I was wrong. On July 1, I came to the conclusion there would not be college football this fall. Not for the Ivy League, not for the Big Ten, not for Notre Dame. I was wrong.
But still, is there really going to be a Notre Dame game tomorrow? A bit after 2:30 ET, will the Irish really kick off on NBC against Duke? Given Notre Dame still had no players in quarantine or isolation as of early Thursday afternoon, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, one can only assume this is actually going to happen.
With all due respect to the on-field product, the tantalizing possibilities of a starting safety duo of sophomore Kyle Hamilton and sixth-year Shaun Crawford, and the potential uncomfortable comedy created by a shortened and stuttering preseason, the sensory deprivation aspects of the entire endeavor will be what we remember most.
Only 15,525 fans in the stands, if that? Those fans not congregated in a few sections, but rather extending all the way up to the top row with the best view of Touchdown Jesus? Separated celebrations led by a socially-distanced band in the stands?
This might take some getting used to.
“Of course it’ll be a little different,” senior Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said Tuesday. “Less fans, but mentally, I don’t think it’ll be different for any of us. You go back to high school, you go back to little league football, and you look at how much energy it was then. It’s still exciting, it was still power-packed. It was still a good experience.”
The possible first-round draft pick is not wrong. Few things bring more joy than watching a 9-year-old nephew snag a flag off a kick returner, but there is a distinct difference between joy and delirium, between happiness and rowdiness, between a Friday night atop the bleachers and a Saturday afternoon in the stands at Notre Dame.
This is not to make the younger forms of football sound only wholesome. They have their flaws just as college football does. Their virtues, however, derive from their small-time qualities, whereas college football’s best parts come from the chaos immediately off the field. When we discuss life “between the hedges,” it is really an allusion to all of Athens, Ga. “Death Valley” is more an acknowledgement of the fans than of either Tigers. Even if one wants to get wry and compare this coming atmosphere to an average Saturday at The Farm, Notre Dame Stadium will be lacking the picturesque landscapes and tailgates-in-Teslas frivolity usually surrounding the Stanford campus.
Maybe there really will not be that much of an adjustment, ACC logo on the field notwithstanding. Maybe 15,000 stir crazy fans can provide enough ambience to carry the day until a few Irish touchdowns do the rest. Maybe an event, any event, will be so welcome after the last six months to overcome the memories of what these occasions used to be like.
“There was a time this year where we didn’t even know if we were playing football,” senior right tackle and two-time captain Robert Hainsey said Tuesday. “… I don’t care if there’s no fans or if it’s like a scrimmage. The fact that we get to play football is such a blessing this year, and anyone who is upset about the fans, I don’t know where they’re coming from. It’s just so exciting that we get to play football this year.”
Reasonable minds still wonder how tenable that football will be, particularly this first week. Usually, Kelly spends the week of the opener worrying a broad stroke may not have taken hold in preseason practice.
“If we were living in a vacuum, my concerns would be like they have been for 30 years,” he said. “How’s your team going to respond when it’s now game day? How do they handle going from practice to competitive mindset?”
Instead, this season, Kelly only hopes those instincts kick in, knowing he did not quite have the chance to be as physical with the 2020 Irish in practice as he would have liked, he has not tested their fitness as much as would be preferable, a few packages may not have been rehearsed as much as necessary.
When Notre Dame went to remote-learning for two weeks early in the semester, the football team missed a few practices. All in all, the Irish have logged only 22 of their desired 25 practices heading into this opener. Kelly has fallen short of the maximum allotted practices in a few of his 30 years as a head coach, but that was always by choice.
“I’ve had teams that were prepared to play after 20-21, with strong spring balls and where we had, in years past, double sessions where I knew our team was fit and ready to play,” he said. “You get that sense when they’re banging each other and you’re like, ‘Alright, we’ve had enough of hitting each other.’”
None of that applies to 2020, through no fault of Notre Dame’s or Kelly’s. It is simply our present reality.
“We could have used another week or so. I’m sure Duke is going to feel the same way. No excuses. We will be ready to play.”
Of course, being ready to play will require some attention paid to a few particular positions. The discovery of Crawford at safety may be the most intriguing. If it works out, and there is little reason to think anything Crawford sets his mind to will not work out, then the Irish could have the most savvy safety duo in the country.
Hamilton’s first career snap at Notre Dame Stadium displayed his nose for the ball, not to mention the end zone, while Crawford (when healthy) has made a career out of making big plays in big moments. A blocked PAT return at Texas and a forced fumble-into-fumble recovery in the end zone at Michigan State come to mind.
Setting both up to watch plays develop in front of them could lead to misery for opposing offensive play-callers, beginning with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe.
“I got comfortable [at safety], I started making some plays, I was communicating the defense,” the former cornerback said. “I was just being a vocal leader back there. I kind of felt at home back there. The coaches saw the same thing, so with just my playmaking ability and my ability to tackle, I think we all thought it was a great opportunity for me.”
If there is reason to worry about Crawford at safety, it has less to do with him and more to do with his former position. Notre Dame will lean on North Carolina State graduate transfer Nick McCloud on the boundary side of the field with either junior Tariq Bracy or freshman Clarence Lewis lining up on the wide side. Despite Kelly’s praise for McCloud’s physicality and comparing Lewis to KeiVarae Russell, they are unknown commodities.
Clemson graduate transfer quarterback Chase Brice, under Cutcliffe’s tutelage and scheming, should test them, despite the Irish strengths at defensive end putting him under pressure and experienced linebackers filling his gaps. If McCloud and Lewis or McCloud and Bracy cannot prove adept at cornerback, that alone could threaten the tease of Crawford along the defense’s backline.
Flipping to offense, skill position rotations will be offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ priority to start the season. Between some practice absences, a notable injury and general youth, Notre Dame’s starting lineup against Duke could look much different than it does against Florida State in a month. Building into that more refined form will require plenty of reps for a myriad of players. Simply for reference’s sake, the skill position depth chart as released for this week is as follows:
Running back: Kyren Williams; Chris Tyree or Jahmir Smith or C’Bo Flemister or Jafar Armstrong.
Boundary receiver: Ben Skowronek; Joe Wilkins.
Field receiver: Javon McKinley; Braden Lenzy.
Slot receiver: Avery Davis; Lawrence Keys.
Tight end: Brock Wright; Tommy Tremble or George Takacs or Michael Mayer.
Perhaps with the exception of Skowronek in light of junior receiver Kevin Austin’s broken foot, one could be forgiven for not expecting any of those starters to top the depth chart. It is possible in a month none of them will. Sorting out that morass will necessitate hockey line-style shifts from Rees in the coaching box and orchestrated by receivers coach Del Alexander along the sideline.
Worrying about a backup tight end in Rees’ presumed multiple tight end sets should be welcome respite after the last six months, for both the Irish and their fans.
“It just feels so great to actually get to game week,” fifth-year quarterback and two-time captain Ian Book said. “… We finally get the opportunity to play. It’s actually here, so let’s go make the most of it.”
It’s actually here.