The NCAA denied Notre Dame’s appeal to maintain its 21 wins from 2012 and 2013, the NCAA announced Tuesday. The ruling stems from the academic violations of nine players during those seasons, eight of them with the assistance of a former student-athletic trainer.
Notre Dame’s argument hinged on there being no university involvement or knowledge of the academic misconduct. The NCAA does not dispute that wholesale, but since the student-trainer was considered a university employee under NCAA rules, that lumps the violations into a category usually resulting in vacated wins.
“We are deeply disappointed by and strongly disagree with the denial of the University’s appeal …,” Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins said in a statement. “Our concerns go beyond the particulars of our case and the record of two football seasons to the academic autonomy of our institutions, the integrity of college athletics, and the ability of the NCAA to achieve its fundamental purpose.”
As the academic violations came to light and were self-reported by Notre Dame in 2014, the Irish suspended five then-current players: DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell. The University also set to recalculating the appropriate grades from years past. In doing so, it rendered certain players retroactively ineligible.
“In the curious logic of the NCAA, however, it is precisely the application of our Honor Code that is the source of the vacation of wins penalty, for the recalculation of grades in 2014 led to three student-athletes being deemed ineligible retroactively,” Jenkins said. “To impose a severe penalty for this retroactive ineligibility establishes a dangerous precedent and turns the seminal concept of academic autonomy on its head.
“At its best, the NCAA’s decision in this case creates a randomness of outcome based solely on how an institution chooses to define its honor code; at worst, it creates an incentive for colleges and universities to change their honor codes to avoid sanctions like that imposed here.”
Jenkins claims the ruling by the NCAA is unprecedented since there was no broader institutional involvement or lack of control.
“There is no precedent in previous NCAA cases for the decision to add a discretionary penalty of vacation of team records in a case of student-student cheating involving a part-time student worker who had no role in academic advising,” Jenkins wrote. “… The Committee simply failed to provide any rationale why it viewed the student-worker as an institutional representative in our case.”
Such a view was actually amended out of the academic misconduct rules in 2016, meaning student-trainers would not be considered institutional representatives.
Vacating the 12 wins from 2012 and the nine from 2013 drops Notre Dame’s all-time win total to 885 from 906 and its all-time winning percentage to .724 from .729. The Irish still stand at No. 2 in winning percentage, behind only Michigan, but that top spot will no longer be at stake in the 2018 season opener against the Wolverines on Sept. 1.
It is simple: Between now and kickoff against Michigan on Sept. 1, Notre Dame’s roster will lose at least four players. The Irish coaches knew they were creating that situation when they signed six recruits on Wednesday’s National Signing Day, bringing the expected roster’s total to 89, four more than the NCAA maximum allowed in the season.
“We’re comfortable where we are,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that we’d go into this blindly without a plan, and so we feel pretty comfortable about where we are at this point.”
Logic says the Irish should feel pretty comfortable. The average summer includes a couple transfers (ex.: offensive linemen Parker Boudreaux and Tristen Hoge in 2017), a medical hardship (such as tight end Tyler Luatua) and, far more often than not, at least one dismissal from the team due to an academic or legal infraction. None of those situations would be influenced by roster size or coaching pressure. They are simply the realities of dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds.
If there is reason to think that attrition rate will slow this summer, it is only because it sped up this winter. Notre Dame has already logged a few transfers in receiver C.J. Sanders and defensive tackle Elijah Taylor, and Kelly promptly dismissed four players due to transgressions. While that transfer rate may still be within the norm, removing four bad apples from the mix now would, theoretically, indicate there are fewer to worry about moving forward.
To speculate about exactly whom the four (or more) to go may be is an exercise in futility. The peanut gallery does not know players’ academic standings, internal disciplines or personal thoughts. If, however, considering which players may want to look elsewhere for playing time considering the current Irish depth chart, Notre Dame would appear to have more bodies than available snaps at both linebacker and safety.
That competition will sort itself out during the spring and perhaps give a few players pause about their football futures with the Irish, and that is somewhat by design.
“Returning an experienced roster, wanting to solidify depth, [we wanted to] secure players that were going to be able to come in and compete and push that middle part of your roster forward,” defensive coordinator Clark Lea said Wednesday in discussing the needs met by a defensive class of 14 early-enrolled or incoming freshmen.
“The only promise we make is the chance to compete, because we know at the end of the day, each player needs to be driven.”
