NOTRE DAME — The imposing Notre Dame defensive front seven now has an All-American, 6-foot-6-sized hole blasted through it.
Defensive end Aaron Lynch officially left the team Friday morning, taking Notre Dame's leader in sacks and quarterback hurries in 2011 — the face of Notre Dame's future — with him. He'll transfer to a different school at the end of the spring semester.
While the news is a dagger for the program and its supporters, it's hardly a shocking development to anyone that's been reading between the lines since last week.
Lynch was excused from practice April 4 and went to visit his mother in Ohio to attend to what head coach Brian Kelly called “personal matters.” The Chicago Tribune and Irish Illustrated revealed that Lynch had been involved in an altercation at practice with offensive linemen Tate Nichols a few days earlier.
Kelly initially squashed rumors of Lynch leaving the program or deciding to go pro, saying Lynch was expected to return to the team the following Monday, but sources told the Tribune that the Cape Coral, Fla., native wasn't exactly happy with his life in Northern Indiana.
Four days later, Lynch and the Irish cut ties.
“I spent some time with Aaron over the last week to 10 days,” Kelly said at a press conference Friday morning. “As you know, I gave him time off from practice and wanted him to reflect on being here at Notre Dame.
“The bottom line is your head and your heart has to be in it to be a Notre Dame student-athlete. The challenges are great here, and if your head and heart are not in it, you just can't be successful here.”
But were Lynch's heart and head ever fully committed to Notre Dame?
After all, he left behind South Florida and a fiancee, who goes to college near Ft. Myers, Fla.
Lynch initially decommitted from Notre Dame back in October 2010, pledged himself to Florida State a month later, decommitted from the Seminoles in early January 2011 and re-committed to the Irish a couple of weeks later as an early enrollee.
From the moment he stepped on to the Notre Dame campus to his breakout performance against Michigan State, where he recorded a sack and six quarterback hurries, Lynch was dubbed Manti Te'o's heir apparent, the face of a new era of Notre Dame defense.
Despite the roller coaster recruitment process, Kelly said he never sensed that Lynch was unhappy until the beginning of the spring semester earlier this year.
“When I walk through the locker room, I'm always trying to look for guys that have their head down, and I just saw that he had that body language that we needed to spend some more time with him,” Kelly said of Lynch.
“Aaron and I talked about it and mutually agreed that the best decision for him is to leave the football team, which he has decided to do,” Kelly said. “He'll finish out the semester. It's important that he does that, and then he'll pursue other opportunities.”
The loss of Lynch leaves an immediate and resounding impact on a promising defensive line, but Kelly is sticking by his philosophy of “next man in.”
“(Lynch leaving) doesn't really affect them,” Kelly said of his team. “If it was doubles in tennis and that was your tennis partner, it might affect (them) a little bit. But when you have a football team of 85 guys?”
In fact if there is one position on Notre Dame's roster that can absorb such a significant blow without collapsing entirely, it's the defensive line.
Between veterans Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt and the untested Chase Hounshell, Tony Springmann and Sheldon Day, the Irish have some solid weapons at their disposal to try to fill the void.
Whether any of them can fill a gap left by the All-American remains to be seen. Lynch's future beyond Notre Dame is equally unclear, though transferring to a school like South Florida or Florida is likely in the cards.
“I want to thank Coach Kelly for giving me this great opportunity to attend Notre Dame and be part of the Fighting Irish football family,” Lynch said in a statement released by the university. “This was one of the toughest decisions I have had to make, but I want to go back home to Florida. I'm grateful to Coach Kelly for understanding and allowing me to return home.”