Incoming Notre Dame safety Nicco Fertitta uses hits to dispel doubt

FRESHMAN FOCUS

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Nicco Fertitta’s hits tell a story.

Each blow the 5-foot-9, 172-pound safety delivers expels a little more doubt, slowly cracking the myth that he’s nothing more than a name, or a prospect limited by a measurement. A compact missile locked onto its target, he swarms the ball carrier and explodes, a ball of furious violence, swiftly accelerating through the poor son of a gun that dared set foot in his secondary.

Usually, that receiver or tight end — the one lying on the turf in a heap — is bigger than Fertitta. For a while.

Until they’re reduced to rubble.

“Size has never been an issue for me,” Fertitta said. “Everybody talks about me being too short. Well, if you have a 6-foot-3 receiver when I’m 5-9 or 5-10, you better have a damn good quarterback that can throw five inches above me every single time. That’s how I think.”

Fertitta’s hits, the ones you can almost feel through the computer screen of his video highlights, defy more than size. They are also visual proof that he is more than a fabricated myth, the coddled product of a celebrated family.

Yes, Fertitta means something. His father, Lorenzo Fertitta, is the CEO of Ultimate Fighting Championship, better known as UFC. His grandfather, Frank Fertitta, Jr., founded the chain of Station Casinos in Las Vegas. Nicco played at Bishop Gorman High School, where nearly every Fertitta has played, bludgeoning ball carriers on the immaculately pristine turf of Fertitta Field.

He represents a proud legacy, and that notoriety raises questions.

But the hits are inarguable. They expose talent, and extinguish misconceptions.

“Once I started having success in football, everybody said, ‘Oh, it’s his dad. He’s paying for it. He’s not good,’ ” said Fertitta, who produced 47 tackles and five interceptions in 2014. “I think I really showed this season that it’s not all hype and I can actually play football. A lot of it is staying humble and slowly proving people wrong, but I don’t think I have anything to prove.

“I’ve done everything I can so far, and I’m going to keep doing that, especially when I get to the next level. People can like it or they can hate it.”

His hits, too, are a product of his environment. Nicco grew up playing in the same leagues as his older brother, Lorenzo Fertitta Jr., who later earned a scholarship to Villanova. He was perpetually the smallest, the youngest.

And at the point of contact, the loudest.

“I was always little. I always played up with my brother, who was two years ahead of me,” Nicco explained. “I always had to pack a punch. My dad really taught me that. That’s why hitting has always been my strong suit, because it’s always been what I’ve wanted to do.

“I’ve always wanted to knock out the bigger guy.”

And at Notre Dame, he’ll have to do just that. Fertitta will step on campus in June as another unproven commodity, a touted prospect — ranked as a three-star recruit by Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN — in a recruiting class overflowing with them. Again, he’ll have to prove that his size, and his name, don’t define him.

He’ll have to unleash the physicality that garnered the attention of nearly 40,000 YouTube viewers in a sub-3-minute highlight video, as well as Notre Dame’s coaching staff.

“What he brings to your locker room, what he brings to your playing field, is a toughness that you can't duplicate,” head coach Brian Kelly said when Fertitta signed in February.

According to Fertitta, that toughness — that bone-shattering physicality — is a gift. A kid can be taught how to tackle — how to bend his knees, to wrap up, to accelerate through contact. He can watch all the film in the world, or spend his free hours bench-pressing small mountains.

He can try, and try, and try, until the lights fade from an empty stadium and a blocking sled lay defeated and broken in his wake.

But that doesn’t mean he can hit.

“Especially when you hit someone right, it’s the best. It feels like you’re hitting pillows. It’s kind of indescribable,” Fertitta said.

“I think you’re born with it. Either you can hit, or you can’t. You’re either the guy that makes the crowd go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah,’ or you’re not. It’s a natural instinct.”

On Sept. 5, inside Notre Dame Stadium, that instinct will be unleashed on the Texas Longhorns. At least, that’s what Fertitta hopes. Crawling up the steep edges of an imposing depth chart, the freshman safety will have to earn every appearance on defense or kickoff coverage. On a field that doesn’t bear his name, he’ll have a chance to show the world who he is.

Nicco Fertitta won’t have to say a word.

Just as they have in the past, his hits will do the talking.

“I’m not nervous, I’m just excited. I can’t wait,” he said. “I’m praying I’m on that kickoff team or kick return team, knocking someone out on the first whistle.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Today's feature story on Notre Dame incoming freshman safety Nicco Fertitta is the sixth in an ongoing weekly series of profiles taking a look at the members of the incoming Irish freshman football class.

Previous stories:

Notre Dame signee Justin Yoon embraces pressure of starting opportunity

Safety signee Mykelti Williams bides time before joining Notre Dame

Incoming Notre Dame TE Alizé Jones eyes immediate impact

Andrean's Josh Barajas brings winning mindset to Notre Dame

Notre Dame incoming OL Trevor Ruhland motivated by Iowa snub