It remains to be seen whether Notre Dame football takes off from here, but Brian Kelly’s team finally seems to be on the other side of a COVID-19 scare that threatened to derail the season.
Ranked fourth in the country and set to host unranked Louisville on Saturday afternoon, Kelly’s Fighting Irish enjoyed a practice week without a single player in quarantine or self-isolation. The last time Kelly could say that was almost six weeks ago, back on Sept. 8.
“This felt as back to normal as we’ve had,” Kelly told reporters on Thursday. “Even more so than Duke week. This felt like a normal work week you would have during a non-COVID season.”
Top punt returner Lawrence Keys III was still recovering from a concussion, and left tackle Liam Eichenberg was still dealing with a massive shiner after getting poked in the left eye. But the team Kelly was about to send out for an expected walloping of the Cardinals was pretty much the same one he hopes to have at his disposal when top-ranked Clemson visits three weeks from now.
Kelly could sense the decrease in team anxiety.
“Our guys felt a lot more comfortable,” he said. “Had a number of tests where they were negative. That wasn’t the topic of conversation.”
Florida State gashed Clark Lea’s defense for 26 points and a handful of long gains, but Kelly was willing to write off some of that to the combination of rust and the logistical repercussions of COVID-19.
“There were some factors that were unique,” Kelly said. “A lot of those guys weren’t practicing during the week, and it showed.”
If the 16-point win over the Seminoles was essentially a Season Opener Redux for Kelly’s group, he’s viewing this Louisville game as a second crack at Week 2. The first one went swimmingly in a 52-0 win over South Florida, but days later the virus threw the Irish for a big loss.
The trip to Wake Forest was first postponed, then later tacked onto the end of the regular-season schedule in December. Practices were canceled, meetings were done remotely again and the complete focus once more was on restoring the collective health of the team.
When they made it all the way back after three weeks without playing, the Irish had team trainer Rob Hunt and team Dr. Matt Leiszler to thank. Fittingly, Kelly bestowed game balls upon both of them after the FSU win.
Even though positive tests have begun to climb again among the general campus population, Kelly and his staff remain optimistic the worst is behind the Irish football program.
“You feel complete; you’ve got your team together,” he said. “They know what we put in place is effective. We went to a new testing procedure over the weekend, and everything has come back clean. That builds a lot of momentum within the group.”