Answers slow to emerge regarding suspended Notre Dame football players

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — No practice Thursday. No game Saturday. No finality — still — in where the Frozen Five are headed long-term.

And seemingly no end in sight for a 54-day-old story that seems to add new holes every time facts start to trickle out.

Confused?

Welcome to Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s world, where his No. 1 priority between now and Saturday is to get his sixth-ranked Irish (5-0) to transcend the turbulence, as they have all season, and focus on talented-but-heretofore-underachieving North Carolina (2-3).

The 19th meeting between the two teams, in a series that had its inception at Yankee Stadium in 1949, unfolds Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium.

What unfolded Thursday night, a few hundred yards away at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, requires more reading between the lines than offering concrete conclusions.

That was the site of Kelly’s latest press conference, heavy in the hypothetical when it comes to the five players whose ND football careers, and perhaps academic futures, have been in limbo since August.

Perhaps the most significant thought to come out of the nearly 18 minutes of Kelly at the podium was his expectation that he believes all five cases won’t end with the same outcome.

The most significant assumption that Kelly’s words and actions suggested was that some, if not all, of the five players have entered into an appeals phase, meaning their initial hearings ended in something less than complete exoneration.

Those players are star junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, a player talented and invested enough to someday be a first-round draft choice and whose reaction via Instagram to his honor code hearing appeared to hint at vindication.

He and fellow starters, defensive end Ishaq Williams and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, as well as reserve Kendall Moore, have been held out of practices, games and team meetings since Aug. 15, though they’ve been free to interact with and eat with their teammates at the team’s football complex.

Backup safety Eilar Hardy was added to the list of suspended players on Aug. 28.

Only Moore, among them, exhausts his eligibility after this season without any further redshirt options. Hardy, Daniels and Williams are all seniors. Hardy and Daniels had 2015 eligibility as a possibility, because they redshirted as freshmen.

Williams could conceivably redshirt this season if he isn’t reinstated before this seasons ends and play at ND or elsewhere in 2015.

The university held a press conference on Aug. 15 a day after looping in Kelly for the first time into an already ongoing academic fraud investigation.

"At the end of the summer session, suspicions arose on the part of a member of our academic staff that students had submitted papers and homework that was written for them by others," ND president John I. Jenkins said at the Aug. 15 press gathering.

"This was referred to the compliance office on athletics on July 29. The office of general counsel then initiated an investigation, and that investigation is ongoing.

"The university has decided that if the investigation determines that the student-athletes would have been ineligible for past competitions, Notre Dame will voluntarily vacate any victories in which they participated in."

Kelly has been stuck as the de facto spokesperson ever since for a process he’s been largely kept out of and has to navigate around student privacy laws.

“I don’t have any concrete finality on any of the five, because the process for them … there is an appeals process for them. And they may want to exhaust all of that that is in front of them relative to an appeal.

“So it’s really up to the player, the student-athlete, to discuss it and not me. I think it’s my role to inform you as to whether they’re practicing, whether they’re on the team.”

Messages were not returned from any of the five players when contacted Thursday night by the South Bend Tribune.

But Daniels’ father, Phillip, outspoken publicly since the process began, perked up on Twitter roughly an hour before Kelly’s press conference.

“Noticed I'm getting a lot of tweets about reports,” the elder Daniels tweeted. “I have not heard anything and all this leaking info is very disturbing to say the least!

“Investigation has been so tight lipped up to this point & all of a sudden everybody has a source! I will wait on the real source from above!”

Both Irish Illustrated on Wednesday night and the Chicago Tribune on Thursday cited anonymous sources in reporting that it was unlikely any of the five would play for Notre Dame over the balance of this season.

“I’m not certain on all of them right now,” Kelly said when confronted with the information in those reports. “I couldn’t comment on all five. Again, I don’t have anything specific to tell you one way or the other.”

Not all of the hearings were held on the same day. DaVaris Daniels’ was held Friday per Phillip Daniels’ Twitter account.

“It’s awkward, and I’m trying to do the best job I can,” said Kelly, who acknowledged he has been in contact with all five players.

“I respect the fact that questions are asked, and I don’t blame you for it. I just don’t believe it’s my place to interfere with the individual student if they have, in fact, been told what their fate is and haven’t told me, that I’m getting involved in kind of surmising what might have happened, because they’re not at practice.

“I don’t think it’s fair to them. That’s the place that I’m in right now. I think we all know that we’re at that point where decisions are being made or have been made, and I don’t have all the answers at this point. All I know as the football coach at this point, they’re not practicing.”

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly answers a question during a press conference Tuesday Oct. 7, 2014 in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)