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Things To Learn: Returning yet again, No. 5 Notre Dame needs to avoid ‘full tilt’

Notre Dame goal line

Again, we’re back. Again, Notre Dame stared down a fall with the possibility of no football. And again, for the second — or is it the third? — time the Irish worked their way back from that brink to a revived and reshuffled schedule bordering on normal.

If this column were titled “Things Not To Learn,” the top item would be, “How many more times can No. 5 Notre Dame toe this line?” The answer is none. Irish head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged that reality last week.

“We can’t afford another setback the way we had one these past 10 days,” Kelly said. “Everybody is aware of that. We know that we have no wiggle room for the kind of setback that we had. We’ll see if it’s a setback or a pause.”

Talking with a handful of Notre Dame players this week via Zoom, there was a gravity to their voices. They know the outbreak that peaked with 25 active positive tests and 39 total players in isolation or quarantine was a step or two away from curtaining the Irish season just two weeks after it opened. They can’t be blamed if the yo-yoing of the last three months has tired them emotionally.

“It was difficult to hear about that and as we got shut down, I was thinking if that was it for the season, if we were going to get a chance to play again, practice again,” fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley said Tuesday. “I didn’t really know how to react to the situation.”

McKinley focused on what he could control and hoped the long-term issues would resolve in Irish favor, as they seem to have, relatively speaking.

Now, again, back to football, just like after June’s return to campus, after a brief pause as an initial surge in positive results sparked concern in August, after this most recent outbreak, back to football. This time, that return comes without 11 players, as of Monday’s latest update.

Presumably among those 11, sophomore Buck linebacker and senior defensive tackle Myron Tagvailoa-Amosa will both be unavailable this weekend, Kelly volunteered Thursday. It was a bit of an odd admission, given he was asked about Kiser in regards to the depth chart, a query which Kelly could have sidestepped without much notice, and one that did not invoke Tagovailoa-Amosa at all.

Perhaps the interior playmaker was at the front of Kelly’s mind for some unrelated reason, maybe the Hawaiian gave his coach permission to announce his status, or the quick reference could have been Kelly’s way of nipping further rumors, suggesting those two are the extent of the front-line players absent.

Deciphering that inside-baseball moment may seem like a small item to glean this weekend, and it is one that will receive absolutely no clarity until Notre Dame releases a list of unavailable players an hour or so before kickoff, but it could shed some light on how the Irish will handle results and transparency moving forward, which would be a welcome revelation.

At the moment, wondering who will step in up front is understandable. Tagovailoa-Amosa has turned himself into a deceptively-quick, inarguably-long troublemaker. Junior Jayson Ademilola should be ready for an expanded role, but behind him will be a gap, and Notre Dame will not ask the reserve to handle the entire day’s workload. Here is where an asterisk should land, as for all that is known at the moment, Ademilola is also one of those 11, or No. 3 on the depth chart, sophomore Howard Cross, is, further compromising depth.

That will not be a problem at Buck, where preseason starter junior Shayne Simon and 1B junior Marist Liufau are both back. They could have their hands full if they end up in coverage against Florida State tight end Cameron McDonald, already with 11 catches for 122 yards and eight first downs this season, but that should be a welcome test for them, a chance to prove coverage abilities and close some of the gap Kiser opened in his star turn against South Florida.

Simon and Liufau will also serve as a case study in what missing two or three or four weeks of action can do to a season. The pair have not hit an opponent in four weeks. They have gone at least three weeks without mentally readying for it. They may have gone up to two weeks without a full, Power Five collegiate football program conditioning session.

Call it rust, call it timing issues, call it overeager energy. That intangible will be at hand, and the Irish need to guard against it fulfilling the mistaken turn of phrase from junior linebacker Drew White, who described Notre Dame as “going full tilt” Tuesday.

Credit to the Florida native for not realizing full tilt recognizes a gambling moment of reckless, desperate, poor decision-making. The Irish (2-0, 2-0 ACC) do not need to double down against a 13, not when they are facing a Seminoles team (1-2, 0-2) struggling to run the ball, struggling to protect its quarterback and struggling to stop the most rudimentary of offensive approaches.

First-year head coach Mike Norvell turning to junior run-first quarterback Jordan Travis (No. 13) underscores the concerns in Tallahassee. While Travis did average 9.9 yards per carry in 2019, that was largely as a change-of-pace option. Leaning on him may turn Florida State’s offense into a one-dimensional approach that plays into Notre Dame’s hands.

The Irish strength this season, as it has for the last few years, lies in the trenches. That aforementioned asterisk lingers, but if Notre Dame has some semblance of depth along both lines, it should be able to overcome rust, timing issues and overeager energy. It should be able to avoid going full tilt.

To carry the analogy one step further, the Irish will then be able to focus on staying with a 12 facing a four and worry about the rest later. That forced Blackjack reference is a nod to junior receiver Kevin Austin’s long-awaited return. (Austin wears No. 4; fifth-year quarterback Ian Book wears No. 12. Get it? Great.)

Has a player with five career catches ever been so anticipated after missing the last 16 regular-season games?

“You’ll see a star, that’s all I’m going to say,” classmate Braden Lenzy said of Austin’s expected debut after undergoing surgery on his left foot in August.

Kelly said Austin will be limited to 15-20 snaps as he builds into the season. A limited role will likely be the case for much more of the roster than just Austin. Upward of 30 players did not get a full workout in for two full weeks as they recovered from positive test results.

That is not reason to take worry, to go full tilt, not against Florida State in 2020. It is reason to welcome the return of football, again.

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