Author: Keith Arnold

After high-profile academic mistakes, Notre Dame wisely examining new options


Monday, Notre Dame announced that 16 student-athletes would be spending three weeks in South Africa, earning credits in a new study abroad program examining the cultural, historical and social effects racism has had on South Africa. Five more will be going to Greece, learning about archaeological sites and museums in Ancient Corinth.

Of all the recent headlines garnering attention in the world of major college athletics, press releases like these tend to go straight to the recycling bin. Students-athletes acting like students? Isn’t there a unionization effort to discuss or a pay-for-play plan that gets people excited?

There are many broken parts to the NCAA’s amateurism model. But ignoring some of the virtues that come from a free collegiate experience is just as destructive as avoiding the charade some major college athletic departments have become.

Notre Dame isn’t just sending a slew of walk-ons and benchwarmers to make the university look good. Of the 21 athletes setting sail for far off places, nearly half are football players. Jaylon Smith, Corey Robinson and Jerry Tillery are among the contingency going to South Africa. Max Redfield and Romeo Okwara are going to Greece.

But for as hard as Notre Dame is working to balance a first-rate academic experience with elite collegiate athletics, it’s failures have garnered far more headlines that trips like this. So while the university proudly (and understandably) continues to trumpet its successes, most eyes only focus on the high-profile mistakes that have taken place over the past few years.

Very high profile.

Everett Golson followed up his national-championship debut season with a season-long (fall semester) suspension from the university for an Honor Code violation.

Last season’s basketball hero Jerian Grant was pulled from the floor and school at the semester break after his own mistake.

The hockey team’s top-scoring defenseman, Robbie Russo, was lost for the same amount of time because of his own poor judgment.

And that’s before KeiVarae Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Eilar Hardy were taken down during the two-month investigation that led to lost seasons and multiple-semester suspensions for most of the group.

Some of the school’s most prominent athletes, all caught up in embarrassing academic failures. (You can’t blame journalists from seizing on the opportunity with a misguided take-down column.) But those academic failures were a two-way street, forcing the university to look at the growing divide between the academic profile of student-athletes and the rest of the student body.

“When we recruit student-athletes, we have an obligation to provide them with the resources necessary,” head coach Brian Kelly told Sports Illustrated. “And if we don’t, then we have fallen short. And I think that in these instances, there’s culpability for everyone.”

While the story was a profile on KeiVarae Russell, Pete Thamel’s reporting uncovered some changes taking place at Notre Dame, reacting to the struggles and high-profile mistakes that have been happening all too often. And while there was no official comment out of the university to expand on SI’s reporting, it’s clear that both the athletic department and the university leadership has learned from the mistakes made by both the student-athletes and those struggling to provide the resources for them to succeed both on and off the field.

In Kelly’s conversation with Sports Illustrated, Notre Dame’s head coach pegged the average GPA of his incoming freshman class at 2.8 with a score of 24 on the ACT. Compare that to the freshman class’s average ACT score of 33 (Notre Dame doesn’t track GPA for incoming freshmen, but it’s certainly a full letter grade above a 2.8). It’s not hard to see the great divide.

Adding to that divide is a workload for Notre Dame football players that’s beyond significant. Talking with former and current football players, a routine day was often times 15-hours from alarm clock to pillow, including a full class load, organized study hours, lifting, film study and practice that command far more time than any NCAA 20-hour weekly limit can fully encapsulate.

As Irish fans seethed throughout the two-month investigation and lengthy appeals process that ate up much of the 2014 season, Notre Dame’s administration took an honest look at their role in this dilemma. And it appears that they took dead aim at fixing some of the problems facing student-athletes, especially those coming from “at-risk” academic profiles.

From Sports Illustrated:

In the spring of 2014, Swarbrick co-chaired a 17-member task force created to examine effective ways to support “at-risk student-athletes.” The takeaways proved more evolutionary than revolutionary, focusing on intensive individualized attention, a stronger summer bridge program, expansion of a writing and rhetoric tutorial, and faculty mentors. Faculty athletic representative Patricia Bellia, a law professor who was the task force’s other chair, says the process made the school realize it needs to take a “case management” approach to each student, with information pooled from trainers, assistant coaches, nutritionists and anyone close to them. “We’ve determined they can succeed [by admitting them],” she said. “How can we make that happen on an individual level? What kind of support and resources does that individual need?”

For all the talk of Kelly’s frustration with the process last fall, the reality sounds to be quite the opposite. Working alongside athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university president Rev. John Jenkins, Kelly talked about the “transformative conversations” that took place, a mind-blowing concept for those who remember the Notre Dame ruled by Monk Malloy and former admissions director Dan Saracino.

