Analysis: Kevin Austin's return intersects with Notre Dame's journey back to normalcy

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In 30 minutes of Zooming Thursday about such things as PCR tests, contact tracing and caulking the cracks in COVID-19 protocols, word of wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.’s availability for No. 5 Notre Dame’s Oct. 10 matchup with Florida State was a welcome puff of normal.

And there appears to be much more of that on the way for the Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) after nine days of canceled practices, a deluge of unanswered questions and a postponed road trip last weekend to Wake Forest.

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly, who shared the cyber stage Thursday with team trainer Rob Hunt, seemed almost giddy to be asked about injuries. And not just because of the trifecta of good news regarding Austin (broken foot), safety Kyle Hamilton (sprained ankle) and wide receiver Ben Skowronek (pulled hamstring).

The latter two, who started and were injured in the Sept. 12 season opener with Duke, are expected to be in top form against the Seminoles (0-2, 0-2 ACC), per Kelly, after both missed ND’s 52-0 rout of South Florida on Sept. 19. Austin, potentially the most dynamic offensive skill player on the roster once he gets up to speed, may be somewhat limited in how much he’s used in his season debut coming back from Aug. 3 surgery on his left foot.

“Boy this feels a lot better in terms of the questioning,” Kelly said. “I get an injury question. … We’re getting back into the groove a little bit.”

Here’s what Notre Dame’s groove looks like in the critical area of COVID-19 and one of the largest outbreaks in college football, within one of the programs that had tamed it the most convincingly until recently.

According to Hunt, the peak of 39 players being in isolation (25) or quarantine (14) last week has been reduced to 29 total as of Thursday, the first day ND has staged a full practice since Sept. 21. By Saturday, that number is expected to shrink to 15.

“Currently we’ve had no hospitalizations,” Hunt said. “The majority of our players have had mild-to-moderate symptoms and have done very well from a recovery process.”

There were no new positives in team testing Monday or Wednesday, according to Hunt, with the next round of COVID-19 tests scheduled for Friday. If all goes as expected, the Irish will practice Friday, lift weights Saturday and scrimmage Sunday before launching into their typical game week template.

“Look, I’ve been doing it for 30 years. I know how to get individuals back after an injury or a guy who’s been away from the game for a couple of weeks,” Kelly said. “And they’ve done pretty good. ...

“The difference here is we’ve got to bring the whole team back. So it’s important that we’re extremely strategic in the way that we practice and when we practice. So getting the whole group back together is very, very important.”

The first return to team activities came Monday, with conditioning work, followed by weights on Tuesday and a voluntary conditioning session Wednesday.

“The attitude’s been awesome,” Kelly said. “Our kids have been great. We were hit with something we didn’t expect. Again we had gone such a long period of time without any setbacks and they’ve handled this adversity quite well.”

The key is to keep handling it well. And adapting. And never getting too comfortable and inviting complacency.

It wasn’t just a pregame team meal and/or a player vomiting on the sidelines during the game, two reasons that made headlines this week as to what accelerated the spread among the Notre Dame team. In doing thorough contract tracing during the shutdown, Hunt and his cohorts uncovered many other areas that either helped expand the outbreak or could do so in the future.

“We may have gotten a little loose in some areas in terms of how we operate within our locker room,” Hunt said, “in terms of our mask compliance, our spacing on the sidelines and the activities that are being done there.

“These are certainly speculative, but as we look at the clusters that we had and the position groups that they were and how we contract traced the spread, there were areas that we can get better.”

Also it was important to identify what didn’t contribute to the outbreak. Hunt admitted he was nervous about family and friends of players spending time with them after games and after traveling to South Bend, often from long distances.

“It was an area that was a new group of people that we’re bringing into our tight-knit group,” he said. “The word ‘bubble’ is probably often overused. The only bubble that’s actually out there is the NBA. But certainly our closed environment.

“Looking back now over the last two weeks — or the last two games that we had — I’m not sure that the families were in any part of that source or part of that cause of where we’re at today.

“Certainly it’s a possibility, but as our contact-tracing teams have dug deep into this, none of the families were symptomatic, pre(game) or post(game), and it doesn’t appear that any of them have contracted the illness from our players, either.

“So I’m not sure that’s a reasonable explanation. It’s an easy one. It’s an easy one to say that that’s the problem. But it’s probably not reality in terms of what we’re doing there.”

For the time being, Hunt said there are no plans to add daily, rapid-return antigen tests for the entire roster to the three-times-a-week PCR tests, though he didn’t rule it out in the future.

Just like everything else involving dancing with COVID-19, it’s almost always in shades of gray.

When Kelly was asked about what the threshold to postpone a game looked like — with Wake Forest or another game in the future — his answer leaned more on art than fixed numbers.

Maybe that’s why answering questions about Kevin Austin Jr. was so much easier. There’s a prognosis, a timetable and a science-based routine to get him looking like the scout-team player that torched ND’s No. 1 defense in practice last bowl season during a season-long suspension from game-action.

Contrast that with COVID-19, and the very real prospect that the Irish may never play a game this season with its entire roster intact. And Kelly can live with that.

As long as there’s enough normalcy each ensuing week to get a glimpse at how good this 2020 Irish team can be, with resilience perhaps its most endearing and enduring asset.

“We’re going to have to go against each other and we’re going to have to go a lot,” Kelly said. “So there will be some challenges.

“But once the game gets going, this group has played a lot of football. I’m pretty confident that we’ll be able to get up to snuff pretty quickly.”

A South Bend Tribune archive photo from Notre Dame football coverage. As part of Notre Dame's COVID-19 safety protocols, photojournalists were not allowed inside Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.
Wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. runs a drill during Notre Dame’s first and only practice of the spring of 2020. He missed all contact drills during this past spring's 15 practices due to injury.
Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, left, is tied for the team-high with 15 tackles this season. Pictured, Hamilton tackles Bowling Green’s Quintin Morris last season.