Tee Shepard leaves Notre Dame, future in question

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With spring practice set to begin in less than a week, Notre Dame announced promising early-signee freshman Tee Shepard is no longer enrolled in school. The move is a surprising turn of events for the Fresno, California native who signed with Notre Dame after a roller-coaster recruitment, one that saw his cousin Deontay Greenberrry, a heralded wide receiver prospect and long-time verbal commitment to the Irish, leave Notre Dame at the eleventh hour and instead sign with Houston.

Notre Dame’s statement was brief on the subject, stating that Shepard returned home to his family in Fresno, a fact supported by a Tweet sent Thursday afternoon by Greenberry, who was spending time with his cousin in their hometown. Head coach Brian Kelly had this to say about Shepard’s departure.

“Tee is a special person and it’s unfortunate it didn’t work out here,” Kelly said in a statement. “Everyone at Notre Dame wishes him all the best in the future.”

What that future holds is where things get murky. If Shepard chooses to enroll at a different school, it’ll be treated as a transfer, and he’ll be forced to sit out the 2012 football season, similar to Irish offensive lineman Jordan Prestwood, who sat out the 2011 season after enrolling and leaving Florida State before ever playing. Developmentally, it’s another step back for Shepard the football player, who hasn’t done much on the football field for an elite prospect. He played only a handful of games as a junior and then lost his senior season in high school after transfer rules kept him out of action for the entire season.

The timing of the announcement could also give a window into the decision. Less than a week ago, Shepard tweeted out a photo of his locker and jersey number, something that would steer you away believing the departure was because of homesickness or other personal reasons. Further, those close to Shepard were shocked at the move, with Shepard’s mentor and trainer Tony Perry telling ESPN’s Greg Biggins, “I’m real surprised he’s leaving Notre Dame. He seemed happy and told me he loved it there.”

The problem could have been in the classroom for Shepard. Midterm grade deficiencies were released on Tuesday, giving a potential stumbling block for an early-enrollee that was dealing with a stark transition from high school to college. Adding to that, Shepard’s transition was likely more challenging that most, with his hearing disability adding another obstacle to the generally difficult move from prep-level courses to Notre Dame’s rigorous First Year of Studies program.

While neither left during their first year, cornerbacks Darren Walls and Gary Gray both left the football program before returning to Notre Dame. The University’s carefully worded statement, and Brian Kelly’s qupte, don’t address the possibility of Shepard returning, who will likely enroll in some college by fall. Whether that’s a junior college to help supplement a return to Notre Dame, or another school with a Division-I football program remains to be seen.

Notre Dame, nor NCAA rules, wouldn’t prohibit Shepard’s return to South Bend, and it’s his only path onto a football field in 2012. But while he’s away, the depth chart at cornerback now becomes one of the glaring deficiencies on the Irish roster. Expected to step in and contribute next season, Shepard’s return to Fresno makes that currently impossible, leaving the cornerback competition this fall to returning contributors Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood, and freshman like Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, and current safety Eilar Hardy. A move to defense has been rumored for wide receiver Matthias Farley, who redshirted last season as a raw wide receiver.

However you cut it, Notre Dame’s investment in the Fresno duo of Greenberry and Shepard, two signature recruits for the 2012 class, has come up empty.