“We’ve done so many things here to put Notre Dame back in a position to compete nationally, and I kind of look at this as that last piece in making sure we’re taking care of our student-athletes,” Kelly told SI. “It strengthened my resolve in, We’re going to get this right.”

What that entails remains to be seen. The worry of diluting a Notre Dame degree is a real one. And there’s no desire to create a “general studies” major like the one at Michigan that Jim Harbaugh so famously torched while he was Stanford’s head coach.

When asked for expanded clarity on the university’s task force, a spokesman for the football program preferred to let the article speak for itself.

But 15 years ago, Notre Dame was insulting student-athletes—elite players like T.J. Duckett and future Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, who was ready to commit to Notre Dame on the spot. Now they’re trying to find a way to balance the challenges of the academic course work with the rigors of playing major college football.

That’s quite a change. And one for the better.

“Are there other ways to do it?” Kelly asks. “Can we cut back on credit hours? Instead of taking 15 [the current practice to start a semester], can we take 12 and make it up in the summer? Are there other course offerings that could come about and be offered in lieu of a specific class? Those are conversations that had never taken place.”


Kelly comments on Golson’s transfer

Brian Kelly, Everett Golson

If you were looking for anything official out of Notre Dame after Everett Golson announced his intention to play next season at Florida State, think again. But yesterday, Brian Kelly was the head speaker at the ninth annual West Michigan Sports Commission Luncheon in Grand Rapids, and he shared a few comments about the move.

As you might have expected, Kelly gave the same classy statement as he did when Golson announced his intentions.

Per’s Peter Wallner, Kelly wished Golson nothing but luck, and proclaiming “great admiration” for his former quarterback.

“He wanted a fresh start and Florida State is going to give him that opportunity and I wish him great success,” Kelly said at the WMSC luncheon. “I just hope they don’t see us later down the road at the national championship game. I won’t wish him success that day.”

While the timing of Golson’s final decision is up for debate, Kelly and the coaching staff honored Golson’s request of not being made available to the media during spring practice, an oddity considering the decision at hand.

But Kelly talked about the chaotic nature of Golson’s spring semester, giving us a look into his mindset the past few months.

“We had about three and a half weeks left in the semester and he’s focused on graduating,” Kelly said, per the report. “And we practice in the morning and we have about two hours to get out there and practice and sometimes we look and think he’s got all this time to think about it, and he really doesn’t. He just reacts. He goes out like a football player and practices and then goes to class.”

As you’d expect, Kelly was very optimistic about Malik Zaire’s abilities to run the Irish offense. He also complimented Zaire’s competitiveness, which brought the best out in Notre Dame’s young quarterback, who certainly didn’t shy from the challenge of playing.

So while we’ll never get a chance to see how the Irish offense would’ve functioned with two high-end quarterbacks behind center, Kelly acknowledged that earning his diploma allows Golson the freedom to finish his eligibility elsewhere.

“You’re allowed those opportunities to start anew and I think he felt like he wanted to start anew … and we wish him the best.”



Everett Golson transferring to Florida State

Everett Golson

After graduating from Notre Dame over the weekend, Everett Golson has decided to play out his eligibility at Florida State. The former Irish quarterback visited Tallahassee last week before coming to a decision on Tuesday morning, according to Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman.

Golson released the following statement to Fox Sports:

“This past weekend has been a defining moment in my life as I am proud to say I am a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. The support I’ve received there over the past four years has helped strengthen my integrity, wisdom and character. I would like to thank all of the coaches who spent time speaking with me these past few weeks and considered adding me to their football programs. Their interest and sincerity was truly humbling. After much thought and careful consideration, I will utilize my fifth year of eligibility to join the Florida State University Seminoles. To coach Jimbo Fisher, the Florida State football team, staff, alumni and fans, thank you for allowing me to become part of the Seminoles family. I can’t wait to get started.”

Golson will compete to replace Heisman Trophy winning quarterback and No. 1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston. Current junior Sean Maguire, who started for the Seminoles during Winston’s one-game suspension at Clemson, was the presumptive starter leaving spring practice, before Golson made the decision to leave Notre Dame and explore his options.

The Seminoles got a good look at Golson last October, when Notre Dame played Florida State down to the final snap in Tallahassee. Golson completed 31 of 52 throws against the Seminoles for 313 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions in the narrow 31-27 loss.

That officially closes the book on Golson’s career in South Bend. Playing in both 2012 and 2014, Golson completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,445 yards. He threw for 41 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, including 29 touchdown passes (and 14 interceptions) last season. Golson sat out his freshman season after enrolling a semester early, and was suspended for the fall semester after an academic incident.