Pushing that middle part of the roster was the impetus behind creating the roster crunch and expanding the recruiting class in hopes of finding a few more impact players. Kelly spoke of improving from “that 65th scholarship to the 85th scholarship.” Doing so should help prop up a tired team in the latter third of the season.
“This will strengthen our football team at that area, which sometimes goes unnoticed in the length of your season,” Kelly said. “We have to play better football in November, and that’s my job.”
To be sure, Notre Dame does need to hold up better in November. Over the last four seasons, the Irish are 23-8 in the season’s first two months, but only 7-10 in November. The injury-riddled season of 2014 and its 1-4 finish in November may skew that figure, but even a 6-6 rate pales in comparison to going 17-7 in the first two months the last three years.
Kelly’s “65 to 85” is more a catchphrase than necessarily an accurate expectation. A total of 80 players saw time in 2017, but if removing the 13 who appeared at the end of a blowout or two, 67 makes more sense. (The most notable member of those 13 is then-sophomore safety D.J. Morgan’s two appearances in September.)
In 2016, 70 players saw time, but only 64 saw legitimate time, even including then-sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford’s two games before an injury ended his season.
In 2015, 74 players took the field, but 64 is again the more accurate number, and that includes the likes of running back Tarean Folston, quarterback Malik Zaire and safety Drue Tranquill, all of whom played in fewer than three games due to season-ending injuries.
Admittedly, a more talented roster would likely see more players see competitive snaps, but by no means would that approach “65 to 85.”
For example, with 13 offensive linemen rostered, the hope would be to play no more than seven and if injury absolutely demands it, then eight. Those remaining five or six would not be asked to contribute on special teams, either, unlike the reserves at linebacker, safety and receiver. Two more names likely join such a list at quarterback, although which two that will be is a question for another day. Undoubtedly, some of the freshmen will preserve a year of eligibility outright. It may be a nit to pick, but “65 to 75” would be more accurate and, frankly, the concern is likely “55 to 70.”
Improving those 15 players will coincide with a stronger finish to 2018. As Notre Dame’s roster shrinks over the next six months, a want to improve the talent of the middle of the Irish roster will be forcing such attrition.
2017: 7-1 in September and October; 2-2 in November.
2016: 3-5 in September and October; 1-3 in November.
2015: 7-1 in Sept. and Oct.; 3-1 in Nov.
2014: 6-1 in Sept. and Oct.; 1-4 in Nov.
2013: 6-2 in Sept. and Oct.; 2-2 in Nov.
2012: 8-0 in Sept. and Oct.; 4-0 in Nov.
2011: 5-3 in Sept. and Oct.; 3-1 in Nov.
2010: 4-5 in Sept. and Oct.; 3-0 in Nov.
Brian Kelly at Notre Dame: 46-18 in Sept. and Oct., a .719 winning percentage, and 19-13 in Nov., a .594 winning percentage.
Monday’s Leftovers: Quinn plays key recruiting role; pending position changes; the Notre Dame difference
It was downright remarkable when Irish head coach Brian Kelly turned over the majority of his coaching staff a year ago yet Notre Dame still pulled in a solid recruiting class. This offseason saw only two assistant coaching changes, but one’s impact on Wednesday’s signees was still notable.
Whereas the Irish had secured a few safeties already in December’s early signing period, thus reducing the need for new safeties coach Terry Joseph to hit the ground running full-speed, a need for a couple more offensive linemen was apparent. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn downplayed his role in retaining the commitment of consensus three-star lineman Luke Jones and closing on three-star tackle Jarrett Patterson on Wednesday. Jones’ commitment was likely always rock-solid, but both recruiting coordinator Brian Polian and Patterson betrayed Quinn’s impact in pursuing the Mission Viejo, Calif., product.
California (and Hawaii) is Polian’s primary geographical focus in recruiting. He has long had success out west (see: Te’o, Manti), and he maintained all his connections along the Pacific during his time as head coach at Nevada. Thus, he joined the obvious offensive coaches — Kelly, Quinn and coordinator Chip Long — on the final visit to Patterson just days before National Signing Day.
“The Patterson situation was a little bit odd because we offered him just as the news that [former Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was heading to the Chicago Bears],” Polian said. “You would think as that was going down that the odds would be against you, and Jeff stepped in and really did a nice job toward the end.”
