NCF Nation: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt's right-hand-man says the defense wouldn't be the same without him. His father says he wouldn't put a price on his son's dream. His coach invoked the name of the NFL's top defensive player when discussing him -- at least in each's recruitment.

"There's a handful of those guys every year: When I recruited J.J. Watt at Central Michigan, why didn't he have more offers?" Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "So everywhere that I've been, I've recruited somebody along the way that has turned out to be a great player and he didn't have a lot of offers."

Hyperbole aside, Schmidt's path from preferred walk-on to starting middle linebacker has been one of the more remarkable stories this season for No. 9 Notre Dame, which puts its 4-0 mark to the test Saturday against No. 14 Stanford. The California kid is one off the team lead in tackles (30) and has been instrumental in the development of the nation's No. 4 scoring defense, a unit that replaced seven starters from 2013 while adjusting to new coordinator Brian VanGorder and his aggressive attack.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsFormer walk-on Joe Schmidt is among Notre Dame's leaders in tackles.
VanGorder deemed the redshirt junior before the season as "unusual" in his ability to communicate as the quarterback of a new defense. So far that has bared true, with Schmidt tracing the knowledge-base back to an adolescent career that saw him play everywhere from the trenches to under center to the secondary.

Schmidt's father, also Joe, saw those instincts take over when his son was called up to the varsity as a sophomore at powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, which at the time featured future pros Matt Barkley and Khaled Holmes.

The insecurity of being the new guy begat extended time in the film room, the elder Schmidt said, the same way the insecurity of entering Notre Dame as a walk-on begat over-preparation. Mater Dei coaches at times had to re-enforce to Schmidt that his talent belonged among the big boys he was playing with, for fear of him becoming too cerebral and not trusting his instincts.

When Schmidt's parents take him to dinner after games now, they hardly recognize the disciplined eater, who had regularly downed burgers, fries and soda as a teenager. When in the stands, Schmidt's father at times cannot help but grow uneasy watching his son running around barking orders like a drill sergeant before each play.

" 'Joe, worry about what you're going to be doing. Make sure you're ready when the ball's snapped,' " the elder Schmidt joked. "But he seems to figure out a way to read the defense, make the calls and be ready."

Despite a 98-tackle senior year that ended in the state semifinals, the now-235-pound Schmidt failed to draw heavy interest from college suitors. The Schmidts takes some responsibility for that, given Joe's narrow-minded approach to his recruitment. The oldest of his three sisters, 31-year-old Catherine, had run track at Notre Dame, and the family would visit during football weekends. Schmidt, roughly 10 at the time, immediately fell in love with the place and never wavered. Backyard football consisted of him pretending he was playing for Notre Dame, often scoring game-winning touchdowns against home-state rival USC.

Under-sized and without much pro-activeness toward the small pool of interested recruiters, Schmidt found his offers limited to Ivy League schools, Cincinnati, Air Force and few others. There remained Notre Dame -- which offered him a preferred walk-on spot -- and its roughly $50,000-a-year pricetag, making for lengthy conversations between son and parents.

[+] EnlargeJoe Schmidt
Courtesy of the Schmidt familyJoe Schmidt fell in love with Notre Dame as a kid while visiting his sister, who ran track for the Irish.
"We had a wall covered in posterboard weighing them all," Schmidt said of the options.

The Ivy alternatives didn't look so bad to his parents. (Joe is an investor at a private-equity firm. His wife, Debra, is a pro soccer coach.) Schmidt made it clear that he would accommodate their needs, but he also laid out the dream in front of him.

" 'My dream is to play at Notre Dame,' " the elder Schmidt recalled his son saying. " 'Even if I have success at another school, I don't want to think, 'Could I have done it at Notre Dame?' If I go there and it doesn't work out, at least I gave it my all.'

"My wife and I were in tears. How do you say no to that? You both want what your kids really aspire to achieve, and we knew if he was that hungry he was going to work his tail off."

