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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s 14 early enrollees may have to wait longer than ever for first practices

Tyler Buchner

The same week Notre Dame hopes to put the finishing touch on its class of 2021, half that class has already arrived on campus. In fact, the 14 early-enrolling freshmen will start classes on Wednesday, the same day they would traditionally have signed with the Irish.

Of course, that coincidence comes after Tyler Buchner, Rocco Spindler & Co. all signed during December’s early signing period, now in its fourth year of existence, with this the (hopefully) rare semester with a February start date due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic could also push their spring practice initiation further down the road than usual. A basic and logical understanding of the realities presently all around us suggests the usual early March beginning of spring practice will instead be sometime in April, if not late April. Rather than log only six weeks of college classes, and strength and conditioning before putting on their helmets, Lorenzo Styles, Gabriel Rubio and Ryan Barnes could have double that.

In theory, their total reps in each regard will not change, but it makes sense to build the academic and conditioning base as much as possible before taking to the field, particularly if some playbook study accompanies that prep work.

While Buchner will arrive as the sixth early-enrolled quarterback in Kelly’s 12 years (Rees, Golson, Kiel, Zaire, Pyne), and classmate Ron Powlus III the seventh, the simultaneous arrival of Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan will lessen the expected immediate impact from Buchner. Receiver Lorenzo Styles, however, could quickly work his way into the two-deep by the summer, a two-deep that returns all of 44 catches from 2020.

Offensive linemen Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher may find themselves in a genuine competition for a starting position at guard, given Notre Dame returns only one game of starting experience at guard among players expected to begin the spring there. Fisher’s long-term future may be at tackle, but rising senior Jarrett Patterson and fifth-year-to-be Josh Lugg should be considered the established front-runners on the edges.

Cornerback Ryan Barnes or Philip Riley could follow in the footsteps of Clarence Lewis as a freshman starter, perhaps joined by safety Justin Walters.

Conceivably in that order — Styles, Spindler, Fisher, Barnes, Riley, Walters — these program-record 14 early-enrollees could find playing time thanks to their arrivals this weekend. Defensive ends Will Schweitzer and Devin Aupiu could also provide needed depth at a position replacing two starters, though it may be more likely they simply work on special teams in four games.

For Barnes, Walters, Schweitzer and Aupui, along with Buchner, the mid-year college entrances come at the expense of their senior seasons, all delayed until the spring. Tight ends Cane Berrong and Mitchell Evans, along with offensive tackle Caleb Johnson, were not forced to make that sacrifice.

Reading the fine print of the extensive division I legislation, there does not seem to be exact parameters set around when spring practice may be held. On every other piece of timing, yes, but not on spring practice dates, at least to this eye. Working from the scheduled season opener at Florida State on Sept. 5 (216 days away), Notre Dame may begin preseason practice on August 7.

The summer conditioning period may last nine consecutive weeks, something that would start on June 5 if the Irish hope to get all nine weeks in before preseason practice commences. And then spring practice should be “conducted within a period of 34 consecutive calendar days, omitting vacation and examination days,” per Bylaw Factoring in the University’s final exams (May 17-19), that period would begin no later than April 29.

Add in student-athlete discretionary time, and Notre Dame would ideally start spring practices by mid-April, but then again, this is the 14th month of 2020 — very little qualifies as ideal.

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