box? And 2) it seems like the addition of coach Dungy to the broadcast crew is a big and welcome upgrade from his predecessor. Your thoughts? Be well.

Eric Hansen: Jim, thanks and blessings to you all as well. ... I definitely will be listening to more NBC broadcasts this year because of our rotation. I am excited about Tony Dungy's addition to the broadcast team, because I respect his football knowledge and respect him as a man. My constructive criticism of Doug Flutie is that he seemed to rely too much on being Doug Flutie. If he was doing deep research, it wasn't apparent in the few broadcast I did hear. I think he owes that to his viewers.

Alex from Jackson, Mo.: Currently violating the "bare feet" rules from sunny Destin, Fla.! There may be no answer to this, since you haven’t seen practices, but are you more or less comfortable with the cornerback situation that you were after last season? I recall you saying that was more than likely one of the weak points of this team.

Eric Hansen: You recall correctly. There were a lot of questions. There still are, but there are more answers, and a big reason is new cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens. He has a track record of getting young cornerbacks to play at a high level, and he's starting to show that at ND.

I had a chance to ask Brian Kelly about it in a Zoom earlier this week (one of the questions I did get in), and here is what he said re Mickens:

"I really like Mike. I like the way he teaches. He’s got a great style that’s unique in that he’s a really good communicator in terms of what he wants from you every snap. And when I say every snap, I don’t necessarily mean every scrimmage snap, I mean every rep. Every single practice rep there is some form of communication as to what he wants from you.

"There is a lot of dialogue. There’s a lot of teaching, but we’re moving as well. This is not a situation where we’re talking and slowing things down. We’re getting a lot of intensity through repetition, but there is communication always, and I really like that about Mike."

As far as the bare feet, we'll let it slide today.

Frank from St. Louis: We here are excited for Kyren Williams starting at running back. But it does seem odd that he was redshirted last year to work on his game and now is the No. 1 running back. Are the other backs who were ahead of him not progressing to satisfy coach Kelly’s expectations or has Kyren Williams just made a giant leap?

Eric Hansen: I wrote a story about that very thing right here: Inside Kyren Williams' journey to the top of the Notre Dame running back depth chart.

Jack from Oak Park Ill.: I have one highly technical question: Are you ready for some FOOTBALL?!!! Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: As ready as Carter Karels is for Papa John's pizza (seriously, it's his favorite).

Pat from St Paul: Hello Eric. Hope you are gearing up for a great Labor Day weekend with family! Curious to get your perspective on any potential advantages in national standing ND might have this year, related to recruiting, based solely on the fact they are going to play? I wonder if head-to-head battles against Pac-120 or Big Ten teams might shift ND's way?

Eric Hansen: I think we'll see more tangible evidence in the weeks and months ahead that the teams not playing in the fall are at a disadvantage, in part because of what trying to play in the spring could do to their 2021 fall seasons and in part because you don't get to watch those teams and plug yourself (as a recruit) into what you're seeing on TV. I think we've already seen some anecdotal evidence in these areas.

Michael from Chicago: Coach said in his last presser "Maybe we'll show you a play or two that reminds you of what it sounds like, and I think our students will feed off of that." Any chance we could see a "full house" backfield with Osita Ekwonu, Jahmir Smith or Brock Wright in that lead fullback spot with two of the tailbacks? Or was he more referring to exciting/explosive plays in general?

Eric Hansen: I missed that comment, but I think I would read it as Option B. There is no way, especially against South Florida, Kelly would go for a full-house backfield, It literally turned him purple in 2011.

Tom from Georgia: The very first game of the 2020 season (Central  Arkansas vs, Austin Peay) was decided by long snapper issues. Brian Kelly deserves credit for emphasizing/prioritizing that position, eh?

Eric Hansen: It's not that Austin Peay didn't emphasize the importance of long snapping. They had three of them, and all three were sidelined due to COVID-19.

Bill from Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Lots of talk about last week about strengths of O-line. Do you think Jeff Quinn is a detail-oriented coach? False starts, offsides, holding, hands to the face, etc, sidetracked many drives last year.Do you expect noticeable improvement this year? Please stay safe Eric. We need you to keep us sane! Go Irish! Great news in the NBC booth.

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Bill. I do expect ND's offensive line to be elite this year, and it should be. I don't think Jeff Quinn is as detail-oriented as predecessor Harry Hiestand was, but, then again, no one is.

Bob from Royersford, Pa.: Hi Eric. Do you think this current trend of players opting out continues even after the COVID virus is history? I would hate to see the the sport's top players being convinced by agents to just give up their final year of college. I think it will really hurt college football. Thanks for all your coverage of ND football.