Special teams contributions gave way to a scholarship in June 2013. Schmidt informed his parents of the news with a 5:30 a.m. PT wake-up call telling them they had just saved $100,000. A midseason injury to Jarrett Grace last year paved the way for more defensive snaps, with Schmidt living out his dream in his first extended action by making a game-saving hit on USC's final drive to help clinch the win.

His father joked that he might have needed to give his son eternal psychological counseling had that game ended differently, but Schmidt's been the one leaving his mark on others. He helped establish Notre Dame's chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit that aligns college football teams with rare diseases. When his uncle, Gary, died from lung cancer two years ago at the age of 61, he and his family launched the Schmidt Legacy Foundation, which raises money for medical research, specifically lung cancer and dementia. Schmidt was Notre Dame's nominee for the AFCA Good Works Team, as its most charitable player.

Schmidt's unusual skills have carried him through an unusual route, accelerating the growth of a defense down four contributors amid the school's internal academic probe. He's been indispensable through the first-third of the season, an unlikely cog behind an Irish team whose playoff résumé will swell if it beats the Cardinal on Saturday.

"That's my brother, I love him," said linebacker Jaylon Smith, the Irish's leading tackler (31). "Both of us in the middle, it's just all about family and making sure we're on the same page. ... The communication level, the focal point, it wouldn't be there without him."

Week 6 playoff implications

September, 30, 2014
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Claim your spot on the couch now. Reserve your table at your favorite sports bar. Buy another TV. Do whatever you gotta do to make sure you don't miss a snap Saturday because this is going to be a good one.

College football has been a well-kept secret so far, as it has been hiding the true identities of teams. Not this week. It's time to play or go home. There are six games between ranked teams. Of the 17 undefeated teams remaining, eight play against each other this week. It's the most relevant weekend the sport has had in regard to the new College Football Playoff.

Here are the games you can't miss, ranked from least to most likely to affect the playoff:

No. 14 Stanford at No. 9 Notre Dame -- Stanford already has one loss, and this is the second straight road trip for the Cardinal. If Stanford loses again, its playoff hopes will be in serious jeopardy but not over, given that it could still win the conference. This game should reveal more about Notre Dame's place in the playoff, as it will be the first ranked opponent for the Irish.

No. 4 Oklahoma at No. 25 TCU -- ESPN's Football Power Index gives Oklahoma a 64 percent chance to win and predicts this to be Oklahoma's hardest remaining game -- slightly more difficult than Nov. 8 against Baylor. If the Sooners can't handle TCU, they'll be on the outside looking in.

No. 15 LSU at No. 5 Auburn -- LSU gave Auburn its only regular-season loss the past year, but LSU has already lost to Mississippi State, which put the Tigers behind in the SEC West race. Considering the rest of LSU's schedule -- and the hole it's already in -- this is a must-win. For Auburn, this is a chance to erase some doubts and make a push from the bubble into the top four.

No. 6 Texas A&M at No. 12 Mississippi State -- Two terrific quarterbacks will be on display in the Aggies' Kenny Hill and the Bulldogs' Dak Prescott, who both rank in the top 10 in total QBR. A&M's stock dropped a bit this past week after it needed overtime to beat Arkansas, but it could be a top-four team if it can survive the state of Mississippi the next two weeks.

No. 3 Alabama at No. 11 Ole Miss -- This is the most interesting matchup of the day. Alabama ranks third in offensive efficiency, and Ole Miss ranks second in defensive efficiency. Neither team has played a ranked opponent, so there is still some margin for error, but the Tide have a chance to separate from the crowded West.

No. 19 Nebraska at No. 10 Michigan State -- Surprise. The game with the biggest playoff implications is not in the SEC West. This Big Ten matchup could knock Sparty out of the playoff entirely. It's one thing to lose to Oregon; it's another to try to make the four-team playoff with two losses and your best win coming over Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. Conversely, a win in East Lansing could vault the Huskers into the playoff conversation. They're the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten, and the toughest game left on their schedule is against No. 17 Wisconsin. If Nebraska pulls off the upset, it's time to take it seriously as a playoff team.
Auburn hasn’t been given too much of a chance to land coveted receiver Christian Kirk, but the Tigers’ chances are better than most think. Plus, Michigan lost a key defensive recruit, and don’t be surprised if more are to follow.