With Golson gone, Notre Dame will turn to Malik Zaire. With three seasons of eligibility remaining and coming off a strong late-season performance against USC and LSU after Golson was sent to the bench, Zaire earned MVP honors in the Music City Bowl.

Russell talks to SI about suspension, return

Oklahoma v Notre Dame

Last week, we checked in on KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame’s soon-to-be-returning star cornerback. Thanks to some reporting by Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated—along with his own presence on social media—it’s easy to see that Russell’s been putting in the work home in Everett, Washington, while he awaits re-admission into Notre Dame.

While Russell’s stayed off the record with reporters covering the Irish beat, he spoke with Sports Illustrated‘s Pete Thamel, who traveled to the Pacific Northwest to spend some time with the exiled Irish cornerback. The result was an interesting profile that took a closer look at the student-athlete that’ll be returning to campus.

Russell was understandably tight-lipped about the academic transgressions that cost four football players the entire season and Eilar Hardy eight games. But SI’s reporting finally put in writing the academic crime that was widely speculated about: improper assistance during the summer semester.

This from the report:

The school charged Russell and his four teammates with receiving illicit academic help from a former student trainer. Russell admits to getting “lazy” and “taking the easy way out,” but beyond that only says, “I didn’t cheat on a test. I didn’t pay people to do my homework.”

The penalty cost Russell and Ishaq Williams two semesters, with Williams status with the Irish and at the university still in question. While Kendall Moore had already earned his degree and Eilar Hardy graduated and will play out his eligibility at Bowling Green, DaVaris Daniels’ left Notre Dame without his diploma, going undrafted last month before signing with the Minnesota Vikings.

Russell’s departure during training camp came in the lead up to what many expected to be a breakout season towards potential stardom. With the option to play immediately at the FCS level  in 2014 or transfer and play in 2015 somewhere else, Russell told SI, “When you go through something as important as almost getting football and a college degree stripped away from you, you take a deep breath.”

Russell also lost out on being named a captain, something athletic director Jack Swarbrick told him the coaches had decided upon during August camp.

“I busted out crying, just bawling. It was uncontrollable.”

But it’s all looking forward for Russell. He’ll find out in the coming week of his re-admittance, and he’ll be back with his teammates come June. And from there, it’ll be tough to slow down a defensive back who is hellbent on making up for lost time—pulling motivation from giving up two touchdowns against Michigan in 2013 to never wanting to be anything like his estranged father.

“My ambition comes from something bigger than me,” Russell told SI. “The reason why I work so hard, it’s to be something I want to be that’s better than just an athlete. I want to be a better father, son and brother.”

You can read the entire profile here.

Mailbag: All about the defense

Sheldon Day, Terrel Hunt

If we spent a little bit too much time discussing the quarterback position last mailbag, let’s take aim at one of the other massively important questions heading into the summer.

As always, thanks for the questions. (And for the improvements in the comments section.)

Now, to perhaps the defining question of the offseason:


kiopta1: We all talk about the O and the QBs but what are your thoughts on the D? Where do you see them improving and what more is needed if health isn’t an issue this season?

While Zaire and Golson took over our brains, the performance of Brian VanGorder’s defense is likely the difference between Notre Dame going to the College Football Playoff and having an underwhelming season.

Year One of Brian VanGorder was perhaps the wildest variance we’ve seen in Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. When the going was good, it was melt-the-internet-with-a-meme good. When it was bad? It was a horror show of Tenutian proportions, with overwhelmed and underprepared kids running around like John Ryan and Paddy Mullen.

What do we make of the defense? What was a fair evaluation of last season’s meltdown? The same coach that had a young, inexperienced defense looking like world beaters against Stanford and Michigan was also the guy who let Northwestern turn from beyond mediocre to high powered.

Because this answer could take months to fully dig in, let’s focus on four keys:

1)  Be dominant stopping the run. 

This shouldn’t be all that hard. The Irish have an experienced, veteran and talented front seven. With Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones back at defensive tackle, that’s two seniors who are NFL caliber talents, who also showed the ability to dominate at times. That’s a great start.

The linebackers will only help the cause. Joe Schmidt may not be perfectly sized, but he was mighty productive. Add in Nyles Morgan ascension, Jarrett Grace’s steely resolve and some field-ready depth behind them, and we’re talking about the linebackers being good before  we get to perhaps the most talented athlete on the team in Jaylon Smith.

Smith should turn into an eraser this season. While it’s still being determined where on the field he’ll be doing said erasing, it’s with confidence that we can just about guarantee a statistically unique season for a linebacker who managed to crack 100 tackles last season even as he was learning on the go.

