Tracking the paths of Notre Dame transfers
They seemed like such cruel twists at the time.
In the weeks and months before Notre Dame launched its first extended and authentic run at a national championship in football in two decades, what eventually became the 2012 renaissance season was threatened to be derailed by a cornerback crisis.
It started on the recruiting trail that winter with ND’s top cornerback commit, Ronald Darby from Maryland, exiting the class late in the cycle and signing with Florida State.
The misfortune continued, including a summer injury to projected starter Lo Wood, but so did a remarkable experiment that to this day keeps on giving — KeiVarae Russell. The 2015 preseason All-American, who couldn’t stand playing cornerback at Mariner High in Everett, Wash., was recruited in that same class to be a running back/slot receiver hybrid at ND.
Less than a month before the 2012 season opener, Irish head coach Brian Kelly poached Russell from the offense and rolled the dice on a player who has since become the poster child for his player development mantra.
In between, Kelly and company tried to recoup the Darby loss by recruiting Illinois prep standout Anthony Standifer, but he wasn’t a fit and ended up at Ole Miss, where his career never really took off. He has since transferred and is playing at FCS school Eastern Illinois.
Yuri Wright was another touted rebound prospect, but a Twitter meltdown prompted ND and other schools to back off the nation’s No. 7 cornerback prospect and high school teammate of ND safety signee Elijah Shumate before signing day.
Wright landed at Colorado, where he’s never found traction for playing time and is listed as the Buffs’ fourth-string option at cornerback as they opened with a 28-20 loss at Hawaii Thursday night/Friday morning.
Two very promising options, who did end up at Notre Dame for a time, both are making their FBS debuts this weekend at the cornerback position. And that’s where this look at where Notre Dame’s many active transfer players are faring begins.
For Ole Miss redshirt junior Tee Shepard, Saturday’s home game against Tennessee-Martin won’t just be his major-college debut as a cornerback, it will mark the first FBS game for the now 22-year-old, period.
The Fresno, Calif., product, born T’ajani Shepard, enrolled early at Notre Dame as a freshman in January 2012 and was a memory before spring practice started in March.
Shepard has never clarified what exactly went wrong, but his high school coach later attributed the unexpected and unwanted exit from ND to a standardized admissions test score issue uncovered after Shepard enrolled.
His road to Saturday’s debut has been as unsmooth as it has been curvy.
Shepard sat out the 2012 season, then played at the junior college level in 2013 at Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss.
He then transferred to Ole Miss and was pushing for a starting spot in training camp when a toe injury that required surgery derailed that season.
"I’m not gonna say that I’m glad I got hurt last year,” Shepard told Sudu Upadhyay of Scout.com’s Ole Miss website. “But over this year, I got stronger and faster. I’m a whole different player than what I used to be.”
He won’t be starting Saturday for the 17th-ranked Rebels, though. Instead Shepard is slated to rotate in at both corner spots behind starters Kendarius Webster and Tony Bridges.
One bit of very good fortune that befell the hearing-impaired Shepard in the past year is that he can now hear the referees’ whistles.
Shepard couldn’t previously wear hearing aids while playing football, because they were too bulky and wouldn’t stay on. But he now wears sleeker, high-tech versions made possible through Ole Miss’ health insurance. Previously, they had been too expensive for Shepard’s family to afford.
Davonté Neal, meanwhile, made his cornerback debut Thursday night at home against Texas-San Antonio in a 42-32 shootout.
When Kelly was mulling his scant options to fortify the cornerback position in the summer of 2012, Russell himself was convinced Kelly would pluck Neal — a freshman wide receiver in the class — to fill the urgent void, and not himself. Neal thought so, too.
Three years later, Neal finally is a cornerback and a starter at the position after making 10 starts at wide receiver for Arizona in 2014. A year after satisfying his NCAA transfer incubation period, Neal amassed 27 receptions for 214 yards and two TDs.
On special teams, he returned 12 punts for 133 yards and a TD in 2014, but 81 of those yards came on a single return and he also had several muffed punts. He’s in the mix at both kickoff and punt returns this year.
On Thursday night, in a game in which Arizona All-America linebacker Scooby Wright missed a long stretch of it with a leg injury, UTSA rolled up 525 total yards on the Wildcat defense. Neal contributed six solo tackles and five assists, and he blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats begin the season ranked No. 22.
Here’s how the other Irish transfers are shaping up:
CLASS OF 2011
Matt Hegarty, Oregon: The grad school transfer emerged from a four-man battle for the starting center job, beating out redshirt sophomores Doug Brenner and Jake Pisarcik, and junior guard Cameron Hunt. The seventh-ranked Ducks open Saturday at home against Eastern Washington.