Brian Kelly was greeted in the locker room after Saturday's game by the surest sign his voice was getting through.

Notre Dame turned the ball over five times in a sloppy performance against Syracuse. The Irish's decorated quarterback, Everett Golson, was responsible for four of those giveaways. They still won anyway, 31-15, to improve to 4-0.

So when Kelly met his players afterward, the environment was considerably toned down, for his players knew that their performance was not up to par.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsBrian Kelly and Notre Dame will have to overcome Stanford's stellar defense on Saturday in order to remain unbeaten.
"Well, it's what you build your program on is a level of expectation that you know that you don't have to go in and deliver the message that's already pretty clear," the fifth-year Irish coach said Sunday. "If they were in there giddy and happy, I'd be a little bit concerned. I want them to enjoy the win, but I also want them to know that there's better football that needs to be played, and they knew that."

Especially this Saturday, when they get their first true measuring stick of the season. No. 14 Stanford is coming to town, a program that has served as somewhat of a measuring stick for No. 9 Notre Dame in the Kelly era. The Irish know that they cannot perform anywhere near the way they did against the Orange and expect to beat the Cardinal, who have one loss to their name.

Football teams play bad games, even the best ones. Especially at the college level. That Notre Dame got its stinker out of the way against a Syracuse team seemingly with zero interest in taking advantage of Irish miscues is a tremendous burden off the program's shoulders, and one it can waste little time thinking about this week.

"They're a very tunedin group to my message," Kelly said. "I always start with, 'You need to be excited about winning.' It's hard to win in college football, especially when you're playing Power 5 teams. Winning is difficult. Just look across the landscape of college football. We start always with that premise because if you can't enjoy winning, it doesn't mean as much.

"Then we get to the heart of it, is that you can't win consistently by turning the football over. You can't win consistently if you don't compete for the ball in the air. And we know that. That was a given. That conversation took place, but I know that when I walked in that locker room, those kids had already had that passing through their mind."

So they move on to Stanford, which enters Notre Dame Stadium with the nation's No. 1 overall defense, No. 1 scoring defense and No. 1 passing defense. Two years ago, in a somewhat similar scenario, an undefeated Irish team stopped a one-loss Cardinal team in an overtime goal-line stand very much symbolic of how far the program had come in three short years under this regime.

This year's team took four games to figure out its offensive line situation, another area Notre Dame can be glad it sorted out against Syracuse, before Stanford. It would help if the fate of the Irish's five suspended players — and whatever other micro and macro fallouts come from that — is decided as well.

MetLife Stadium marked the finale of an early-season slate that Kelly had deemed before the season as "manageable." When it was all said and done in New Jersey, getting out of this stretch alive was, in some ways, as relieving as it was exhilarating.

"You know, five years into your program, I think you walk in the locker room and you expect the kind of locker room that I got," Kelly said. "In the first year you don't know what to expect, and so you have to make sure that that message is heard loud and clear. I was not shocked about the way our kids handled themselves after the game."

The players received Kelly's message without him having to deliver it. All that awaits now is the season's biggest test.

Playoff picture: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
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NC State gave No. 1-ranked Florida State everything it had before the Noles won. Memphis gave No. 10 Ole Miss a fight until the fourth quarter, and No. 6 Texas A&M needed an overtime thriller to hold off a much-improved Arkansas team.

There were plenty of September scares in Week 5, but only one ranked team -- No. 13 South Carolina -- wound up losing on Saturday. At home. To Missouri. Which had just lost to Indiana.

And you thought the SEC West was the unpredictable race.

