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Kelly talks joining ACC, COVID-19 precautions, incoming class

| Monday, August 17, 2020

Irish football head coach Brian Kelly held a virtual press conference Thursday, after the Irish had concluded their first practice. Kelly fielded a wide variety of questions ranging from transfer athletes and incoming freshmen to joining the ACC. 

Kelly addressed the elephant in the room — the coronavirus pandemic.

“You’re not going to be able to go through a pandemic without having positive tests,” he said. “We are going to continue to be transparent. We’re going to have our good days, and we’re going to have our bad days.”

He said the football team’s results could not be separated from the Notre Dame community or the country as a whole.

“I think we have been vigilant when it comes to education; we’ve got an informed student body — one that understands that their behavior will dictate, to a large degree, how positivity rates go up and down,” Kelly said. “Many are concerned about what it is going to be like when campus gets going. You know, this is really about practicing good habits, and I think if you do that you have a chance of being successful in a very, very difficult time. I think that Notre Dame so far has understood that. Now we saw this when we flattened the curve as a country, and then we got all giddy and thought we had it licked. This is something that you have to do for a long time. This is hard. This is where you have really got to show some grit and stick with it, day in and day out or it’s going to jump up and really get to you, and we have seen that nationally. So good start, long way to go — both for our football team and for our campus — and we’ve got to stay vigilant.”

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish senior running back Jafar Armstrong runs to the right side during Notre Dame’s 33-9 Camping World Bowl win over Iowa State.

Despite the vigilance of the campus community, COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise on campus. As of Aug. 16, 45 Notre Dame community members have tested positive of the 473 tested, and the University has been put in a spotlight, being one of the first large schools in their country to reopen its doors after shutting down earlier in the pandemic. Now Notre Dame is being pushed from all sides, not only as a Catholic institution with the duty of putting the dignity and welfare of human beings first and foremost, but also as one of the few consistent perennial college football powerhouses in the country. The message administration and the Notre Dame football program is sending is that there is too much to be lost by not making an attempt to play football this upcoming fall. 

“This isn’t easy. We are fighting through a lot of different things at one time,” Kelly said. “Our guys haven’t tackled since December, so I am concerned with all of these things. … I’m looking at all those things necessary to make those kinds of judgements. Look, I have been doing it for 30 years — I feel like a first year head coach. So everything that I’m doing, I’m looking at some of the science that we have. I’m talking to our players at great length after practice to get a sense of where they are, meeting with the staff, trying to get as much information as possible as we plan out what we’re doing. We have a schedule, but I think it is so important right now — it’s prudent to be extremely flexible in terms of what you’re doing.”

Kelly spoke about some of the changes in safety procedures during practice. The issue that concerns him most is how handling player hydration changes with precautions in place.

“The biggest thing is you have your own water bottle, so they are positioned at kiosks throughout the field [and] that is your bottle,” he said. “Whereas in years past, you had a number of different athletic trainers with water handing out water. So our weight loss, for example, was exponentially different after a practice like yesterday than it has been at any other time since I’ve been here. Generally we’ll have between six and eight players lose about 3% body weight; we had 15 to 17 [yesterday]. … That’s a small thing, but it’s important to keep an eye on because you can’t continue to lose over 3% of your body weight and water weight because it is going to start to affect you.”

The team is taking other precautionary measures that might have seemed silly in years past.

“[We are] spraying the footballs down with a disinfectant virtually after every throw with our managers to help reduce the spread. I think those two things probably stand out the most to me. Other than, of course, every coach has to have a mask on, and having our players have a mask with them around their neck at all times. So if they do take their helmet off, they’ve got to try to pull the mask up, it’s recommended that they wear it. We know it’s not possible for them to have a mask on all the time, but anytime that they can we’re strongly recommending it.”

Kelly wrapped the virus discussion with his main message to his team during these times. 

“I think they clearly understand that their human behavior has put them in a position for the University to feel as though they can trust their student athletes to make good choices and good decisions. The overall atmosphere here is, ‘We’re all in.’ In other words — both students and student athletes — we’re all in to see that we have a football season,” he said. “I think that they earned that trust in the six weeks leading up to the school starting here. I think our administration was making a decision as to what kind of behavior our football team would have, what kind of attention to detail they would have. They showed that this is very difficult but if we give them great healthcare and understand that we need great procedures and protocols and have all the things that are necessary to take care of our student athletes and our staff, then we can do this. That coupled with the fact that they are in a safe environment here. Being involved in this program is very safe. If they left the program, the pandemic and the virus is not going away. You still have to wear a mask. You still have to social distance. You still have to do all the things that you would have to do in this program, it doesn’t change things for you. We just have more guidelines, we have more safety checks for you, we have specialists for you, we have testing for you, we have a lot of other things to care for you within the program.”

Kelly also addressed the quality of graduate transfer from Northwestern wide receiver Ben Skowronek and senior safety transfer from Ohio State, Isaiah Pryor.

“When you take fifth-years and a transfer that’s coming in with one year [remaining], you obviously you need to be right,” Kelly said. “By all indications, we got a great glimpse of Ben certainly with him being here early, and Pryor. Both of them were the leading point recipients this summer in their position groups. Pryor had almost 1,000 points as a DB, and then amongst the tight ends and wide receivers Skowronek just edged out [junior wide receiver] Kevin Austin [Jr.] with about 1,200 points.”

Skowronek had 141 receiving yards last season with the Wildcats despite playing in just three games. Pryor recorded 47 total tackles and seven pass breakups over his Buckeyes career.

Kelly also touched upon another transfer who joined the squad later than Skowronek and Pryor: graduate student cornerback from North Carolina State Nick McCloud.

“This was a step up for him.” Kelly said. “A step up in terms of the training, and he really took hold of it and made great strides throughout the six weeks that he was here. He finished the six weeks in the 650 range; just to give you an indication, 750 was the [sophomore defensive back Kyle] Hamiltons and the [graduate student cornerback Shaun] Crawfords. So he did really well in making up for some lost time. He’s long and he’s athletic, so those three guys really, really pleased with where we are with their presence in our program.”

Kelly fielded a question no other Irish football coach has had to answer before — a question about actually having a conference schedule. 

“Our players are excited though, quite honestly, that they get a chance to play for an ACC Championship. So for the ACC to allow us that opportunity, they’re excited about it. They know it’s going to be a great challenge,” he said. “They know that in a large degree obviously that runs through Clemson [and] South Carolina, but there are great challenges on our schedule with some really good football teams that we know are going to be great battles, so we’re looking forward to the challenge. I know our kids our excited about playing for a conference championship, but we’ve got a pretty daunting schedule that we have got to take care of one week at a time as well.”

Kelly concluded the interview with a question about how his team has kept up the fight against systemic racism since the team’s march on Juneteenth two months ago. He hinted at a few future events.

“We have a unity council that has been meeting, and we have some things that we’re doing internally and we’re not prepared to talk about them right now publicly. But they’re pretty exciting, … they’re really about activism, so you’ll see them before you hear about them, in terms of what our football team is going to be doing. It will be over the next month or two. There are two particular events that we’re going to be involved in, and we’re pretty excited about it.”

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About Jimmy Ward

Jimmy is a senior at Holy Cross College, where he studies English and sports management. He is originally from Westfield, Indiana. Currently, Jimmy serves as an associate sports editor at The Observer. You can find him at @jimmyyward on Twitter.

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