The four coaches knew their primary competition was UCLA and new Bruins head coach Chip Kelly. Convincing a player to leave the warmth of California and one of recent history’s better recruiters is hard enough. Doing it with a new position coach could easily and reasonably complicate the matter. Instead, Patterson told Blue & Gold Illustrated his conversations with Quinn played a pivotal role in his decision.
“He came over and we watched film together and he showed me different drills and different players he’s coached,” Patterson said. “… He’s a very seasoned coach. He’s been doing this for many years, he knows what he’s doing and he knows the Notre Dame program.”
From Quinn’s vantage, those same conversations seem to be a large part of why he is excited to work with Patterson.
“I had my iPad in his living room talking about football,” Quinn said Wednesday. “He didn’t want to talk about anything else at that point, which was great.
“For me personally to have that ability to really demonstrate to him and show him and communicate to him who we are and what Notre Dame could do for him and what he could do for Notre Dame, that was a huge get for us.”
The Irish did not pull in their top offensive line target in consensus five-star tackle Nick Petit-Frere, but Quinn successfully making the sale to Patterson and keeping Jones in the fold makes for a promising recruiting start.
Tillery flips with Bonner; Tranquill likely to traditional LB role Defensive line coach Mike Elston said Notre Dame will move rising senior Jerry Tillery to the three-technique tackle position, less in the middle of the line than the alternative and more responsible for generating a pass rush. Fifth-year tackle Jonathan Bonner will then slide to the nose tackle position, having proven last season he has developed the strength necessary to maintain the point of attack.
In theory, the switch should allow Tillery to rely on his length and unique athleticism, as well as brighten his NFL allure.
“He’s not an overly-powerful guy, anyway,” Elston said. “He’s an explosive player and an incredible athlete, but when you don’t have that power like a Quenton Nelson has, you better have the right technique or you’re going to get overpowered. We’re working through those kind of technique things that [Tillery] needs to commit himself to.”
On the second level, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea acknowledged the possibility of fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill moving from the rover role to a more traditional linebacker spot alongside rising senior Te’von Coney.
“I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots,” Lea said. “Through the course of the winter and spring we’ll take a look at different options and by the time we wrap up spring, hopefully I have a great feel for what the depth chart is going to look like heading into the fall.”
‘A totally different animal’ Next National Signing Day, both Quinn and Joseph will undoubtedly be asked what surprised them or what differences they noted in recruiting for the Irish compared to previous stops. Of the remaining pieces from last year’s staff turnover, one already had Notre Dame experience (Polian), one had not recruited elsewhere (quarterbacks coach Tom Rees), and one’s media availability was spent focused on his newest promotion (Lea).
Offensive coordinator Chip Long and receivers coach Del Alexander, though, shared their observations after completing a full recruiting cycle. For Long, the biggest change was in how he was received at high schools and prospects’ homes. The brand value of Notre Dame created warmer receptions than Long experienced when with (in reverse chronological order) Memphis, Arizona State and Illinois.
“It’s a totally different animal,” Long said. “When you walk in, they make time for you instead of it just being a hassle like some places I’ve been. They make time for you and do whatever they can, because they know what this school represents. … There’s no question, I’ve never been any place with the power of Notre Dame.”
To Alexander — with past recruiting duties at Arizona State, Wisconsin, San Diego, Oregon State and UNLV, as well as three years in a non-recruiting role at USC — the aspect he had to most adjust to was evaluating more than a player’s on-field performances.
“We want to go after the best players in the country, as does everyone else, but at the same time, there are unique qualities that the young men must possess to succeed here,” Alexander said. “You have to sit down and develop a relationship beyond football. You have to sit down and see if this young man is forward-thinking, if he’s thinking about his future in the classroom and in the community.
“At some places, it’s not like that. It’s just straight about football. It’s about winning and losing, it’s about the NFL opportunity. This is about way more than that.”
Fifth-years confirmed Along with Bonner and Tranquill, Kelly confirmed the seven other players returning for fifth and final years: cornerback Nick Watkins, defensive end Jay Hayes, receiver Freddy Canteen, tight end Nic Weishar, right guard Alex Bars, center Sam Mustipher and punter Tyler Newsome.
Weishar had shoulder surgery recently, per Kelly, but his rehab is progressing as expected. If that limits him in spring practice, Notre Dame may have only rising senior Alizé Mack, rising sophomore Cole Kmet and early-enrolled freshman George Takacs fully healthy at tight end, as rising sophomore Brock Wright had shoulder surgery himself already this offseason.
