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.”

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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