Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly shares what normalcy for Irish football looks like
SOUTH BEND — His injury report, beyond wide receiver Lawrence Keys’ encouraging progress through concussion protocol, took all of four seconds.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s COVID-19 briefing would have been even shorter than that had he not provided some context and the significance that Thursday marked the first time since Sept. 8 that his fourth-ranked Irish football team (3-0, 2-0 ACC) didn’t have a single player in either isolation or quarantine.
On Sept. 28, six days after football practices were shut down for a nine-day stretch and a Sept. 26 road date at Wake Forest was postponed to Dec. 12, that number crested at 39 players sidelined by COVID-19.
“In terms of routine, this felt as back to normal that we’ve had,” Kelly said during his weekly Thursday Zoom catchup with the media. “Even more so than the Duke (opening) week.
“This really felt like the normal work week that you would have during a non-COVID season. Our guys felt a lot more comfortable.”
Full roster. Full set of dreams. Full attention to take on a Louisville team good enough to open the season in the Top 25 and self-destructive enough to bring a 1-3 overall record and an 0-3 ACC mark to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV).
If the execution is as successful as the preparation on Notre Dame’s end of things, it would also be a de facto step toward evolving into a team better equipped for a November schedule that sandwiches a potential land mine in Phil Jurkovec-led Boston College between No. 1 Clemson and fifth-ranked North Carolina.
Other than Keys and the final two players to exit COVID-19 isolation, defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and linebacker Jack Kiser, it was a full week of practice for everyone, unlike the prelude to last Saturday’s choppy 42-26 dismissal of Florida State.
“So when you have all your guys back, from that perspective, you feel complete,” Kelly said. “You’ve got your team together. You have depth. You have competition.
“You have practices that are a lot different, because they’re structured in a manner that brings that competitiveness out during your preparation. That’s extremely positive in so many areas.
“It also helps in terms of making sure that the workload is balanced out among everyone on the team. As we worked hard to get back, the workload was not balanced out.
“Some had to carry a lot more of the load (last week). And, quite frankly — many of you didn’t know this — but it affected guys how they performed on Saturday, because they had way too much workload to get others back. And they had to take a lot more reps than they normally do.”
This week, sixth-year stalwart Shaun Crawford moves back from emergency cornerback to strong safety. And the front seven should have a more even flow to its rotations.
Even the way the defense is coached takes on a revised approach, especially in light of how much motion and deception the visiting Cardinals like to do pre-snap on offense.
“I think if you would look at what we felt were some concerns from last week, we were trying to get the perfect call in there and at times maybe didn’t have our players with their cleats in the ground,” Kelly said. “We’re going to be simpler, and we’re going to attack the line of scrimmage. We’re going to be a physical football team.
“So there’s a lot of eye candy there. There’s a lot of misdirection, but we have got to keep things simple up front. You’re going to see us get back to the basics and the fundamentals from a defensive perspective.”
Perhaps the most unexpected touchstone of normalcy by Kelly’s standards this week (and last) were conversations with quarterback Ian Book about things that would seem already baked into the thinking of a third-year starter.
Being more proficient on the deep balls is just one example.
“I don’t know that there’s any position that gets scrutinized more than the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “And therefore, it needs to be constantly evaluated and coached on a day-to-day basis. And when I say coached and evaluated on a day-to-day basis, I’m talking about where can there be subtle improvements?
“When you’re obviously being successful at the position, you don’t reach a point of destination and say, ‘OK, I’m here, I’ve made it.’ So there’s constant conversations in our meetings about the things that he can continue to do to be a better quarterback.”
Book, coming off his best statistical performance of the season Saturday night against Florida State (16-of-25 for 201 yards and 2 TDs), currently sits at No. 33 nationally in passing efficiency (141.3 ratings points) among the 70 FBS quarterbacks with enough attempts and games played to qualify.
That translates to sixth among ACC QBs, four spots in the national pecking order behind Jurkovec and one behind his Louisville counterpart, Malik Cunningham.
Last season, Book finished 24th in pass efficiency (149.1) out of 109 qualifiers.
“Whatever level people look at Ian Book and say, ‘Well, he’s a B quarterback or he’s a B-plus quarterback,’ in his mind he wants to be an A-plus quarterback,’’ Kelly said.
“And so that is great, because it always allows us for coaching and teaching on a day-to-day basis as it relates to a position that’s scrutinized so much.”
• Notre Dame football’s latest COVID-19 numbers, following Sunday and Tuesday testing, are remarkable when you consider recent spikes in Indiana, surrounding St. Joseph County, and in Thursday’s report from the Notre Dame campus as a whole.
Just days after reporting only 26 active cases on campus, the number jumped to 58 in Thursday’s university dashboard report. There have been 41 new cases reported in the past three days.
• Included among the five grad transfers in Notre Dame’s recently announced baseball signing class is left-handed pitcher John Michael Bertrand, an older brother of Irish linebacker JD Bertrand.
The elder Bertrand was 3-1 with a 1.50 ERA last spring for Furman before COVID-19 prompted the shutdown of all college sports.
Of the 17 baseball newcomers, there’s also two junior college transfers.
• There’s a running joke among sports media about college award watch lists that it may be easier sometimes just to list the players who DIDN’T make it.
On Wednesday, the delayed release of the Rimington Trophy’s watch list actually made that a reality.
Only 37 FBS schools playing fall football didn’t have a representative on the watch list for the award given annually to the nation’s top center. Notre Dame junior Jarrett Patterson was one of 13 centers from the 15-team ACC and 90 players overall that received mention.
The way he’s playing so far in 2020, Patterson has a good chance of being on the list when it gets pared to a final few. Pro Football Focus has rated him as one of college football’s top offensive linemen, at any position, to date based on his play.
• The ACC has announced plans for the conference’s first Unity Week, which will be celebrated Oct. 24-31. ACC Unity Week was developed through the efforts of the ACC’s Committee for Racial and Social Justice.
No. 4 NOTRE DAME (3-0) vs. LOUISVILLE (1-3)
Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 17