In the wake of Notre Dame announcing its investigation of four football players’ involvement in academic fraud Friday, Aug. 15, several questions have emerged surrounding the impact on the 2014 season and beyond.
First off, this investigation goes far beyond the football team. Because the academic fraud investigation involves “several” students, a university built on academic rigor and excellence stands to face a lot more than a few football losses. As the investigation unfolds, so too will the implications for the school.
That said, four football players are involved in the investigation, so we’ll focus on how the football team stands to be impacted. A lot of questions — such as how far back the academic fraud goes and if any former players are involved — do not yet have answers, but here’s what we do know.
Who are the players affected and what is their impact on the team?
Notre Dame stands to lose staring wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, starting cornerback KeiVarae Russell, starting defensive end Ishaq Williams and reserve linebacker Kendall Moore, who are all involved in the investigation.
Losing Russell would be Notre Dame’s biggest blow. The junior has a team-high 26 starts under his belt and has taken complete ownership of the position after two years in the backfield. Russell is currently the fifth-ranked cornerback in the 2016 draft class on CBSSports and was equipped to lead new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s more aggressive defensive approach this season.
The transfer of graduate student Cody Riggs could not have come at a better time. Riggs brings three years of starting experience from Florida and was set to start alongside Russell. Together, they would have formed a formidable pair.
Sophomore Cole Luke would likely fill in for Russell. Luke played in all 13 games last season, totaling 15 tackles and two pass breakups. Luke will have huge shoes to fill on a slate that includes USC’s Nelson Agholor, Louisville’s DaVante, Florida State’s Rashad Greene and Arizona State’s Jaelan Strong.
As for other corners, Brian Kelly had been high on freshman Nick Watkins and said earlier this week that both Luke and sophomore Devin Butler were doing “terrific” jobs.
Williams came to Notre Dame a highly-touted, five-star linebacker who never quite lived up to his billing in his first three seasons. Williams had a final shot to make an impact by flipping to defensive end this year, heading an experience-starved front seven.
If Notre Dame loses Williams, the biggest impact will be from a seniority and experience standpoint. Williams, junior defensive end Sheldon Day and sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith are the most seasoned players among a front seven that already looked to play several freshmen this year.
Freshman Andrew Trumbetti was slotted as a starter earlier this week with classmate Jonathan Bonner likely entering the mix behind Williams.
Notre Dame’s wide receiver corps is in slightly better shape from an experience standpoint, but losing Daniels means quarterback Everett Golson has one completed pass among the entire unit — a 50-yard bomb from Golson to Chris Brown against Oklahoma in 2012.
Kelly has praised Brown throughout fall camp, calling him Notre Dame’s “best receiver” after the first week. A stronger Corey Robinson and classmates Will Fuller and Torii Hunter Jr. are expected to flesh out the depth chart, though Hunter will likely miss the Rice game with a groin injury.
There’s also converted running back Amir Carlise and freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes.
The Irish are loaded at receiver, but Golson had a few years of chemistry with Daniels, who was expected to be Notre Dame’s deep threat this year. Daniels had 80 receptions for 1,235 yards and seven touchdowns in two seasons.
As for Moore, his role as a fifth-year senior was to bring experience to an unproven linebacker unit. Moore has spent most of his college career on special teams and was likely seeing his window close for significant playing opportunities.
Of all four players, the loss of Moore’s on-field impact will be the least felt.
Since those players aren’t suspended, how has Notre Dame football been immediately impacted?
While Russell, Williams, Daniels and Moore are not suspended, they will be kept out of football practices and games until the investigation has concluded.
That means with two weeks until the opener against Rice, the Irish must practice without three starters and a backup. Even if all four are cleared before kickoff Aug. 30, that’s valuable practice time they’re missing.
Still, it’s hard to envision Russell, Williams, Daniels and Moore not missing part of — if not all of — the 2014 season because of the investigation.
What was Brian Kelly’s role in all of this?
If there was any good news for Irish fans from Friday’s press conference, it was Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins’ staunch assurance that neither head coach Brian Kelly nor the rest of the coaching staff had any involvement in the issue.
“There is no evidence that Brian Kelly and his coaches knew about this,” Jenkins said. “Same way about the academic staff.”
Both Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick voiced their full support of Kelly during the investigation.
“I want to say right now we have great confidence in Brian and his staff, and they have been nothing but helpful in our investigation,” Jenkins said.
Swarbrick said Kelly was “devastated” upon hearing the news of the investigation and the involvement of four of his players.
“But he was also quick to want to understand the process, how he and his staff could be of assistance in the process and how it would work,” Swarbrick said. “And so that was quickly the focus of the discussion.”
If the four players are found to have committed academic fraud, what happens next?
Since Notre Dame is conducting the investigation itself, the student-athletes would submit to an Honesty Committee hearing.
“This is not an athletic process. It’s an academic process,” Jenkins said. “All involved will be judged as students first. As far as the team, that’s a separate question.”
As outlined in Notre Dame’s Honor Code, an anonymous committee would determine sanctions — which could range from an “F” on the paper to outright dismissal from the university.
Would previous seasons’ wins be affected by the outcome of this investigation?
If the investigation unveils the four players were academically ineligible during past competition, Notre Dame said it will “voluntarily vacate any victories in which they participated.” Because all four players were part of the 2012 team, this could mean vacating wins from the 12-1 season.
Moore is the most senior member of the group and has been with Notre Dame since 2010. Daniels and Williams came in together with the 2011 class and Russell was a freshman in 2012.