How Disciplined Notre Dame, Navy Football Players Are May Determine If The Two Programs Play One Another In 2020
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Off-The-Field Discipline May Determine If Notre Dame, Navy Play This Fall

Ohio State and North Carolina are just a few of the several notable Power Five programs that were forced to temporarily suspend voluntary workouts over the past month due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

News of the virus spreading throughout collegiate athletic departments sent ripples of concern throughout the college football world, which already seems to be wading in deeper and deeper water as the season approaches without a consensus safety plan in place.

Will the season be postponed until late September or October? What about a spring start?

The good news is that Notre Dame and longtime rival Navy have thus far avoided any serious outbreaks, which seems to indicate that their Sept. 5 or 6 matchup in Annapolis, Md., should kick off as planned.

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Notre Dame versus Navy
There is a possibility Notre Dame and Navy may not be able to play each other for the first time in nearly a century due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Andris Visockis)

But there is one confounding factor that has the potential to sink even the most stringent safety protocols: the return of non-student-athletes.

In June, several LSU football players went to bars at Tigerland, a student-focused nightlife area near campus. This resulted in several positive tests and forced several players to quarantine. Initially, it was reported that more than 30 Tigers were forced to skip workouts, but head coach Ed Orgeron has since stated the total number was much lower.

There is a good chance that temptations to go out to a bar or a local house party, or even to just be around friends, will intensify as the number of students on campus drastically increases.

Avoiding such temptations will take a high level of self-restraint, which Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly believes his team has. Thus, he has been assertive in his position that college football will be played this year.

“I say that with the confidence based upon how well and how determined and disciplined our players are,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly told ESPN. “They want to play, and they have shown over the last month the kind of commitment, attention to detail, the discipline to play in a very difficult situation.

“There’s a pandemic going on. We all know that. You have to be safe and you have to be careful. But our guys have handled it tremendously and I’m so proud of them. They are so committed and they want to play this game of football and we’re going to provide them with every opportunity to do so.”

On a Zoom meeting with the media on Tuesday, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo echoed a similar sentiment and level of confidence in his players. He even pointed out that the Midshipmen program has never succeeded because it was the biggest, fastest or most athletic team.

Instead, Navy has won hundreds of games over the last several decades by being the most disciplined.

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The Naval Academy also has the added advantage of being able to protect its players from the outside world better than any non-military academy in the country. The campus in Annapolis is surrounded by walls and gates with guards in attendance.

The football program also took a number of other precautions, such as staggering the return of its players, having them quarantine before participating in workouts and having coaches and players wear masks at all times.

“I have no worries when taking the exact precautions we need to,” Navy senior cornerback Cameron Kinley said. “We look at the Naval Academy as a bubble, kind of like what the NBA has going on right now. It seems slow right now, some people might say we’re behind, but I like that it is kind of a long term race.

“I think we’re taking steps to ensure that we don’t have any cases. And each week, we won’t have any cases with the measures that we’re taking. I’m extremely thankful for that.”

The players are so safe that Niumatalolo said the coaches are probably a bigger risk to spread the virus because they are much more likely to leave campus.

Because of this, he and his staff carry around at least four different masks at all times of varying thicknesses. Niumatalolo even tried a face shield during a team walk-through the other day, which fogged up to the point he couldn’t see and he was forced to take it off.

Kelly has also referred to Notre Dame’s campus as a bubble, but also acknowledged that this figurative protective shield from the outside world will go away once the student body returns — a major difference between the two programs going forward.

“Essentially, we leave the bubble and start the season, unlike some of the professional teams like the NHL or NBA, they move into a bubble and start their season,” Kelly said last week on The Dan Patrick Show.

Notre Dame and Navy have played each other every season since 1927, which only adds to the pressure both programs feel to do everything in their power to ensure that this matchup takes place in 2020 (even if some Fighting Irish fans would be happy to see the series come to an end).

Navy, in particular, uses this annual rivalry as a barometer to how they stack up in comparison to college football's elite programs. Last year, their game in South Bend resulted in 52-20 Notre Dame victory.

“We were really excited about playing them until you watch last year’s tape and you can realize that we had a really good team last year,” Niumatalolo said. “We were 7-1 when we went out there and they spanked us pretty good. They got after us pretty good. But we’re excited. It’s a new year.

“We’re a different team. Obviously, they’re a different team, a really, really good football team. All the things that you read, a lot of people projecting them to be a final four team.”

That is, assuming there is a College Football Playoff for the 2020 season. At this point, that remains to be seen, but how programs handle the reopening of campuses across the country will be a major determining factor.

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