When Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly first learned Thursday that Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence had tested positive for COVID-19, his first concern was Lawrence's health.
His mind then turned to the top-5 matchup between Notre Dame and Clemson on Nov. 7.
"Is he gonna play?" Kelly revealed as his next thought while speaking after Notre Dame's win at Georgia Tech on Saturday. "I'm sure he's gonna play."
Kelly wasn't the only one speculating about Lawrence's status for No. 1 Clemson at No. 4 Notre Dame late last week. The star quarterback's availability for Clemson's biggest game of the season was a hot topic throughout the country for the nearly 48 hours leading up to Dabo Swinney's postgame news conference Saturday after the Boston College game.
Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel wrote that there was "hope" Lawrence would be able to return against Notre Dame. And The Athletic's Matt Fortuna asked if it was possible Lawrence might fly separately from the team to South Bend and suit up in time for kickoff.
The questions would have continued every day this week — had Swinney let them.
He could have kept Notre Dame guessing all week leading up to Saturday's game, forcing the Irish to prepare for both Lawrence and freshman phenom D.J. Uiagalelei this week at practice. Instead, Swinney immediately ended any potential distraction, announcing after the win over BC that Lawrence will be out this coming week as well.
"Trevor will not be able to play. I want to go ahead and get that out there," Swinney said. "There's protocol."
That protocol leaves opportunity for wiggle room, but for Clemson the decision was crystal clear.
Atlantic Coast Conference rules require players to isolate for at least 10 days from the start of symptoms or a positive test. They must then undergo a cardiac evaluation before beginning a phased return and a re-acclimatization period.
There is no set minimum period for the phased return from the ACC, but for Clemson student-athletes it is typically a minimum of two to three days. That two- to three-day minimum starting point is the same for all Clemson student-athletes, even for the star QB and Heisman favorite with a top-5 team up next on the schedule.
Clemson could have tried to rush Lawrence through the protocol, particularly as local and national reporters — and even Notre Dame's head coach — thought Lawrence might find a way to suit up. But there are more important things in life than football, and you can never be too careful when it comes to someone's health.
Clemson is familiar with the dangers associated with COVID, as defensive end Xavier Thomas missed the first four games of the season as he recovered after testing positive this summer, and defensive end Justin Foster hasn't played all year and is in "protocol," according to Swinney.
"There's protocols for a reason," Swinney said Saturday. "We want to make sure when you do come back you do it in the safest possible way. If he was going back to a desk job he'd be right back at work ... obviously playing football's a little different deal. There's measures in place to ensure that these young people are safely put back into play."
It goes without saying that Lawrence has a bright future as the presumed No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, and there is no reason to do anything other than be as careful as possible with Lawrence's health.
That's why it wouldn't make sense to have a player spend 10 days in isolation without physical activity, fly across the country after not practicing for more than a week, step off the plane and go play a game against one of the best teams in the country.
Clemson understands that and Swinney understands that, which is why we will see Uiagalelei again this week.
As the freshman showed against BC, he's a pretty good option as well. The California native completed 30-of 41 passes for 342 yards in his first career start, tossing two touchdowns and adding a 30-yard touchdown run.
The Tigers have plenty of confidence that they can go into South Bend this coming weekend and win with Uiagalelei at the helm.
"He's just a very, very poised kid," Swinney said. "He's not overwhelmed at all. A very confident kid, knows who he is. He made some big-time throws. He really, really played an unbelievable game."
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