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Bob. You might see an isolated case or two of that, but I don't think it would become a trend.

Josh from Mishawaka: Brian Kelly mentioned Crawford has been getting a lot of reps at the safety position, and the analysis from Tim Prister and Tom O'Malley from Irish Illustrated is that Crawford is likely starting strong safety against pass-happy offenses, and Isaiah Pryor likely getting the nod against more run-oriented offenses. TaRiq Bracy and Nick McCloud seem to be the likely starting corners. My question is with Crawford at safety, who likely will be the starting slot defender then? And what are your thoughts on the two additional players being switched to running back?

Eric Hansen: Josh, I don't want to comment on someone else's reporting. Unless Kelly confirms it, there's always some skepticism on my part. So let's approach it more hypothetically. ND's best pass defense last year was its dime package — six DBs, one linebacker, four down linemen. It may be a nickle this year, because do you really want to take Owusu-Koramoah off the field? In the dime, ND played three safeties and three corners. I think you could play McCloud, Bracy, Crawford, Hamilton, Griffith and Pryor together in those packages. ... Or eliminate either Griffith or Pryor and keep Lamb and Owusu on the field together. I like the two additions at running back (Osita Ekwonu and Kendall Adur-Rahman). They have different skill sets from each other and the other backs.

Jeremy from Goshen: Is there another option other than the USA channel to see the USF game on Sept. 19? Perhaps a streaming option?

Eric Hansen: Jeremy, I'm going to have to check. When we get to USF week, I'll be sure to write about it.

Victor Money from Vero Beach, Fla.: Eric, what kind of team do you expect USF to put on the field this year? Is this a sleeper game for the Irish, or is it safe to put that one in the W column? Thanks very much.

Eric Hansen: The Athletic recently rated all 76 teams playing this fall from 1 to 76, and South Florida came in at No. 70. I think that's a little low, but they did struggle on both sides of the ball last season. The new coaching staff should at least breathe some new energy into the program.

Tom Kennesaw, GA: Eric, while we haven't played any games yet, does this 2020 team remind you of any other ND team from the past 20 years? I think BK has done a very good job assembling assistants that can recruit and then coach up those recruits. This has built up a roster filled with very good players and that really comes into play to make practices and scrimmages more competitive and effective. It seems BK and his staff have really improved their evaluation of HS players since he first took over at ND. Your thoughts? Thanks, and have a great Labor Day Weekend filled with dogs, brats and beer. Oh, wait that's my weekend!!! Go Irish!!

Eric Hansen: Hehe, thanks Tom. It's so different from any of the Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis teams ... even the good Kelly teams. Maybe 2018? Yes, I think Kelly has evolved as football has evolved. I like this 2020 team a lot. it is not without question marks, but I still think it has a high ceiling.

Tim in Tucker, ga.: Eric, your to insight is an island of fact in an ocean of “mythinformation.” Keep on keepin’ on! What do you know or hear about precautions to keep position groups (i.e.: QBs, RBs, LBs) from getting COVID together simultaneously? It seems to be a logistical nightmare.

Eric Hansen: Tim,I think there's only so much of that you can do to guard against it and still function in practice. It's something I asked Jack Swarbrick yesterday, and he wasn't sure how Brian Kelly was managing it. I hope Brian can get to it on our Monday Zoom. I've been curious about it as well.

Pete from Portage, Mich.: First time, long time! Love your coverage and insight on ND football. Have to say being a ND usher for the visiting team tunnel that I am super excited that as of now there is a season! With that being said, twoc questions. What does it say about this year's team that Urban Meyer is on ND bandwagon this year? We're finally getting pieces in place or above average ACC schedule where we could lose one game, maybe two, and make the ACC Championship Game? Two, the receiving corps is talented but playing time/experience is minimal. Will that hurt us this year? I feel like the team has pieces set at on both sides of ball but the wide receiver crew makes me apprehensive, because no particular go-to guy. Thoughts?

Eric Hansen: Pete, thanks for the kind words and your questions. ND may be able to make it to the ACC Championship Game with two losses, but that's certainly not a given. I am picking them to go 10-1. The good thing about the receiver inexperience is that ND doesn't play a defense that has elite athletes until October, when Kevin Austin returns. I like the talent and depth amid the inexperience.

Eric Hansen: That's going to have to do it for today. Thanks for all the great questions and shoe/sock compliance. We'll be back next Wednesday and every Wednesday during the season to do it all again.

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