With two home losses, it’s hard to imagine the Gamecocks in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Missouri has officially taken the lead in the SEC East, and is the only team in that division entering October undefeated in conference play. Still, it’s not unfathomable to think a two-loss SEC East champion could be just one game away from the playoff. At this rate, don’t count out a 5-3 division champ, either. While everyone is drooling like Uga over the muscles of the SEC West, the SEC East is just as muddled, only for a different reason.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Todd Bennett/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough found the end zone three times in Saturday's win over South Carolina.
There’s parity in the West and mediocrity in the East.

“We’ve got to use this to make us better,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said, “not use this to make us feel good.”

Missouri has no time for celebration. The Tigers host Georgia next, before travelling to Florida. And Texas A&M and Arkansas are still on the schedule, along with a feisty Tennessee team that’s much better than it was a year ago.

The question in the SEC this year is not who will go undefeated, but how many losses will the champion have?

Big Ten championship preview?

It’s time to pay attention to Nebraska.

That near-loss to McNeese State? We’ll give the Huskers a hall pass and call it a fluke. Running back Ameer Abdullah is a legitimate Heisman candidate, and he’s put Nebraska in position to shake up the playoff picture in Week 6, when the Huskers travel to Michigan State. The Big Ten will be on the big stage for what could be a sneak preview of the conference title game. Nebraska is the only undefeated team remaining in the Big Ten, and the Spartans are favored to win the East Division, with their lone loss coming early at Oregon.

Nebraska's only other remaining ranked opponent is an unconvincing Wisconsin team. If the Huskers beat the Spartans, they have a serious chance to gain some traction in the playoff race.

Irish X factor: Is Notre Dame going to crash the playoff party or get an invitation? It’s still too early to tell, but we will learn more about the Irish in Week 6, when they host Stanford. If the Cardinal suffer their second loss of the season, they will sink in the playoff picture. Notre Dame is also a common opponent for USC, which beat Stanford, and the selection committee will consider common opponents. The Irish also have a chance to derail Florida State’s hopes. Notre Dame is the toughest remaining opponent on the Noles’ schedule, and after that performance against NC State, FSU certainly looks beatable.

Undefeated no more: Thank you, Pac-12, for reminding everyone that this is just the beginning of the chaos.

Arizona State, Washington, Oregon State and Utah all experienced their first losses of the season this weekend. College football entered Week 5 with 24 undefeated FBS teams. Now 17 remain -- including five in the SEC West.

Eight of those undefeated teams will go head-to-head in Week 6 (Arizona-Oregon, Texas A&M-Mississippi State, Oklahoma-TCU, and Alabama-Ole Miss.)

Hang on. The playoff race is about to really get started.

Instant analysis: ND 31, Syracuse 15

September, 28, 2014
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Notre Dame beat Syracuse 31-15 on Saturday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Here's how the Irish got to 4-0:

How the game was won: Good question. Notre Dame turned the ball over five times but still won by double digits. You don't see that every day, but it speaks to how great this young defense has been in Year 1 under new coordinator Brian VanGorder, as it gave Syracuse nothing offensively. Six of the Orange's points came on a pick-six. They had little else going for them from a scoring standpoint.

Gameball goes to: Everett Golson will get plenty of credit, and he deserves some of it: 32-of-39 passing for 362 yards and four touchdown passes. He completed 25 consecutive passes at one point, one shy of the FBS record. But he also had two picks and two lost fumbles, so we'll give this nod to sophomore Will Fuller, who had the game's first two touchdowns on consecutive plays in the second quarter and finished with six grabs for 119 yards.

What it means: Notre Dame did not play very well on Saturday, but if you turn the ball over five times and still win -- fairly easily, at that -- you have to take the W and not look back. Teams play poorly, and they often suffer consequences for it. The Irish didn't, and they can go into the Stanford game 4-0, with a blank slate and thankful a sloppy performance such as this is in the past and they don't have a blemish to show for it.