The experience, depth and talent of the 9 fifth-years will obviously be welcome. Consider how rarely relying on freshmen goes well:
Continuing a look at Notre Dame’s assistant coaches’ reviews of the recruits signed in December, let’s turn to the defense.
That group of 12 consisted of five defensive backs, four linebackers and three defensive linemen.
Safeties coach Terry Joseph (newly-arrived from North Carolina) on consensus four-star safety Derrik Allen, pictured above: “He was a guy we recruited a little bit at North Carolina. He committed to Notre Dame so early, it ended the recruiting because you knew he was not going to de-commit. A guy who is long, can make plays all over the field. As a junior he played a little bit of corner so you like his cover skills. That kid, the sky is the limit for him, because he can do anything that he wants to do. Really a playmaker, played some wideout, likes to catch the fade. Just talking to him, he’s a kid who wants to compete and he wants to win at a high level.”
Cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght on Allen: “He’s been our longest-committed safety out of Georgia, outstanding young man, great student athlete. I think he is the type of player who can come in and help us right away due to his size and strength.”
Lyght on Griffith: “We’re going to start him at corner, but he has the ability to play both corner and safety, so we’re going to move him around. He’s the type of player who has such position versatility, he’s going to be a real weapon for us on defense. We’re going to start him on the boundary, let him play a little bit of safety, let him play a little bit of nickel, and find out what suits him best and his skillset. Here’s another guy who can come in and make a contribution right away for us.
“… With his position versatility, he’s going to have the opportunity to play not only on special teams, but defensively early.”
Joseph on local consensus three-star safety Paul Moala: “I’ve just gotten to watch his film here the last few days, but again you see a guy who is athletic, big and has a chance to be a physical ballplayer for us.”
Lyght on Moala: “Another outstanding young player who can come in and help us right away on special teams. With his combination of speed, size and strength, it makes him a very dangerous freshman coming in. He’s really going to push all the safeties in front of him and he’s going to compete early and right away.
Lyght on consensus three-star cornerback Joe Wilkins: “Long, tall athlete out of the Fort Myers [Fla.] area. Really smart kid. Love the way he competes on both sides of the ball. His length and his ball skills can really make him an outstanding boundary corner. His background is more on the offensive side of the ball, which is okay, but he came along his senior year defensively, becoming a more sure tackler. That with his length and his speed, he can become an outstanding press corner.”
Lyght on rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy: “The speedster out of California. Outstanding young talent, little bit of a smaller frame. In the strength and power area, he’s going to have to do some work, because he’s a little developmental there, but his playmaking skills, his ball skills, his speed, his reactive athleticism are second-to-none in this class, so I think he’ll be out there playing field corner for us.
“I know [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly was thinking of moving him to offense and trying to let him run the ball a little bit, but he’s a talented player that we want to keep on the defensive side of the ball. I made that known to [defensive coordinator Clark] Lea, so there’s going to be a battle for him.”
Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea on consensus four-star linebackers and early enrollees Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb: “Those guys are natural inside linebackers that at a certain point, both positions are interchangeable. You’re going to see what can they handle here early, where are the needs in the depth chart as we get through spring and plug them in accordingly.”
Lea on consensus four-star linebacker Shayne Simon: “[He] is an incredible athlete and better person, honestly. Shayne is a safety in high school that has played some field overhang that is a natural fit at the rover position. He’ll get his first reps there. Then we’ll see how he grows and develops from that point, but I think that’s a great fit for him.
Lea on consensus three-star linebacker and early enrollee Ovie Oghoufo: “Ovie, I could see playing either outside position. He has been a run-and-hit player in high school. His best defense has been playing alley-to-alley, on the move. I’ve got to help him with the mechanics of playing in the box every down and how you attack gaps, but I know that he can run and hit. So I think either the buck and rover position, both of those could enhance that skillset.”
Defensive line coach Mike Elston on consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola: “I watched them play Don Bosco later in the season before the playoffs and came away very impressed with both of [Jayson’s and his twin brother consensus three-star defensive end Justin Ademilola’s] developments in terms of fundamentals and how they played, how aggressive they played. I do believe Jayson is going to be able to come in and give us some great depth and added depth in several areas.”
“I think he’ll be the surprise of the class. I think he’s going to come in and the plan is to get them both ready to play if we need them, and see what happens. Hopefully we hold up and the depth stays the depth and we don’t get a bunch of injuries, but we’re planning on getting both those guys ready to play if we have to.