2) Find some consistency in the secondary. 

While there were some nice individual efforts last season, advanced statistics give you an idea of just how horrific the Irish were stopping the pass, especially on downs where everybody in the stadium knew the ball was going in the air.

The S&P+ Ratings are the creation of Bill Connelly, using opponent-adjusted components that take four key factors into play: efficiency, explosiveness, field position and finishing drives. While trying any harder to explain it would make my brain explode, in Connelly’s early preview of the 2015 Irish, this little bit stuck out to me like a sore thumb:

When you look at the individual stats of the players listed above — Cole Luke with his 15 passes defensed, Matthias Farley with his 6.5 tackles for loss, etc. — you get the impression of an aggressive Notre Dame secondary. It had potential, but it ranked an inexcusable 96th in Passing S&P+, 88th on passing downs. The complete lack of an effective blitz played a role, but … 96th!

For perspective, here are the defenses that ranked 91st through 95th: Kentucky, UL-Lafayette, UConn, Kent State, Ohio. Notre Dame, with its four- and five-stars and play-makers, ranked below them. The Irish allowed a 60.3 percent completion rate (86th in the country) and allowed 43 completions of at least 20 yards (85th). Awful.

Now, it bears mentioning that there was quite a bit of turnover. Russell was lost pretty close to the season, and safeties Austin Collinsworth and Eliar Hardy missed eight games each. With a nonexistent pass rush and understudies playing a larger role than expected, Notre Dame wasn’t going to post a top-20 or top-30 pass defense. But top-60 shouldn’t have been too much to ask.

Sometimes an outsider’s perspective can lay things out far clearer than anything done by someone covering and writing about the team on a daily basis. And in this case, Connelly’s 30,000-foot view of the secondary and pass defense lays things out pretty succinctly.

“Inexcusably bad.”

3) Rush the passer and get off the field. 

It’s not fair to blame the secondary for everything in the passing game, especially with the front-seven’s inability to get a pass rush. But somebody on the Irish roster needs to step forward and rush the passer, because reinforcements aren’t coming in 2015.

That’s not to say that Bo Wallace’s departure is going to ruin Notre Dame’s defense. Nor is it to completely lay blame on the Irish staff’s inability to find themselves a “pure pass rusher.” The staff isn’t unicorn hunting. Besides, they’ve already proven the ability to land some elite defensive linemen.

But getting pressure on the quarterback and getting off the field will go a long way towards turning this defense into an elite unit. And whether it’s coming from seniors like Day and Romeo Okwara, or young players like Andrew Trumbetti, Jerry Tillery, Jhonny Williams or Kolin Hill, finding the pieces to do the job is vital, especially when it doesn’t look like there’s one guy who is going to produce.

4) Slow down the up-tempo offenses. 

No team is going to look at Notre Dame’s second-half and not see that North Carolina’s use of tempo served as a partial blueprint for the rest of the season. So until VanGorder and company figure out how to make plays and slow down the pace by getting stops, opponents are going to move as quickly as possible to attack the Irish defense.

Last season, Notre Dame didn’t have a base defense to hang its hat. And after applauding the multiplicity of the defense and the plethora of sub-packages the Irish used to confuse and confound Michigan and Stanford, all those moving parts felt a lot like smoke and mirrors after it became clear that the group may have been fairly adept at doing a ton of little things well, but ultimately mastered none.

Kelly spent the offseason analyzing the problem. While you’d expect him to say nothing differently this spring, he believes they’ve found some answers. But until the Irish make it out of September and find a way to slow down an offense like Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech attack, it’ll be up to VanGorder to prove it with game film or be prepared to face an up tempo attack all season.

Ultimately, Kelly is betting his legacy on one of his oldest coaching allies in VanGorder. But while Mike Sanford’s addition to the staff feels a little like Kelly acknowledging he needed to infuse some new ideas into the room, it’s worth noting that he also brought in Todd Lyght and Keith Gilmore this offseason.

While it necessitated moving Bob Elliot into an off-field role (likely heavy on R&D), it’s a fresh start for a defense that only has Mike Elston remaining from the original defensive staff, and he’s now coaching linebackers.  Perhaps it’s Elston that’ll remind everybody how Kelly rebuilt the Irish defense under Bob Diaco: by taking the emphasis off of scheme and putting it on individual responsibility.

With a season of game tape now in the hands of opponents, VanGorder would be well-served to find a way to get his guys to simply do it better. Because daring the opposition to go toe-to-toe when you believe you’ll win even if you take scheme away is the best way for the Irish to win.