A quarterback competition and a returning starter at center mark Notre Dame’s preseason normalcy
It’s not just that Notre Dame had its first practice of the 2021 preseason, and it’s not just that Irish head coach Brian Kelly met with media members in person. Those are clear signs of Notre Dame football returning to a semblance of the proverbial normal, but even more stark proof that this season will proceed in a traditional fashion comes from a simple number.
95 percent of the roster has been fully vaccinated from the coronavirus, per Kelly. By getting that close to unanimity, the players have put themselves in a position to not jeopardize any games this fall. Even if the few unvaccinated players, having received exceptions from the University, did get sick, that would not force the Irish to test the entire roster, per NCAA and CDC recommendations.
As such, Notre Dame can focus more on football, on who will start at quarterback and who will man the offensive line, and less on masks, social distancing and stringent protocols.
Kelly did not name Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan as the Irish starting quarterback, but that is only a matter of time. Six days, to be exact. Kelly said he will decide between Coan and sophomore Drew Pyne after the first scrimmage of the preseason, which will be held Thursday.
“[Coan] still had to earn it, and he’s still earning it,” Kelly said. “But this won’t be a long, drawn-out camp. … We just feel like we’ve got a pretty good sense of where this is going to go, and we want to make sure that we’re going to make the right decision and give everybody the chance over the next week to make their case.”
Kelly included Coan in a grouping of 14 players who were firm leaders this offseason, and he was also named one of the best workout performers in the summer by strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis.
So when offensive coordinator Tommy Rees meets with the media after Thursday’s scrimmage, fully expect him to discuss starting quarterback Jack Coan.
But Rees may not be as specific when it comes to Notre Dame’s offensive line. Senior Jarrett Patterson moved back to center on Saturday, a move Kelly said will be permanent. The presumption exiting the spring was that junior Zeke Correll would start at center and Patterson would work elsewhere, even if he is a better center than Correll, since that is still Correll’s best position.
But Patterson’s play the last two years showed he is such an excellent center, moving him from the position may be a detriment to his future.
“He’s one of the best centers in the country,” Kelly said. “It’s hard for me to take a player and really put him at a position where it could affect him down the road.
“He’s done so much for our program. Could we be better served if he played another position? You could make the case, but I think my feeling was we’re a good football team with Jarrett Patterson at center, and it helps him in the long run playing that position.”
Correll instead worked at left guard Saturday, alongside early-enrolled freshman Blake Fisher at left tackle. That may seem like a clear-cut scenario, but Kelly would only give that designation to Patterson and fifth-year Josh Lugg, though Kelly would not commit to Lugg’s positioning.
“Those two guys are the veterans on this offensive line that I can commit to right now,” Kelly said. “Everybody else has got to earn their way.
“Those guys have earned their way with me and this football team. The other guys have got some work to do. Blake hasn’t taken a snap for Notre Dame yet. He’s got work to do. Hold on before we start saying this is what this is going to look like.”
With all due respect to Kelly’s coachspeak, the offensive line will look like, from left to right, Fisher - Correll - Patterson - Marshall transfer Cain Madden - Lugg.
The only two injuries Kelly mentioned were the long troublesome knee of junior quarterback Brendon Clark and a pectoral injury to junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey. The latter has already been cleared to go, but Clark remains a few weeks from clearance.
Senior linebacker Paul Moala, however, is 100 percent back from an Achilles injury suffered last season.
‘LOOK, RUMORS START’
Vague speculation led to some version of a message board rumor last week that sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho was in a version of disciplinary trouble. Kelly seemed to shoot that down entirely on Saturday.
“Look, rumors start,” Kelly said. “Somebody thought something happened that didn’t happen. … If somebody is off the team, we’re going to tell you. We’re going to let you know. If somebody is not playing for Notre Dame, we’re going to let you know. We’re not going to hide that from you.”
That may not be wholly true — receiver Kevin Austin’s 2019 suspension was never confirmed by Kelly or Notre Dame — but Kelly then went on to say Botelho is fine academically and is fine regarding drug testing.
“I don’t know where this came from, to be quite frank with you,” said Kelly with a tone that did differentiate this from an Austin situation. “[Botelho] is cleared to play and compete.”
It would hardly be a return to the proverbial normal if early August did not include much consternation about nothing.