Notre Dame’s most-recent wave of tests had not all come in yet when Irish head coach Brian Kelly met with media via Zoom early Monday afternoon. A week ago, that kind of delay would have sparked immense paranoia about No. 5 Notre Dame (2-0, 1-0 ACC) being able to play Florida State (1-2, 0-2) this weekend, but at this point, Kelly betrayed no immediate concern. The delay in the newest Irish testing numbers was a presumed matter of logistics, not of impending troubles.
“The roster is a fluid situation, but we’re in a very good place relative to our two-deep,” Kelly said. “We’re going to be just fine for Florida State.”
For the sake of the season continuing, from Kelly’s lips to testing results.
UPDATE: Late Monday afternoon, Notre Dame announced a total of two positive tests, that yielded no additional contact tracing. A total of 11 players remain away from the team, with seven in isolation via positive tests and four in quarantine thanks to contact tracing.
October 5 – Testing Update pic.twitter.com/8sLNEi0aXG
— Notre Dame Football PR Team (@NDFootballPR) October 5, 2020
The weekly depth chart dropped no hints as to who those 11 could be, with all the usual suspects listed in their usual slots, including the seven players who were unavailable against South Florida.
But somewhere within that depth chart are up to 30 players who recently spent 10 days in isolation after testing positive, and then very gradually built up their physical workload the following 3-4 days. Those initial 10 days cannot include any conditioning, and Kelly admitted the Irish are seeing the effects of that pause, particularly in those that have returned to action in the last week or so.
“We have had to bring them along a lot slower,” Kelly said. “How’s that going to affect us coming Saturday? I would say primarily if a player was normally playing 50 plays, they may be playing half of that.”
Without up to 11 players before the rest of the week’s testing, with another chunk at limited capacity, Notre Dame will have to rely on depth against the Seminoles (7:30 ET; NBC), just as it did against the Bulls. Could the Irish shield that reality a bit from Florida State by operating in only vague descriptions of the outbreak, by refusing to release numbers of cases or even unavailable players before kickoff Saturday? Many, if not most, other teams are taking that exact tactic, claiming transparency would result in a competitive disadvantage.
Setting aside the foolish arrogance of such an approach during a public health crisis like a pandemic, Kelly sees an even more important reason to remain open and honest with Notre Dame’s situation.
“They have parents that are concerned about their health and safety,” Kelly said. “We feel like it’s very important that those that love them, those that care about what’s going on on a day-to-day basis, should know what’s happening within the program. We have nothing to hide. We’re fighting through this coronavirus like everybody else. Safety and health of our players is at the core of that.”
Could there be some separation between informing players’ parents and Florida State or the public? Clouding one would cloud the perception and faith of the other, in Kelly’s mind.
“We felt like if were going to hide numbers, there would be a sense of distrust and we didn’t want to start with that,” Kelly said. “We wanted to start with transparency and get the numbers out there. Let everybody know that we’re going to work through this.
“We’re committed to playing, our players are committed to playing. We built in some flexibility into the schedule preparing for this potential. We were hoping it wouldn’t get to this, but it did, and we would overcome this adversity.”
The biggest fret this week may not end up being which players can handle how many snaps as the latest testing results are released, but what precautions are taken during the game to avoid additional positive tests next week. The Irish believe they lost players to rather natural interactions on the sidelines in the 52-0 romp of South Florida.
“Some of the things you can’t see happening are victories,” Kelly said. “Celebration in the game probably cost us 4-5 guys, because there was that opportunity. …
“It’s so hard to win, and then when you do win, the first thing out of my mouth is, ‘Stop celebrating, put your mask on.’”
Kelly was not referring to sideline contact tracing ruling out a few players, but rather, positive tests that logic suggested stemmed from sideline celebrations, singing the “Fight Song” and perhaps interaction within the locker room.
“I was referring to a potential situation, not hypothetical,” he said. “We can’t be 100 percent certain, but when there’s celebration after a big play or a touchdown or even in the locker room, when guys are excited, and you look back and somebody had turned positive, you wonder about the potential face-to-face spread there. …
“I’m just giving you a glimpse of the little things that are between the lines when you are writing up procedures and protocols.”
Those procedures and protocols were not enough in September, but as Notre Dame finally returns to the field, those past missteps may have provided enough education to proceed through October and November and into December, hopefully not just for the Irish, but for all of college football and many more.
In the aforementioned depth chart, two receiver names popped up that had been absent. Graduate transfer Ben Skowronek (balky hamstring) is back, now listed as junior Braden Lenzy’s backup, not the starter as he was in the season opener when Lenzy was struggling with his own hamstring issues.
And junior Kevin Austin (broken foot) is listed at second-string; Kelly said Austin may be conditioned for only 15-20 plays at this point, but that may be enough to impact the game.
“Based upon what we’ve seen prior, explosive, rangy, outstanding ball skills and a guy that can open up the game,” Kelly said in describing Austin, who has played sparingly in three years. “He can take the top off of coverages, he can catch it and go the distance, and he can win one-on-one matchups. A guy that would be nice to get on the field for us.”