Rev. John Jenkins,Jack Swarbrick

With all eyes watching, a dig for truth begins at Notre Dame

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The college football world stared at Notre Dame on Friday. Some snickered as they hoped to see smoke and fire emerge from the Golden Dome. Irish fans braced for impact, with even the most level-headed dreading impending doom, with things getting worse by the minute as Notre Dame brass stayed silent.

Early reports looked ugly. And while they didn’t — or haven’t yet — turned out to be correct, the latest academic blunder coming from a football program aspiring to carry the torch for doing things the right way on and off the field could do seismic damage.

At this point, it’s too early to tell. Credit Notre Dame’s administration for doing the right thing early, alerting the NCAA to their investigation and holding four players out of practice and games until they do more digging. So while that takes place, the facts of the current state of affairs are worth presenting.

“Several students” are part of the academic investigation, with four current members of the team. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick acknowledged that DaVaris DanielsKendall MooreKeiVarae Russell, and Ishaq Williams were indeed the student-athletes in question, confirming multiple media reports.

If we are to believe Dan Murphy at BlueandGold.com, as many as 22 former football players could be involved. Head coach Brian Kelly was alerted to the investigation on Thursday, news that “devastated” the Irish coach, Swarbrick acknowledged.

Evidence turned up at the end of summer semester, with classes ending July 25 and final grades/graduation taking place on August 3rd. Kelly kicked off spring practice on Friday, August 1 with an opening press conference, where he stated all of his players were in good academic standing.

The head coach didn’t know that as his team heading to Culver Military Academy, an academic probe had been handed over to compliance and then to the university’s office of general counsel. With all four players involved in the probe participating in practice earlier this week, the news surely landed as another gut punch to a head coach whose best players can’t seem to avoid making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

(The surprise also carries over to the players’ families. Per Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated, the fathers of Moore and Williams had heard nothing from the school. As of Friday night, the family of DaVaris Daniels hasn’t, either.)

While it’s difficult to do, the presumption of innocence is probably worth attempting. But in the viral wasteland that is Twitter-based reporting, let’s put aside the fact that university president Rev. John Jenkins and Swarbrick vehemently denied that any player has been dismissed or any judgment has been passed.

“Nobody has been dismissed,” Jenkins said. “We will take as long as it takes to have a thorough and fair investigation and proceed through our academic honor code process.”

The disciplinary process at Notre Dame is notoriously secretive. And while progress has been made from the draconian days of the fairly recent past (remember the leniency granted Michael Floyd?), hoping for an expedited process for an academic issue that could go back a few years might be a pipe dream.

After a day spent chasing rumors and shadows — each more sordid than the last, listening to Swarbrick and Jenkins provided a calm that was difficult to comprehend. Sure, things were bad. But after years (maybe even decades) of wondering about the decision-making process at the university, it’s clear that grownups are handling things. The results of their findings might be ugly, but the search for truth will not be.

But even if Notre Dame’s two most important administrators did their best to make sure the assembled media understood this situation was an isolated incident, it’s hard not to connect some rather ugly dots.

Quarterback Everett Golson became a national story for his academic suspension. Basketball standout Jerian Grant suffered a similar fate, forced off the court for another academic impropriety. The Irish hockey team lost Robbie Russo, one of their best players, in a situation that looked mighty similar.

As Notre Dame pushes to compete at the highest level of college football, the university has gotten more aggressive in their acceptance of prospective student-athletes with questionable academic profiles. And it’s hard not to jump to conclusions when athletes like Tee Shepard, Eddie Vanderdoes, Golson, Daniels and now this quartet bubble to the surface.

That’s why it’s worth re-reading part of Jenkins’ statement, released earlier today.

“If the suspected improprieties are proven, we will use the experience to reinforce among our students the importance of honesty in all that they do,” Jenkins said, in part. “We are also examining ways of better conveying to students that they can avail themselves of legitimate academic assistance without resorting to cheating.”

The resources have been committed, with Adam Sargent,the associate director in Notre Dame’s Academic Services for Student Athletes, among the most respected and above reproach people on campus. But ultimately the push and pull between advancing the academic profile of the university and holding blue-chip student-athletes to those standards might prove impossible.

The tragedy of it all is that 2012 served as a rallying cry for those that believed the balance could still exist. But that magical season could go up in smoke as a result of this investigation, with Notre Dame acknowledging that they’ll vacate victories if players are retroactively found to be ineligible.

For now, we wait. For the truth, for an internal investigation, and for the ripple effect that’ll likely be felt on the field, in the locker room, and in every building under the Dome.

But with the leadership of the university still standing strongly behind their head coach and his process, Jenkins did his best to put things into perspective, sounding (maybe ironically) like a father speaking of his college-aged sons.

“At any university you’re dealing with young people. The vast majority of them make good decisions,” Jenkins said. “But young people sometimes make bad decisions. Our job is to hold them accountable and to use those incidents as ways to educate them. That’s what we’re doing.”

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.