Decoding Notre Dame's latest COVID-19 numbers and what it means on the road ahead

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider


The last time Brian Kelly got cute with the version of the Notre Dame football depth chart he shares weekly in season with the world, the ND head coach was very much counterjabbing Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

That was last October, in the days preceding the teams squaring off in Ann Arbor — and before that, heading into the 2018 season opener when the two teams clashed in South Bend. In both instances, there was no shareable Irish depth chart.

Notre Dame even went as far as to fill out the media flip card in the press box with the names of former Irish All-Americans on game day of the 2018 matchup instead of any players on the 2018 roster.

Harbaugh, for the unenlightened, hasn’t produced a depth chart for public consumption in his first five seasons coaching his alma mater and isn’t likely to do so when the Big Ten joins fall football next month.

On Monday, Kelly pulled a Harbaugh.

Except it had nothing to do with gamesmanship, in advance of seventh-ranked Notre Dame’s ACC road game Saturday at Wake Forest (noon EDT; ABC-TV) or belligerence, and everything to do with the team’s latest COVID-19 testing numbers.

A belated version of the two-deeps has been promised for Tuesday. Absolute clarity won’t necessarily come along with it.

Here’s what we do know. Four Irish players tested positive for COVID-19 during the Tuesday-Friday stretch last week. Six more were quarantined because of contact tracing.

None of the 10, according to Notre Dame, played in the 52-0 Irish bludgeoning of USF, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Because of a combination of privacy laws and ND’s own internal policies of providing relative transparency with numbers but not with names, the school’s pregame status reports of unavailable players don’t differentiate between those who are injured and those stuck in the COVID isolation/quarantine continuum.

Per ACC guidelines, players who test positive must isolate for 10 days and undergo cardiac testing as well, while players identified as coming in “close contact” with another a positive case or symptomatic individual, can’t return to game action for 14 days.

The NFL, which tests daily, has smaller windows of return in both scenarios under certain conditions. That same science and commitment to daily testing is what the Big Ten says allowed it to get back in the fall football game and is enticing the Pac-12 to do the same.

If the ACC got to that point with a daily testing commitment — and affordability and large scale availability both appear to be coming — it’s possible its return-to-action windows could mimic the NFL’s. For now, ND’s Oct. 3 bye week, following the Wake Forest game, appears benevolently placed, given the conditioning runway following isolation.

Quarantined players can work out on their own, however, once cleared by subsequent testing, but they have to do so individually and not with the team.

As far as the Wake Forest game itself, it’s reasonable to expect Notre Dame’s depth chart to look like last week’s actual playing rotation. Third-stringer and USF game ball recipient Jack Kiser starting at buck linebacker, for instance, against the host Demon Deacons (0-2 overall, 0-2 ACC) in fanless Truist Field.

Freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis, a strong nominee for ACC Rookie of the Week honors, and walk-on punt returner Matt Salerno figure to reprise their Saturday roles for the Irish (2-0), 1-0 ACC) as well. And freshman Drew Pyne again will be Notre Dame’s Plan B, and not sophomore Brendon Clark.

The eight players in last week’s two-deeps who were ruled out 90 minutes before the South Florida game were Clark, linebackers Marist Liufau and Shayne Simon, wide receiver/punt returner Lawrence Keys III, running back Jahmir Smith, cornerback TaRiq Bracy, defensive end Ovie Oghoufo and safety Kyle Hamilton.

Liufau, Bracy and Hamilton all started in the Sept. 12 season opener with Duke, and only Hamilton among the eight had a previously reported injury.

And yet even players affected only by injury, and not by the virus, is a bit of a muddled picture. Notably, Hamilton is working his way back from a sprained ankle, while while starting wide receiver Ben Skowronek, ruled out for USF before a depth chart was published last week, is coming back from a hamstring.

“He looks pretty good,” Kelly said of Hamilton, a preseason All-American. “The expectation there is that he would start to ramp it up and probably get into some practice this week.”

Skowronek, meanwhile, has been upgraded to “day to day.”

“(Tuesday) we’ll put him through some more football-related drill work that assimilates his route running,” Kelly said. “Then if he feels good and he’s not too sore after that, we’ll probably have a conversation with our trainers ... words, whether he gets to look at some practice.”

Going on the road for the first time presents another layer of challenges in the pandemic reality. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick had previously indicated one big change is that families won’t be able to meet up with their sons on the team the night before the game at the team hotel.

“We play at noon. Obviously if it’s a later start, maybe you consider (traveling) the day of the game,” Kelly said. “You’re trying to avoid as much contact outside your ‘bubble’ as possible. We’ll do everything as if this is a home game for Friday.

“In other words, we’ll do all of our meetings, our practice, our post-meetings — that we usually do at the hotel — will be done here. We’ll eat here. We’ll simply board the plane, fly and get in there in the evening, get off the plane and go to bed to lessen the contact in the hotel.

“Our guys will be in individual rooms, wake up in the morning, throw on a Superman cape and go beat Wake Forest. That’s how we do it.”

The plethora of postponements and cancelations across college football to date, including a handful in the ACC, continues to provoke apocalyptic prose from the media at times. But it’s more likely that teams will continue to learn, continue to adapt and continue to dance with the virus.

Notre Dame’s team physician Dr. Matt Leiszler in June predicted ND’s plan, when the team came back for the summer that month, would likely look vastly different in October,

“There’s an element of this that’s kind of like building an airplane as you fly,” he said.

Notre Dame’s recent adaptations include putting starting QB Ian Book in his own personal bubble, including academically, and supplementing the ACC’s required three-day-a-week testing requirement with daily antigen tests — quicker turnaround time — for higher-risk groups.

“Generally speaking those that fall under close contact, which would be the linemen,” Kelly said.

All around the Irish team, the COVID-19 picture is improving, and that’s significant. For the second straight day, the ND campus produced zero new positive tests. It’s active case number fell to 43 and its seven-day positivity rate among students and employees plummeted to 0.9%, according to the latest campus dashboard.

In Indiana, the state’s seven-day positivity rate continues to move in the right direction, 4.1% in the latest report, and a falling 2.8% in St. Joseph County.

“It’s always an evolving situation,” Kelly said. “We’re learning about things really daily about how to attack this virus utilizing all the procedures and protocols including testing.”

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly meets the media via Zoom on Monday.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks to officials during the Virginia Tech-Notre Dame game on Nov. 2, 2019, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.