Notre Dame Football Gets ‘Back To Normal’ After COVID-19 Shutdown

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Boston College v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN – NOVEMBER 23: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish waves as he … [+] leads the team on their walk to the stadium prior to a game against the Boston College Eagles at Notre Dame Stadium on November 23, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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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. 

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“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. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Notre Dame at Georgia

ATHENS, GA – SEPTEMBER 21: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Quarterback Ian Book (12) during the game … [+] between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Bulldogs on September 21, 2019, at Sanford Stadium in Athens, GA. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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.”

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