A mix of normalcy, surreal for Notre Dame football as Brian Kelly addresses investigation

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There were patches of normalcy in Notre Dame Stadium, among them Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder somehow equaling the decibels of an Eminem track reverberating from the speaker system.

The unwieldy media mob that follows the Irish football team on a daily basis wasn’t infiltrated with national types or TMZ, for that matter, during Saturday’s practice. There were some extra eyes on practice, though. Roughly 250 faculty, staff and guests took advantage of the long-ago scheduled faculty appreciation day.

Scouts from four NFL teams —Falcons, Raiders, Redskins, Titans — were on hand as well, while athletic director Jack Swarbrick made a late appearance.

It wasn’t until the No. 1 defense took the field, and sophomore Cole Luke lined up at cornerback and classmate Isaac Rochell took a spot next to nose guard Jarron Jones, that the surreal feel that was kind of hanging in the air translated itself onto the spanking new FieldTurf.

Luke replaced junior star KeiVarae Russell, and Rochell ascended to fill in for senior starting defensive end Ishaq Williams, two of the four players who embarked on an indefinite leave from practice and games on Friday while the university determines their guilt or innocence in an academic fraud investigation.

The probe, Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins said started July 29, came to light Friday, one day after Irish head coach Brian Kelly was pulled into the loop. Starting senior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, replaced by sophomore Will Fuller in the starting lineup at practice, and deep reserve linebacker Kendall Moore, a grad student, are the other two Irish players who find themselves in limbo as the investigation continues.

“Our players, obviously those are teammates, and they care about their teammates, just like I do. But they’re competitors,” Kelly said after practice when asked how he intended to infuse a sense of ordinariness back into a team that will start the season Aug. 30 against Rice ranked 17th in the coaches poll.

“They’re wired to play football … and when it’s time to play, they’re going to play for their university. They’re going to play for themselves. They’re going play for their families, and that’s how they’ve done it their whole lives.

“I’m not that concerned really. There will be the questions for a day or two, certainly what are the implications here. But when those things are answered, they’ll be ready to play football.”

Kelly seemed more than ready to simply coach football and talk football on Saturday. But he knew his first press conference since the story broke would likely not gravitate toward the seven players on the sidelines with injuries Saturday — linebacker Doug Randolph, defensive lineman Jacob Matuska, wide receivers Torii Hunter Jr. and Justin Brent, tight ends Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua, and walk-on cornerback Jesse Bongiovi —or toward one back in the mix after a long absence, tight end Mike Heuerman.

Have you been questioned as part of the investigation?

“No.”

Do you think you will be?

“No.”

Are you concerned other people (within the football family) knew about this?

“No. Again. If there was, we certainly would have been informed of that,” Kelly said. “Again, I was given the information Thursday, and that's all the information that I was given.”

That being the four players involved and that the investigation is ongoing.

“The football coach isn’t going to be involved in any investigation as it relates to this academic matter,” Kelly said of his non-role in the proceedings. “I’ll be just like you. I’ll be on the outside looking in as it relates to this ongoing process.”

Kelly will likely have to redo most of Saturday’s proceedings on Tuesday, when the school holds its national media day. Players and assistant coaches, along with Kelly, are expected to be available to the media, and new apparel/equipment partner Under Armour is still queued up to unveil ND’s new home, away and Shamrock Series unis.

As for Saturday, Kelly came off equal parts disappointed and resilient, with a couple of puffs of defiance, during his 23-plus minutes in front of the mikes and cameras.

“We don’t say one thing and do the other, and I’m proud of Notre Dame and the way that they act,” Kelly said. “We don’t look the other way.

“If we find improprieties as it relates to this matter, we’re going to address them and deal with them. In our locker room, we have a very simple covenant: Treat women with respect. Don’t cheat, don’t lie and don’t steal.

“And our players see that every single day when they walk into our locker room. It’s been on that wall since I took this job, and those standards haven’t changed and will never change. I’ve had them for 24 years as a head football coach, and I know the environment that we create here, and our players do. They know the standards.”

And Kelly’s standard toward handling the extracurricular headaches of the job, even the rare self-imposed ones, has largely been a strength in his five seasons as head coach.

“Each situation is difficult,” he said. “And each one of them has challenges. But I rely on a great support staff here at the University of Notre Dame.

“I’ve got a great AD. I’ve got people that I can lean on for guidance and support to make good decisions and help making sure that those things don’t happen. But we’re in the education business too, and I think Father John said it well yesterday about 18- to- 21-year-olds and mistakes are made. We’re going to have to hold them accountable at the end of the day.”

As of early Saturday afternoon, Kelly has not had a chance to talk to any of the players involved in the investigation, but said he planned to either later Sunday or early Monday.

There is a chance one or more might not be committed to a process that has no timetable, and simply elect to transfer, but Kelly hadn’t had the chance to gauge those possibilities.

He is committed to letting the players eat with their teammates, hang out at the school’s football facility – the Guglielmino Athletic Complex — and stay connected as much as they want outside the restricted practices and games.

“It doesn’t really make sense for them to be in meetings right now,” Kelly said, “and so I’m not going to have them in meetings. But they’re welcome to be in the Gug at any time and be around their teammates as they go through this process.

“I care deeply about the four young men. I feel for KeiVarae and Ishaq and Kendall, and I feel for DaVaris. They’ve been part of our program. But I’ve got a job to do, and I’ve got another 100 players that I have to be concerned with. And my focus and attention is continuing to develop our players on a day-to-day basis.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, right, speaks with offensive line coach Harry Hiestand at practice Saturday, a day after the university announced an academic dishonesty investigation which includes four football players. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)