Academic fraud case could be major hit on field for Notre Dame football

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

Two weeks before Notre Dame opens its 2014 football season, an already-questionable defense may be taking on a seismic hit.

The University has launched an investigation into academic fraud that has resulted in the suspension from competition of four football players — junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, senior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, senior defensive end Ishaq Williams and fifth-year senior linebacker Kendall Moore. The four remain enrolled in school and on scholarship.

While the investigation is ongoing, the four are not suspended from school but will not be able to practice or play. The 17th-ranked Irish open Aug. 30 against Rice at Notre Dame Stadium.

Russell is entering his junior season, Williams his senior season, Daniels is a senior but retains two seasons of eligibility because he did not play as a freshman in 2011, and Moore is a fifth-year senior.

The biggest hit would be Russell, a standout cornerback who has started every game of his career and was being mentioned as a potential All-American.

Russell came to Notre Dame as a running back but was switched to corner prior to fall camp in 2012. He started every game that season for an Irish defense that carried the team to an unbeaten regular season before the Irish were bludgeoned by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

Under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, the Irish cornerbacks are expected to move to a more pressing style of play, a strategy that was expected to further highlight Russell’s skills.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Russell, a product of Everett, Wash., was Notre Dame’s fifth-leading tackler last season with 51. He also contributed 1.5 tackles for loss and one interception.

Analyst Scott Wright of NFL Draft Countdown said earlier this summer that Russell, should he choose to enter the NFL draft pool following his junior season, has a chance to be considered the top corner taken in next year’s draft, possibly a top-50 pick.

His loss hurts in that Notre Dame faces some of college football’s top receivers this fall, including DaVante Parker of Louisville, Rashad Greene of Florida State and Nelson Agholor of USC.

If Russell is out, sophomore Cole Luke, expected to play a significant role as a third corner, likely steps into Russell’s spot. Florida transfer Cody Riggs is slated as the other starter.

Kelly said this week that he’s been pleased with the play of sophomore Devin Butler and true freshman Nick Watkins. Senior Josh Atkinson also has played well this fall.

Daniels, the son of former NFL player Phillip Daniels, was reinstated over the summer after an academic-induced suspension cost him the spring semester at Notre Dame.

Daniels, who played at Vernon Hills (Ill.) High School, played in all 13 games last season, starting nine, and was ND’s leading returning receiver. He caught 49 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns.

The 6-2, 203-pound Daniels’ return was expected to ignite a passing attack that is expected to flourish with the return of quarterback Everett Golson, who missed last season because of an academic suspension.

The Irish have a number of young and largely unproven receivers with Daniels the veteran of the bunch. He was one of the lone bright spots in the 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship, catching six passes for a then-career high 115 yards.

Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and Chris Brown already were expected to play more expanded roles in the offense, but a loss of Daniels would seem to figure to create an opportunity for freshman Justin Brent, who enrolled early and took part in spring practice. Senior Amir Carlisle, a converted running back, and true freshman Corey Holmes, also could stand to see more action if Daniels is gone.

The Irish were already short a player at the position after Kelly announced last week that sophomore Torii Hunter Jr. is out with a torn groin. The initial prognosis for Hunter was that he would miss 4-6 weeks. and Kelly said earlier this week that he expects the son of Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter to miss at least the Aug. 30 opener against Rice.

Williams came to Notre Dame as a ballyhooed recruit in a class that also included standout linemen Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch, both of whom are now in NFL training camps.

Williams, however, had not lived up to expectations as he registered a combined 45 tackles over his first three seasons.

Irish coach Brian Kelly said on Wednesday that the senior from Lincoln High in Brooklyn, N.Y. was the starting strongside defensive end as ND moves to a more multiple defense under VanGorder.

Wright said that Williams, if he could translate potential into production, could play himself into an early-round pick, calling 2014 a contract year of sorts for the senior.

The Irish front already was faced with replacing departed standouts Tuitt and Louis Nix, and at the start of fall camp, Kelly announced that backup nose guard Tony Springmann’s career was over because of a back injury.

Kelly said earlier this week that true freshman Andrew Trumbetti would start at the weakside defensive end spot opposite Williams. Trumbetti had leapfrogged junior Romeo Okwara. True freshman Jonathan Bonner, who has impressed in camp, could see his playing time increase if the 6-6, 271-pound Williams is not part of the picture.

Sophomore Isaac Rochell also figures to jump further into the mix after playing in 11 games last season.

Moore was brought back for a fifth year to provide depth to a linebacker corps that, beyond star sophomore Jaylon Smith, is short on proven talent.

Moore, who came to ND from Southeast Raleigh High in Cary, N.C., has seen most of his playing time come on special teams.

Of the four potential losses, his would figure to be the easiest to absorb as his chance for significant playing time was dwindling.

Senior Joe Schmidt was praised by the staff for his knowledge of the scheme. Freshman Nyles Morgan was considered one of the jewels of the freshman class, and fellow rookie Greer Martini was singled out by Kelly earlier this week after surprisingly earning a spot on the two-deep. | 574-235-6428| Twitter: @BWienekeNDI

Notre Dame's KeiVarae Russell, left, nearly intercepts a pass to Oklahoma's Jalen Saunders during the Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma football game on Saturday, September 28, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/Robert Franklin)
From left to right, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, linebacker Kendall Moore, and defensive end Ishaq Williams are at the center of an alleged academic fraud case at Notre Dame.