Malik Zaire

Irish football players are academically at-risk — Just like everybody else’s


Brian Kelly made waves this week by saying something that’s been common knowledge across college football for decades: The majority of Notre Dame football players wouldn’t be Notre Dame students if not for football.

That’s a surprise?

Apparently so. Or at least it counts as news in June, when headlines are hard to come by. So Kelly’s candor and honesty with the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen—who had the comments buried at the bottom of his column—drew national attention when he said the following:

“I think we recognized that all of my football players are at-risk — all of them — really,” Kelly told Hansen. “Honestly, I don’t know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.”

Kelly’s comments could come from just about any college football coach in America.

That’s the reality of the situation not just in South Bend, but at any academic institution that has an admissions board. Because there is a widening gap between the academic profiles of student-athletes—especially those playing football and basketball—and the young adults that they’re joining in the class room.

At Notre Dame, the coaching staff has long embraced that divide. We’ve heard “make a 40-year decision” enough times to almost become immune to it, but when a recruit comes to campus with his parents, it takes hold in a much more tangible manner.

A Notre Dame degree—just like ones from Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and plenty of other upper-echelon academic institutions—holds considerable currency, especially when it comes to life after football. Add to that a first-rate football experience, something Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick are still building entering the head coach’s sixth season, and you have a very persuasive pitch to a talent pool that may be more refined than State School X, but certainly is large enough to win football games.

Yet for all the virtues that come with attending Notre Dame, the university sounds equally committed to help eliminate the high-profile academic misfires. Since the football team’s run to the BCS title game in 2012, the two largest stories that Kelly’s football team has produced are off-field academic blunders: Quarterback Everett Golson’s season-long suspension in 2013 and the Frozen Five debacle, gutting the 2014 team of five frontline contributors in the days before the opener.

We’ve discussed some of the steps that are now taking place on campus. Task forces and focus groups, with AD Jack Swarbrick taking the lead on conversations, will likely change the very basics of how student-athletes spend their time at Notre Dame.

And while there’ll be accusations of dumbing-down curriculum or watering down the degree, the reality of the situation is that the university owes it to their student-athletes to help make the task of competing in the classroom and on the field of play more feasible. Just ask the head coach who has had a front row seat for the past five years.

“Making sure that with the rigors that we put them in — playing on the road, playing night games, getting home at 4 o’clock in the morning, all of the demands that we place on them relative to the academics and going into an incredibly competitive academic classroom every day — we recognize this is a different group,” Kelly said.

“And we have to provide all the resources necessary for them to succeed and don’t force them into finding shortcuts.”

That could mean eliminating some things that have long been considered staples of student-athlete life on campus. Like a 15-credit fall course load, when football players have the opportunity to take six credits each summer, putting them on track for a ridiculous 3.5-year graduation path.

Or some minor adjustments to the First Year of Studies—a culture shock for student-athletes who didn’t exit high school with a stack of AP Credits and as part of National Honor Society. If you’re looking for a reason why the Irish football team has had a transfer every season for 30 years running, don’t look much farther than the first-year curriculum.

We’ve seen changes—for the better—over the past few years when it comes to some of the draconian student-life policies that plagued the school in the past. And it’s far better that the university is reexamining some of their academic assumptions now before another high-profile toe-stubbing takes place.

“I think we’ve clearly identified that we need to do better, and we’re not afraid to look at any shortcomings that we do have and fix them, and provide the resources necessary for our guys,” Kelly said. “Our university has looked at that, and we’re prepared to make sure that happens for our guys.”

For as much grief as Notre Dame has taken for academic suspensions (not just on the football team—they’ve hit other sports, too), it’s far better than the alternative. Just ask folks at North Carolina, who are now dealing with decades of academic misconduct that should embarrass anybody with a diploma from Chapel Hill.

It usually takes mistakes to bring on change. And Notre Dame has found an unlikely ambassador for those changes in Kelly, a coach many assume had one foot out the door after tiring of off-field challenges that other coaches don’t have to deal with.

(Compare that to the public attitude of former head coach Charlie Weis, an alum who loved Notre Dame. While it took until he was fired to voice his frustrations with the student-life challenges, he simplified the academic issues by just wanting to “find kids who could read and write.”)

Only in the dog days of the offseason can Kelly’s comments come across as something newsworthy. But credit the head coach—and just as importantly his bosses—with being honest with the elephant in the room all across college football.



Irish A-to-Z: Nicky Baratti


It feels like forever ago, but in one of the crucial moments of Notre Dame’s 2012 undefeated regular season, freshman safety Nicky Baratti made an interception that kept Michigan out of the end zone. That a young player at a depth-starved position was able to step up served as a promising start to the Texan’s time in South Bend, though it’s also been the high-point of an injury-derailed career.

Baratti missed the entire 2013 season with a shoulder injury. He stepped onto the field against Purdue in 2014 and ended his season a play later, injuring the same shoulder.

With depth behind Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate slim, getting anything from Baratti would be a great lift to Todd Lyght’s secondary. But after missing the majority of two seasons after a promising freshman campaign where Baratti played in all 13 games, the future is unclear.

Let’s take a closer look at senior safety.


6’1, 205
Senior, No. 29, S


A custom-made RKG, a high-school jack-of-all-trades came to Notre Dame as a projected safety. First-team 5A All-State in Texas.

Offers from Arizona State, Arkansas, Baylor, Ole Miss and Texas Tech.



