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A delayed, but complete, Notre Dame season in Brian Kelly’s mind

Brian Kelly joins "Lunch Talk Live" with Mike Tirico to assess how college football will be impacted by decisions across campuses to cancel summer sessions and how it could affect the potential start of the season.

Brian Kelly sees a middle ground, one not only with football largely played on schedule this year, but one also with at least some fans in attendance. The Notre Dame head coach is well aware these decisions will not be made by him, maybe not even by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick, but nonetheless, Kelly sees a path through the coronavirus pandemic to Lambeau Field.

The path might be Irish-specific, but its broad template could apply to most teams, as long as their home areas “stay vigilant, stay patient,” as Kelly put it Wednesday.

“We could conceivably get all of our 12 games in,” Kelly said in an interview with Mike Tirico on Thursday’s episode of “Lunch Talk Live” on NBCSN. “There’s really a lot of time to work through the many things that are going to have to change, testing being one of them.

“Still there’s going to have to be some modifications to the (social) distancing and how we get fans into the game. There’s a lot that has to happen because we’re not just going to show up on July 1 and everything is back to normal, but I think we have plenty of time to be able to do that.”

When he mentions July 1, Kelly is referencing his initial do-or-delay date for the season to begin as scheduled on Aug. 29, in Dublin or elsewhere. Two months of build-up will be necessary to be sure players are physically fit enough to compete; Kelly emphasized cardiovascular concerns, explicitly saying he was not referencing skill development worries.

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“I mean not putting a football team out there that is not in a cardiovascular position to compete at the highest level, is susceptible to soft-tissue injuries, is really at risk to not be at its full capacity,” Kelly said. “As we get longer into the summer, you’ll start to see where this may have to push the start of the season back.”

But the season has some built-in cushioning with two idle weeks and nothing scheduled in December. In the possibility of losing some of July, Kelly envisions a season-opener against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field on Oct. 3, then playing straight through October and November before tacking on the four September games in December. Vaguely speaking, the Irish could play 12 games in 12 weeks beginning Oct. 3 and ending Dec. 19. It would be a grueling 12 weeks but unquestionably preferable to losing some of the season.

Again, though, Kelly knows there are barriers between stay-at-home orders and reconvening a football team, even in August. As much as possible, it sounds like Notre Dame is at least coordinating locally to understand when it can hope to return to a semblance of normalcy.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame, Brian Kelly prepare for ‘new normal’

“I know there have not been national plans rolled out, but I can tell you what the plans are here,” Kelly said. “There’s got to be testing, there’s got to be a new normal, if you will, and those things will have to be in place before these games are played.”

IANAIDEB the “new normal” Kelly refers to would presumably include some version of capacity limits, a whole new understanding of daily, if not hourly, hygiene and worry from each Irish football player about unnecessarily exposing himself to the coronavirus and thus perhaps infecting his entire team.

Yet Kelly thinks that new normal could, should include students. Maybe he was simply delivering the Notre Dame party line, but Kelly insisted the Irish could not return to campus on their own.

“It’s part of college football,” he said. “I think the fans and the collegiate atmosphere and students are part of college football, so I think they come back together. When you’re conditioning yourself back out on campus, you can’t be the only ones that are on campus. It can’t just be that football is allowed on campus and nobody can be there.

“Eventually you’re going to have students back on campus, that means they can be a part of the game. Eventually, this is going to have to be everybody’s involved or nobody’s involved.”

That last line came in the context of students and campus, and that is where Kelly’s Oct. 3 proposal most intrigues. It gives five additional weeks for the country to get a handle on this pandemic and perhaps develop reliable antibody tests and rapid-acting diagnosis tests. That cushion could be used to get students back onto campuses in a safe manner, as well.

At that point, hypocrisy can be somewhat avoided in playing football amidst a global health crisis. Student-athletes would be surrounded by students.

“Everything that we do at Notre Dame is centralized around this unification of academics and athletics,” Kelly said. “It would be hypocritical if it was just about football.

We want to play. It’s important, it’s part of our DNA, but it’s got to be one where we’re bringing everything back as one.

Kelly then went through a listing of whom that would include on campus. While it is a lengthy list, it is also one that does not need to include 70,000 weekly outsiders.

This will not end up as Kelly’s choice. The state of Indiana will have a greater influence on it than even Swarbrick will. But they are both also speaking to those authorities more than the rest of us are, and if not them, then certainly University President Fr. John Jenkins who then relays the pertinent pieces to Swarbrick.

Kelly knows significant scientific advances are needed before football is viable, and he knows when that day comes things will still be different — “We know that when we do get the green light to go back, it’s not going to be, ‘OK, everybody’s good, don’t worry about the virus,’” he said Wednesday — but he also sees a way through both those realities to a world with college football on Saturdays in 2020, if not in September.

Let’s hope.

Speaking for nobody but myself, if returning students to campuses in the fall is not yet tenable, but convening 200-300 people to conduct practices and play games might be, I fully expect schools to do so. They will trumpet over the shouts of hypocrisy by arguing, truthfully, preserving the football season preserves entire athletic departments.

Baseball and track and golf and so many other sports lost their spring seasons. If they are to play in 2021, they will need football to be played first.

Let’s hope this decision does not have to be made. If delaying kickoff for a month threads that needle, then it is a wonderful middle ground.

Tirico will continue to host the daily sports talk show, “Lunch Talk Live,” at noon ET on NBCSN. He balances discussion of the current situation with genuine sports conversation. For example, after acknowledging the increasing unlikelihood of playing in Ireland and working through campus logistics, Tirico and Kelly discussed the altered NFL draft evaluation process and how losing spring practices affects Notre Dame.

“(We) feel really good coming back that (fifth-year quarterback) Ian Book is in that position,” Kelly said. “I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat not having spring ball knowing that nobody has it, too. It won’t be a competitive disadvantage for us.”

Rather than considering this corporate schilling, consider it a heads-up to fresh sports content in this barren landscape.

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