SOUTH BEND — It’s not that Brian Kelly didn’t have enough potential headaches to address this week, even from a 1-2 Florida State team that was reportedly uninspired enough in practice Wednesday to send its head coach into a tizzy.
• What to do with Florida State’s 6-foot-5, 305-pound senior defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, arguably the best interior defensive lineman the Irish will face this season and a special teams menace with two blocked field goals so far.
• Figuring out whether the third time really is the charm in Louisville transfer Jordan Travis, the third quarterback first-year Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell has elevated to the top of the depth chart in four weeks. Or was Travis’ stellar play in a 41-24 comeback victory last Saturday over Jacksonville State more the product of playing against a middling defense, even by FCS standards?
• Approximating how much deposed ND offensive coordinator Chip Long can reveal about the Irish offensive playbook and team personnel this week to Norvell, Long’s boss at Memphis when Kelly hired him away, after the 2016 season.
At least there’s probably some context in Kelly’s 30 years as a college head coach that can help guide the Notre Dame 11th-year mentor through those kinds of issues ahead of the ACC matchup Saturday night between the fifth-ranked Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) and the visiting Seminoles (1-2, 0-2).
The layers of strategizing around the COVID-19 pandemic still have a feel of educated guesswork at times, and not uniquely to Notre Dame by any stretch.
The recent Notre Dame team outbreak that created a double-bye, led to the postponement of ND’s Sept. 26 road game at Wake Forest and an overhaul of the team’s virus-prevention protocols, paused practice for nine days, and peaked at 39 players being in isolation (positive tests) or quarantine (close contacts) is now being used to Notre Dame’s advantage in a sense.
Since June 18, at least 45 Irish players have tested positive for COVID-19, 27 of them since ND’s last game, a 52-0 rout of South Florida on Sept. 19.
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While all 45 still must follow team protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing, there is presumed immunity, at least temporarily. So those players aren’t tested for 90 days from the date of their positive test (unless they display symptoms), and they become safety buffers in a way.
“For example, within a locker room setting,” Kelly said Thursday in a Zoom conference call with the media, “they would be sitting next to somebody that is non-COVID, because we’re certainly going to look at the potential positives on the back end of this — that they’ve already gone through the virus and are not going to be spreading it to somebody that doesn’t have COVID.
“We will utilize the fact that they’ve already had the virus, and that the virus is not infectious, and we will place them in a position where they can help us, if you will, moving forward.”
Of the 27 players who have tested positive since the South Florida game, their 90-day presumed window of immunity will take them through the Dec. 19 ACC Championship Game that the Irish are trying to qualify for as one of the top two finishers in the regular-season standings.
Among players coming back from isolation, it’s a mixture of stringent protocols (minimum 10 days in isolation with no workouts, cardiac testing and blood workup, a methodical re-amping of conditioning and practice) and flexibility on the other side of that.
A case in point is freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis, who filled in admirably in the South Florida game with junior TaRiq Bracy out for COVID reasons. Bracy was a standout in ND’s 27-13 season-opening victory over Duke on Sept. 12.
Now Lewis, coming back from isolation, has put himself in a position to play Saturday night and compete for playing time with Bracy, using that post-isolation flexibility.
“For example, Clarence was at 50 percent (practice capacity), then 75 percent,” Kelly said. “If somebody can make up the ground and still be competitive in practice, we’re going to allow him to still compete for playing time. And if they’re that good of a player, we’re not going to hold them back if their time away has not held them back.
“If you’re that good of a player and you can go through having very mild symptoms and then go through that protocol — of 50 and 75 — and still at the end of the day be as good if not better, then you’re going to see yourself playing on Saturday.”
Florida State just being on the schedule is a COVID-19-related event. Notre Dame’s original schedule had the Irish this weekend playing Stanford, a program that doesn’t play its season opener until Nov. 7.
The Seminoles were one of four ACC teams added to the existing six on the original Irish slate once Notre Dame committed to a temporary, one-year membership in the ACC. The others are road games at Boston College (Nov. 14) and North Carolina (Nov. 27), and the home finale with Syracuse (Dec. 5).
The Irish are scheduled to open the 2021 season at Florida State, Labor Day Sunday (Sept. 5).
• Kelly confirmed what I reported Wednesday in my live chat and transcript, that sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser won’t be available to play Saturday night against South Florida. Also ruled out, but originally on the Monday two-deeps, is starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.
At Kiser’s buck linebacker spot, sophomore Marist Liufau and junior Shayne Simon, who tag-teamed in the opener then missed the USF game, figure to share the playing time Saturday night against the Seminoles.
At defensive tackle, junior Jayson Ademilola could receive his first career start, backed up by sophomore Howard Cross III. The Irish could use some of their defensive end depth as well to provide additional interior options.
• Kelly went into the week thinking of capping wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.’s snaps at 15 to 20 Saturday night in what will be the junior’s first game action since a cameo in the College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson on Dec, 29, 2018.
Kelly said Thursday he’ll stick to that plan, even though a strong week of practice by Austin made it tempting to do otherwise.
Austin underwent surgery Aug. 3 to repair a broken bone in his left foot, a practice injury he suffered five days prior. Before that, he was suspended from game action for the entirety of the 2019 season.
Despite having a modest five career catches for 90 yards, all as a freshman in 2018, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Floridian is considered by many to potentially be ND’s most dynamic offensive player in 2020.
“He can certainly help us,” Kelly said. “We want to be careful. He’s only going to be about 11 weeks (post-surgery). So not that we’re putting him in a vulnerable position, but we’ve got to be careful.
“He hasn’t played full speed football in a long, long time, so I think we want to err on (the side of) caution in terms of his snaps this week, and then we’ll go from there.”
• In a small sample size, Pro Football Focus’ analytics-based college football rankings have Notre Dame’s offensive line as the No. 1 unit in the Power 5, with No. 2 Georgia not even close.
The Irish received a grade of 96.9 to Georgia’s 80.9. Clemson was third at 76.1, followed by Virginia Tech and Louisville — both at 76.0.
“It’s kind of what I’ve been saying really since preseason camp,” Kelly said, “in that I don’t know that there’s one guy that you would say he is the best player in the country by far. But as a unit, the five of those guys together, it’s the sum of the parts, right?
“It’s all of those guys working together. They’ve logged so many hours together that they pick up for each other so well and they communicate so well. There’s not a better unit in the country where all five work as well together.”