Brian Kelly ponders next step as Notre Dame academic fraud case nears conclusion

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The reality that Brian Kelly so deftly kept in a cocoon and away from his team for more than 50 days requires a plan of action now.

Any day, any minute now the national story line of Notre Dame’s academic fraud investigation process, 70 days and counting on Monday, will reach some sort of conclusion.

A university statement Sunday afternoon, essentially putting it into the laps of the five players involved to impart that conclusion to a largely impatient following, likely means plenty of loose ends, unanswered questions and pressing Kelly — ND’s fifth-year head football coach — to dance around the awkwardness for as long as it takes.

The statement also went on to explain that the hearings for all five players are finally over, something exiled wide receiver DaVaris Daniels’ father, Phillip, shared on Twitter almost 48 hours earlier.

“If it is determined that student-athletes would have been ineligible during past competition,” the statement read, “Notre Dame will voluntarily impose appropriate sanctions, report our findings to the NCAA, and await its independent review.”

The “if” that Kelly finds himself wrestling with has to do with the possibility of getting reinstated players back and how and when to start penciling them into the team’s plans.

It comes at a time ND has ascended from a preseason 15/17 rating to squarely into the college football playoff discussion, with a No. 5 ranking in the Amway coaches poll and a No. 6 slotting in the unsponsored Associated Press poll following its dramatic 17-14 outlasting of then-No. 14 Stanford in 33-degree wind chills.

The actual College Football Playoff selection committee starts distributing its own weekly rankings beginning Oct. 28.

The Irish (5-0) host North Carolina (2-3) this Saturday before a showdown with top-ranked and defending national champion Florida State (5-0) in Tallahassee, Fla., on Oct. 18.

“That's a very good question,” Kelly said Sunday of how he’ll handle reintegration, now that the possibility is finally on his doorstep. “I'm probably going to have to spend some time (Sunday) thinking about it, because I really have not given it much thought.

“Now that you've posed that question, I do have to begin to think about reintegrating, and obviously I'm sure a decision is going to be made. I probably won't reintegrate until I get a decision on each guy, and, hopefully, that will come soon.

“Once that decision's made on each one of them, we're going to have to have a plan on reintegrating all of the players or those players that I can.”

Starters cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and wide receiver Daniels along with reserve linebacker Kendall Moore, have been held out of competition, practices and team meetings since Aug. 15, although all four remained full-time students.

That’s also the day the university held its first, and apparently final, press conference on the subject. Kelly was looped in for the first time on Aug. 14, when the probe was already 17 days old.

Backup safety Eilar Hardy joined the first four players in limbo on Aug. 28.

In the interim, the players who filled in have done so at a higher level than perhaps many expected.

Sophomore cornerback Cole Luke was awarded the game ball after Saturday’s Stanford victory. He had the first two interceptions of his career, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and four tackles against the Cardinal. For the season, he has 17 tackles.

Another sophomore, Isaac Rochell, has been Williams’ primary replacement. He has 13 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup, and he shares the team lead with Sheldon Day in quarterback hurries with six.

In the bigger picture, the Irish defense heads into the North Carolina game No. 3 nationally in scoring defense, ninth in rushing defense, 28th in pass-efficiency defense and 21st in total defense.

On offense, replacing Daniels has been a committee of bodies, but the player who has made the most of that opportunity is yet another sophomore, Will Fuller. He leads the Irish in receptions (28) receiving yards (371) and TD catches (5).

All of which means Kelly won’t have to rush the players back into the lineup, although Russell had the kind of spring and first part of fall camp that evokes All-America potential.

“The only thing that gets you in shape for football is football,” offered Aaron Taylor, current CBS college football analyst and former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman, in trying to guess a timetable the players could return to form.

“So they could be in great condition, but not necessarily ‘football shape.’ It’s foolish to think that in one week of practice you could step in and pick up right where you left off.

“I think in an ideal situation with a super-experienced player, two weeks would be a reasonable expectation to get maximum production. It’s going to take a while for them to get their sea legs underneath them. And I’m not sure it’s any easier for one position versus another.”

Here’s the full statement, in its entirety, issued Sunday by Paul J. Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications at Notre Dame:

On August 15 the Office of General Counsel of the University of Notre Dame notified the NCAA that because of potential ineligibility issues, the University was withholding from football participation certain student-athletes as part of an inquiry into possible academic dishonesty involving several other students as well. The NCAA was also informed that upon the start of the academic year later in the month, appropriate University committees would meet to develop review processes consistent with the Undergraduate Academic Code of Honor.

Often, an academic honesty review involves one student and one academic department. Due to the complexity of cases involving multiple disciplines, Comprehensive Honesty Committees were impaneled to review memoranda and extensive exhibits compiled in connection with the General Counsel's initial inquiry, interview witnesses and the subjects of the hearings, and potentially impose sanctions subject to appeal. A faculty reporter was also appointed to review voluminous material collected during the General Counsel's investigation to identify cases for the Comprehensive Committees’ review.

Hearings for those withheld from football were completed on Friday. Decisions will be communicated individually to affected student-athletes and other students alike, as deliberations on each case conclude. As with other student academic records, the results of the review are confidential, and the University will not disclose them, although affected students may if they so choose. If it is determined that student-athletes would have been ineligible during past competition, Notre Dame will voluntarily impose appropriate sanctions, report our findings to the NCAA, and await its independent review.

The principal purpose of the Honor Code process (see http://honorcode.nd.edu/) is to educate our students as to the importance of academic integrity. The process is time-consuming because it is thorough, as it must be to ensure integrity and fairness. Having said that, we recognize it can be difficult for students, regardless of culpability, who are subject to such reviews, especially when public scrutiny becomes so magnified for those who are student-athletes. We are working to resolve these situations as quickly as possible.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

With the academic fraud hearings concluded, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly could be facing reintegration questions. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)