“… He’ll start off at the drop, but based on how he develops throughout the month of June and July, putting on some weight, I’ll teach him both [end positions]. Even [current sophomore] Julian Okwara double-learned last year. I think it’s more challenging for a freshman to learn both of them, but I think Justin has a great understanding of football and he learns well. He should be able to do them both.
“… [The chip] is derived directly from the media that do stories about his brother. His brother got invited to the Army All-American Game and he didn’t. His brother gets all these accolades and he doesn’t. His brother is scheduled to play football at Notre Dame and be in the depth and he’s not. He’s going to be red-shirted. People are writing articles about that and he’s forwarding them to me. ‘Coach, can you believe what they’re saying about me?’
“He’s sharing those things, but he’s not telling me he has a chip on his shoulder. I can just tell it. He’s going to come in here with a chip on his shoulder to prove he’s worthy of a scholarship offer and a commitment to Notre Dame.”
Elston on consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin: “I wanted to add toughness. We’ve been able to change the culture of the defensive line. We’re not there yet obviously, but we’re changing that culture. Identifying Ja’Mion very early as a guy that is going to add to that and improve that with an aggressiveness and a toughness, he was a marquee get for us because of that.
“Day-to-day, just going to be an aggressive, tough individual. … I had a chance to watch him play and just so disruptive and physical and aggressive. That’s what we wanted to add to this defensive tackle group.”
This week’s focus was on the six new signees Notre Dame added to the recruiting class of 2018, bringing the total to 27. When the first 21 put pen to the proverbial paper back in December’s early signing period, only Irish head coach Brian Kelly and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian spoke publicly about the newest pieces of the roster.
The full array of Notre Dame assistant coaches offered the expected praises Wednesday. Some excerpts as they pertained to the offensive signees from December:
“… When you look at him as an athlete, he will be the most impressive guy you see. You step on the basketball court, he’s the best athlete on the court by a mile, guards the other team’s best player, moves well. You watch him on the football field, same thing. Athletically, there is not a lot he can’t do.
“… For him, the first thing is where are we mentally and where do we need to improve there. Physically, I think a little more consistency on an every throw basis, mechanically and accuracy is something that everyone needs to strive for, but I think we’ll continue to push for him.”
Running backs coach Autry Denson on consensus three-star running back and early enrollee Jahmir Smith: “Just someone who can play a significant role on the football field. Excited to have him on campus. Anytime you can get a young man here early, that obviously adds to his maturity and his process in regards to developing.”
Offensive coordinator Chip Long on Smith: “He’s been doing a great job in the weight room. Just watched him run this morning. He’s going to be a good fit and he’s going to be a good player.”
Receivers coach Del Alexander on consensus four-star receiver Kevin Austin: “Probably one of the guys that in terms of publicity is one of the bigger fish. We talk on a regular basis. Those signees that signed on Dec. 20 have already begun watching video, so they’re getting a regular dose of what we’re doing here. Those guys are eager to get started. Kevin and I have already developed a relationship and we’re communicating on the little things that will help him hit the ground running.”
Alexander on rivals.com four-star receiver and early enrollee Micah Jones: “He’s here now, running around, doing well in the weight room. He’s getting some good attention there because when we’re doing conditioning, when we’re doing weight training, he doesn’t seem to be a freshman. He’s standing up and being just as productive as the guys around him.”
Long on the tight end duo of rivals.com four-star and early enrollee George Takacs and consensus three-star Tommy Tremble: “One thing I always like to do with the tight end group, I like to obviously have size and athleticism. Both of them bring that, both of them are a little different, which I think is good, you don’t always want the same type of player. You want to have variety, certain guys can do certain things. I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class.”
Long on Takacs: “George has spent a little bit more time with his hand on the ground than Tommy has. Tommy’s been more of a skilled wideout, coming in. The good thing I got to see this year with George, though, is he was split out wide and did a lot of good things in the passing game, so they both have ball skills. Both are very smart, very athletic in their way.”
Long on Tremble: “Tommy is probably a little bit more explosive, where George has a little bit more size, but that can come in time. The one thing that really caught my eye with Tommy is he played defense for them. As I’m evaluating tight ends nowadays, I want to see defensive film, I want to see you be able to put your face on something and strike. That’s a bit thing with the toughness that we want to have, and he did that. He is exceptional, to go with his explosiveness.”