Freshman Season (2012): Played in all 13 games both on special teams and as a back-up safety. Made eight tackles and a key interception against Michigan in the end zone, the first by a freshman since 2008.

Sophomore Season (2013): Missed the season with an injury.

Junior Season (2014): Recovered a fumble against Rice in season opener. Injured on his first play at safety against Purdue, ending his season in early September.



Here’s what our Crystal Ball said about Baratti this time last year.

I tend to think Baratti is too good of a football player to not see the field. If not for his shoulder injury, some expected Baratti to be one of the winners of last spring’s wide-open safety battle, and if he’s fully healthy and can play at full speed, there’s no reason why he can’t be a contributor.

It might not happen in 2014, but the depth chart starts to clear up once Collinsworth departs, as it’ll be interesting to see if Eilar Hardy sticks around for a fifth year.

Without having seen Brian VanGorder’s defense in action, it’s hard to know how often he’ll utilize the safety position in nickel and dime packages. Bob Diaco loved using a safety as the next defender in, though it sounds like VanGorder will put an extra corner on the field first, especially with the talent Notre Dame has at the position.

But Baratti was known for his speed coming into South Bend. So if he’s able to cover, he’ll have a chance to play.

In retrospect, not having a sick and twisted sense of fairness kept me from guessing that the worst-case scenario was about to strike Baratti.



It’s now or never for the senior safety. A widely-discussed candidate for a medical hardship scholarship, multiple shoulder surgeries had him in a similar category to Jarrett Grace and Chase Hounshell heading into spring.

But Baratti participated in spring practice, and he’ll be full-go this summer as work in the weight room and in OTAs will force him to test his shoulder early and often.

There’s no veteran depth in this secondary at safety that’ll play before a healthy Baratti does. Of course, assuming health from a player whose shoulder hasn’t been able to withstand the punishment of college football is a risky proposition.

With the depth chart being what it is, there’s no position better suited to allow Baratti the chance to have a successful return to the field. With graduate transfer Avery Sebastian and then a slew of kids, the chance to get back on track is there if Baratti’s body will let him.



Completely murky. While we’ve seen the careers of contributors like Tony Springmann get derailed after major injuries, Jarrett Grace seems to have returned from long odds and turned himself into a rotational player. Baratti will have earned at least one additional year of eligibility, and a sixth-year medical exemption would likely be a possibility if his body can fully recover… and the Irish see him worthy of two more seasons in the program.

Ultimately, there’s no reason not to push Baratti’s shoulder and see if it’ll hold up. That was likely the plan this spring, with scholarship numbers being tight. And that’ll likely hold true this August, with the Irish needing to be down to 85 scholarships before kickoff against Texas.

We saw a smart, athletic and capable football player as a freshman. If he can stay healthy, Baratti can return to form after a painful detour.


THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB


DE Jhonny Williams is transferring from Notre Dame

Jhonny Williams Signing Day

The Jhonny Williams era at Notre Dame is over. After redshirting his freshman season, the Benton Harbor, Michigan native will look to reboot his academic and football career elsewhere. The defensive end took to Facebook to announce the news.

“Friends, family, loved ones, I will be transferring from the university of Notre Dame to pursue a football/academic career elsewhere, thank you for your support,” Williams wrote.

Where Williams ends up is not yet clear, but multiple reports say that the defensive end can transfer with no restrictions, though will need to sit out the 2015 season if he plays at the FBS level before having three seasons of eligibility remaining. When reached for comment by the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James, Williams responded via text:

“Great school, great place, just not the right fit.”

The departure isn’t likely to have much of an effect on Notre Dame’s depth chart, though Williams looked like a potential answer at weakside defensive end, a position with Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti currently slotted in the two-deep. Williams continues a run of seemingly bad luck at a position that’s been very difficult for this coaching staff to recruit, and remains a major priority in the 2016 recruiting cycle, especially with the offseason loss of incoming freshman Bo Wallace. Add to that the uncertainty of Ishaq Williams’ NCAA eligibility, and if there’s a roster deficiency on the defensive side of the ball, it’s certainly at end.

Williams arrived on campus as a lanky former basketball player, listed at 230 pounds as a Notre Dame signee and the type of long and explosive athlete Irish fans craved as a 4-3 defensive end. But his road to the field wasn’t an easy one, as Williams spent a year learning the game after coming into South Bend as a raw athlete. He worked his way up to 260 pounds this spring, with the highlight coming on the Blue-Gold game’s final play with his touch-sack of backup quarterback Montgomery VanGorder.

As Notre Dame looks at its 85-man scholarship limit, history is once again showing why there is little reason to worry about being over the limit. With Williams joining Everett Golson as transfers, that’s 30-plus consecutive seasons where Notre Dame has had a football player transfer.


EDIT: Williams spoke with Irish 247’s Tom Loy about the decision to leave Notre Dame:

“This was the best decision for me,” said Williams to Irish247‘s Tom Loy. “I love Notre Dame. I love the coaching staff. I love the players. I love every single thing about Notre Dame. This has nothing to do with the football program or anything with the staff. I can’t say it enough how much I appreciate my time at Notre Dame. This was just a decision about family. My family has been going through some stuff and my mom is dealing with some stuff and I just want to be a little closer to home right now. My mind has been elsewhere and that’s where my focus has been. Things are much better now, so I want to find a fresh start somewhere and put my focus and attention into it 100-percent.”