Everett Golson, Florida State: The two-year Notre Dame starter at QB was officially named Jameis Winston’s successor on Monday, something most Irish fans considered an inevitability despite FSU coach Jimbo Fisher’s insistence otherwise all offseason. The 10th-ranked Seminoles host Texas State in their season opener Saturday night.
Josh Atkinson, Azusa Pacific: Using his graduate transfer option, Atkinson is the starting corner for a team ranked No. 19 in the Div. II preseason poll. His last action in a game for any team was in the 2013 season, a one-tackle performance for the Irish against Rutgers. The Cougars opened on the road, Thursday at West Texas A&M, where they rallied form 21 points down to win, 27-24.
Atkinson collected four tackles and his first career interception.
Eilar Hardy, Bowling Green: The only member of ND’s Frozen Five who eventually saw action for the Irish in 2014, Hardy is playing out his final season of eligibility with a team that ranked 115th nationally in total defense in 2014 and return three starters from that unit. With Hardy slated to start at strong safety, the Falcons open Saturday against No. 25 Tennessee in Nashville, Tenn.
Anthony Rabasa, Western Michigan: After amassing 10 career tackles in four years at Notre Dame, the defensive end looked to get a fresh start at Western Michigan. However, last week he elected to end his college career before ever playing in a game for the Broncos.
CLASS OF 2012
Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati: The redshirt junior threw for 3,254 yards and a school record-tying 31 TDs with 13 interceptions in 2014, his first game action since playing for Columbus (Ind.) East High School in 2011. He earned honorable mention All-American Athletic Conference honors. Was 18th nationally in passing efficiency last season, but battled durability issues.
The Bearcats open Saturday night at home against Alabama A&M. Kiel, one of UC’s captains, will face two head coaches this season who were coordinators at Notre Dame during his time there — Chuck Martin at Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 19 and Bob Diaco with UConn in a home game on Oct. 24.
Justin Ferguson, Western Michigan: Since recording a nine-yard reception in the first game of his freshman year as a backup wide receiver three years ago against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, Ferguson is still looking for his next college stat of any kind — or meaningful playing time.
He landed at Western Michigan in 2013, and was converted to a safety as he sat out the season to satisfy NCAA transfer regulations. In 2014, the now redshirt junior’s playing time consisted of two special teams cameos. He was unable to crack the two-deeps as the Broncos approach Friday night’s home matchup with No. 5 Michigan State.
CLASS OF 2013
Greg Bryant, ASA Miami: As expected the junior running back did not play in the home opener for the first-year junior college program last Saturday night, a 17-16 victory over ASA New York. It sure looks like they can use him in the future. The team rushed for 48 yards on 27 carries, a 1.8 per-carry average.
Bryant, declared academically ineligible to play for Notre Dame in 2015, began practicing with his new team on Aug. 27, five days after they opened on the road with a loss to Blinn College. But as of Thursday, Bryant had not been cleared academically to play in Saturday’s home game against Elite Performer Sports Academy, a postgraduate prep school in Georgia.
The former five-star prospect from Delray Beach, Fla., has previously posted on his Instagram account that he’ll reopen his recruiting once he leaves ASA Miami to go back to FBS football.
Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA: A little more than two years after making national headlines for fighting successfully to get out of his letter-of-intent to attend ND, the 6-3 junior defensive lineman slimmed down to 305 pounds in the offseason from 330.
He’s coming off a season in which he recorded 50 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss with two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Vanderdoes has made cameos on offense in his two previous seasons, rushing for a one-yard TD and catching an 18-yard pass as a freshman in 2013, and rushing four times for five yards and a score last season.
The 13th-ranked Bruins open Saturday against future ND opponent Virginia in a game in which both teams refused to publish a depth chart for public consumption.
CLASS OF 2014
Kolin Hill, Texas Tech: Sitting out the 2015 season to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements. He’ll then have three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Jhonny Williams, Toledo: Sitting out 2015 season to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements. The Berrien Springs High grade will then have three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Nile Sykes, Indiana: Sykes and ND mutually parted ways in the summer of 2014 before the freshman could complete a full summer term of classes. He’s now a 6-2, 242-pound redshirt freshman at IU and is projected No. 2 on the depth chart at “bandit” linebacker.
CLASS OF 2015
Bo Wallace, Arizona State: The 6-4, 215-pound freshman is eligible to play for the Sun Devils in 2015, but most likely will redshirt this season and have four years to play, beginning in 2016. ASU, ranked 15th, opens Saturday in Houston against Texas A&M.