Safety Nicco Fertitta adds punch to Notre Dame's defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — That his mother and little sister both have formal boxing backgrounds suggests toughness wasn’t exactly a choice for Nicco Fertitta.

“Nasty right hand, man” the Notre Dame sophomore safety offers when describing mom Teresa’s best boxing asset.

Nicco learned to love boxing too, enough that he plans to enter the school’s renowned Bengal Bouts competition when his football eligibility expires and enough that he still dabbles in it now when he’s not playing football for the Irish.

And the 5-foot-8, 185-pounder does play now, in high-leverage situations, in a tag-team with true freshman Devin Studstill at free safety.

All of which spoils the overplayed narrative that the Las Vegas native was too small and too coddled, as the son of a billionaire entrepreneur/sports promoter, to ever be more than a special teams contributor at the college level.

“My mind-set really hasn’t been any different,” insisted Fertitta, who has collected eight of his 11 tackles and both pass breakups this season in the three games since former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was replaced with interim Greg Hudson on Sept 25.

That Fertitta, a glob of freshmen and a couple of reclamation projects on defense have worked their way into the spotlight for the 26th rendition of Notre Dame-Miami, Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT) at Notre Dame Stadium more than hints that this isn’t your father’s Irish-Hurricanes clash.

So does a secondary ticket market, which as of Friday evening was still offering a glut of options at more than $100 below the $150 face value.

The only real tangible tie to the vintage matchups, that ended abruptly in 1990, was a private screening on campus Friday night of the upcoming ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Catholics vs. Convicts” (premiere date Dec. 10).

Both teams have spent a week in the top 10 in the national polls — the Irish (2-5) in the preseason version, the ’Canes (4-3) prior to an ongoing three-game losing streak. With 13 AP national championships between them, both are trying to use Miami’s first appearance in South Bend in 26 years as a springboard to both a sudden momentum shift and a lasting renaissance.

The thaw between the dormant rivals began shortly before the 2010 Sun Bowl matchup that ended 20 years of avoidance.

The 2012 Shamrock Series in Chicago, Saturday’s game and a meeting next November in Miami Gardens, Fla., were all contracted before ND entered into a football scheduling agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference that went into practice in 2014.

“I was clearly aware of the magnitude of the game and the whole ‘Catholics vs. Convicts’ thing and that shtick,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday night after practice, “but (I) really haven’t made it a big piece of our week.

“Not that our kids are not aware of it, as much as it’s really not central to what we’re going through right now.”

Fertitta apparently has done a good job of studying the CliffsNotes and taking cues from position coach Todd Lyght, who played in four ND-Miami confrontations for the Irish (1987-90), all of which featured both teams ranked in the top 10 at the time of the meeting.

“We just figure it’s going to be a smash-mouth football game,” Fertitta said. “They’re going to be talking, and we’re going to have to show that we can be out there with them.”

Having to prove himself, and succeeding at it, is a worn storyline for Fertitta, as it is. Especially in football.

His first exposure to sports came in soccer. Baseball and basketball followed, with boxing starting at age 7 or 8, by his recollection. Fertitta’s participation in mixed martial arts, the sport in which father Lorenzo helped build the UFC empire, was limited.

“When I saw my brother (Lorenzo Jr.) playing football in sixth grade, I wanted to,” he said. “That’s how I learned to hit. (My dad) told me, ‘You’ve just got to run through people.’ He actually put on pads and hit me.”

Mom, though, tapped the brakes on the fledgling football career for a while. Her concern? Injuries …

To the other kids.

“When I was younger, I’d take some kids out,” Fertitta said, “and she’d be on the sideline crying for the other kids. It kind of hurt her a little bit. She’s kind of accepted it now, but she still doesn’t like it.”

Kelly decidedly does, and that’s why Fertitta is contributing. A deeper rotation at all defensive positions is part of the Irish head coach’s strategy to separate from the start under VanGorder that had the Irish on a historically dreadful trajectory.

And the defense will have to be its best Saturday where it has struggled the most. Miami junior quarterback Brad Kaaya, already third all-time on the school’s passing yardage list, is completing 67.5 percent of his passes this season when he’s not pressured, 32.4 percent of the time when he is.

That according to Steve Palazzolo, senior analyst for Pro Football Focus and PFF College.

Virginia Tech, which beat Miami 37-16 on Oct. 20, sacked Kaaya a career-high eight times in that game. The Irish have six sacks on the season and ranked 125th among the 128 FBS teams in that statistical category.

If the Irish pass rush is tepid Saturday, then the onus shifts to Fertitta and the Irish secondary.

“We’re playing a little more free and loose,” he said of a defense that’s allowed only two offensive touchdowns over the past 10 quarters. “Everything is a lot more simple.

“I haven’t really done anything yet, but I’ve shown I can compete and that I belong.”

Arizona, Boston College, Hawaii, Houston, Indiana, Utah and hometown UNLV were the other FBS schools who saw Fertitta as an FBS prospect. The home visit helped reinforce to Kelly why the Irish were also in that group.

“I had more fun on that home visit than any home visit I’ve ever done,” Kelly said. “His sister (Angela), who was 13 or 14 at the time, asked me more questions than Lorenzo, the dad. And he made me do some things that I regretted the next morning.”

But he doesn’t regret giving Nicco Fertitta a chance at an expanded role in the new-look defense.

“Since fall camp, I’ve just been one of those guys who’s going to work hard every single day,” Fertitta said. “As I keep working, hopefully they’ll keep noticing. It’s all hard work. I got my opportunity.

“It’s just my time, but my time could be up anytime. So I’ve just got to keep working and give my all for the team.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Safety Nicco Fertitta, here tracking down receiver C.J. Sanders in practice, has made the most out of his expanded opportunity with the Notre Dame defense. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)