Notre Dame is back and ‘focused’ … and so are we

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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents — 

I owe you an apology. Throughout the latter stretch of the past 137 days without my byline, I doubted my editor. It should have caught more of my attention when he insisted on adding some optimism to my April column shuttering this site for the foreseeable future. In more than three years, he had never exercised editorial license on a single item I wrote.

But on that Friday, he worried the column felt “a bit too final.”

So I added a line near the end: “If football doesn’t wait too long, perhaps this byline will accompany kickoff.”

He was right. Football did not wait too long. This byline has returned.

But I struggled to believe that as June’s encouraging trends led to July’s coronavirus surges led to August’s university closures. Instead of spending that time studying up on every ACC opponent now that Notre Dame is facing 10 this fall, I leaned into more essential work on what we now consider front lines.

Rather than mocking up an abridged “Counting Down the Irish” series led by Ian Book’s record-book assault, Kyle Hamilton’s All-American candidacy and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s rise up draft boards, I learned to make an East African black tea heavy on cinnamon and ginger root.

I did not refresh my memory of Kyren Williams’, Jordan Johnson’s and Clarence Lewis’ high school highlights, but I did begin a vinyl collection currently playing Gary Clark Jr.’s “This Land.”

My summertime skepticism has forced a steeper personal learning curve as we suddenly approach the most unique college football season in a century.

I have to remind myself not to refer to Notre Dame as the No. 10 team in the country without including the note that three of the teams ahead of the Irish are not playing this fall, turning that into a de facto No. 7 ranking.

I will somehow remember a one-year full ACC membership comes not only with a logo on the field and a patch on the jersey, but also an additional Orange Bowl tie-in, broadening Notre Dame’s pathways into the New Year’s Six, should the season reach that far.

I will include Williams’ nine-pound weight gain in my growing expectations from him, despite a freshman season that saw one dropped pass in the season opener and not much else from the newly-named starting running back.

Frankly, I will now strive to do what the Irish have done, focus on football, despite *gestures wildly everywhere*.

“You can get rattled easily when there’s a positive test or rattled with the media information that comes out relative to either a school closing or football shutting down or the troubles that we’re having in our country,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “It’s easy to get rattled and lose your focus and get distracted, and this group has done an incredible job of managing that.

“It doesn’t mean they’re immune to what’s going on around them. They’re tuned into it, but they’ve done a really good job of parking a lot of that.”

That is easier said than done, obviously. Focusing on football in the midst of a global pandemic, a national race discussion and a contentious presidential election requires a version of deliberate vigilance not usually associated with a pastime.  But the cost of such a lapse has already been made clear by Texas State opening its season sans tight ends due to contact tracing and quarantine, by Middle Tennessee State bungling a red-zone opportunity at the end of a half so badly it would be insulting to the Three Stooges to draw a comparison, by one of the most respected coaches in the country botching basic preseason preparations.

Per Kelly, Notre Dame currently does not have a single player in quarantine or isolation. The Irish are focused on their season, now only five days away (vs. Duke; 2:30 ET; NBC).

I haven’t been focused. I scoffed at my editor’s first correction in more than three years. For that, I apologize.

But I’m back, and by Saturday, I will easily remember that 20 percent of Notre Dame Stadium’s capacity is exactly 15,525. I will rattle off the Irish defensive starters of junior linebacker Shayne Simon, freshman cornerback Lewis and sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford without hesitation. I will not need mental math to land at the preposterous number of 114 returning starts along Notre Dame’s offensive line.

I better, because there is going to be a season with or without me pondering every aspect of it. Might as well be with me doing so, and with you, for that matter.