News came down today that Notre Dame has withheld four players from practice following an internal investigation that took place over the summer. The players - KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams, DaVaris Daniels and Kendall Moore - are all veteran contributors to a Notre Dame squad that was ranked 17th in the preseason Coaches Poll. In a joint press conference at 6:00 pm, athletic director Jack Swarbrick clarified that the students have been neither dismissed nor suspended, but they are being withheld from practice and games while the investigation is completed. This comes about a year after Everett Golson was suspended for the entire 2013 season after being caught cheating on an exam.
The full ramifications of this aren't known yet, but it's distantly possible that some of the team's victories are vacated by the NCAA if it is deemed an honor code violation. Details of the investigation are sparse, but both Russell and Daniels were key parts of team dating back to their 2012 national title run, when the Irish went 12-1. It should be noted that Notre Dame has led the investigation to this point, but notified the NCAA this afternoon.
"If the suspected improprieties are proven," said Rev. John I. Jenkins, the University's president, "we will use the experience to reinforce among our students the importance of honesty in all that they do. We are also examining ways of better conveying to students that they can avail themselves of legitimate academic assistance without resorting to cheating."
If the suspensions are for a full season, the Irish will be feeling the effects in full force, as three of the four players were talented starters. The biggest loss is KeiVarae Russell, a likely NFL talent and one of the top CBs in the nation. DaVaris Daniels, the team's leading returning receiver, produced 745 yards last year and 7 touchdowns. Ishaq Williams, meanwhile, was a former five-star player and athletic marvel who moved to strongside defensive end in the summer. He hadn't yet played to his potential, but some were predicting a breakout year for the senior that now, seemingly, won't come.
Combined with Golson's incident a year ago, this is a black eye for the Irish, who pride themselves on academic integrity. It is the second incident this year for DaVaris Daniels, who was placed on academic suspension for the spring due to a low GPA.
This also has a chance to derail the upcoming season. Already a young team, the loss of four veteran players would force a recalibrated set of expectations. Williams was one of two players who moved from linebacker to bolster depth on the defensive line; without him, the team would only have two proven defensive ends. Daniels was a talented senior at wide receiver, though there are quite a few younger guys able to take his reps - six freshman receivers and tight ends, all told, who were well liked by Rivals. At corner, Kelly can turn to Florida graduate transfer Cody Riggs (40.5 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 passes broken up) to take over the primary man-coverage responsibilities, but that also means an increased role for sophomore corners Cole Luke and Devin Butler.
Just a few days ago, Brian Kelly said that his team was "pretty close" to having all of the new defense installed, but now it's something of a second rebuild in the face of the investigation and the uncertainty surrounding it. Russell was their second-most important player on defense, whose shutdown abilities were key to Brian VanGorder's aggressive blitzes and creative style. Riggs can probably replace Russell in that area, but the secondary, which was considered the team's strength, is no longer an elite unit.
Everett Golson is still a junior, and they have two second-year backs in Folston and Bryant that they can build around. But 2014 was supposed to be much, much more than a building block. Vegas pegged the Irish as about an 8-win team, but fans were reveling in the return of Golson and a plethora of offensive options, anchored by a senior-laden offensive line. Optimism was high, and plenty of experts expected big things. There's still reason for optimism, but a 7-5 season or lower - now two years removed from their title appearance - would leave fans a little scorched.
After facing Michigan under the lights, the team faces Stanford three weeks later, followed by North Carolina (ranked 23rd in the preseason Coaches Poll), Florida State, Navy, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville, and USC.