Playoff implication: No. 8 Notre Dame is still undefeated, so the Irish are certainly alive in this discussion. We will probably know more about them, however, after they face rival Stanford at home next Saturday. Again, they can be thankful they got this sloppy performance out of the way. But to say this looks like one of the four best teams in the country right now is probably a bit much as we move to October.

What's next: Notre Dame has three games -- Stanford, North Carolina and at Florida State -- before its next bye. Syracuse's upcoming slate is actually less kind: Louisville, FSU, at Wake Forest, at Clemson. The Orange might have had their best opportunity to steal a tough game during this rugged stretch (sorry, Wake Forest) with five takeaways Saturday, but they will have to go back to the drawing board and see what they can get going offensively Friday against a Cardinals team that showed flaws in Saturday's win over Wake Forest.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
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Plenty of ACC teams wrap up their nonconference slate on Saturday, but there are several important league games, too, in addition to Notre Dame's foray into semi-ACC play. Here's what's on deck. Be sure to follow along on Twitter using the hashtags below.

12:30 p.m.

Colorado State at Boston College, ESPN3, #CSUvsBC: A 4-1 start would be huge for the Eagles, with the heart of ACC play fast approaching. They are the nation's No. 2 rushing team, tallying 1,345 yards, a by-product of Florida transfer quarterback Tyler Murphy, who has tallied at least 99 rushing yards in each game so far. The defense hasn't been too shabby, either, surrendering less than 20 points per game despite plenty of new faces. Garrett Grayson and the Rams can throw the ball, but they'll need more to go their way if they want to escape Alumni Stadium with an upset.

Western Michigan at Virginia Tech, ESPN3, #WMUvsVT: Which Michael Brewer will the Hokies get? The transfer signal-caller was a tremendous ball distributor in Virginia Tech's Week 2 upset win at Ohio State, but last week he had three costly turnovers in letting a home tilt slip away against Georgia Tech for the Hokies' second straight home loss. Coach Frank Beamer liked what he saw out of his quarterback otherwise, and the Broncos should provide an opportunity for Brewer and the rest of the Hokies to shake out of their rut and gain some momentum heading into the rest of league play.

1:30 p.m.

Akron at Pitt, ESPN3: Can Pitt bounce back from a tough home loss to Iowa? The Panthers probably let one get away, but the Zips are not to be slept on, as the 1-2 squad has had no shortage of early-season tests itself so far, losing to Penn State and Marshall. This is a homecoming of sorts for Akron coach Terry Bowden, a Morgantown, West Virginia, native who went to Pittsburgh regularly. The Panthers need this win more, though, as they look to get back on track before their first Coastal game next week at Virginia.

3:30 p.m.

Wake Forest at Louisville, ESPNU, #WAKEvsLOU: This here is a battle of the ACC's two first-year head coaches, Dave Clawson and Bobby Petrino. It's also a rematch of the 2007 Orange Bowl, which Petrino was a part of with the Cardinals. Both teams will be starting true freshmen under center, with John Wolford showing plenty of growth in his fourth start last week against Army and Reggie Bonnafon returning to Louisville after the tragic loss of his father, and after starter Will Gardner suffered a knee injury that will keep him out of action against the Demon Deacons.

[+] EnlargeNiklas Sade
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesNC State shocked FSU on the Seminoles' last visit to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2012.

No. 1 Florida State at NC State, ABC/ESPN2, #FSUvsNCSU: We know all about how Carter-Finley Stadium has been a house of horrors for the Seminoles lately, as the Wolfpack have won three of their past four home contests against FSU. A win would be a very tall order for the still-growing Pack, who are in their second year under Dave Doeren. But this could be a great measuring-stick game for them after a 4-0 start against subpar competition. NC State has already topped its win total from last season, and Jacoby Brissett has been magnificent under center. The Noles, by the way, will trot out a certain Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback after surviving a one-game suspension without him.

Kent State at Virginia, ESPN3: First things first: How about those sharp throwback unis the Cavaliers will be wearing? As for who will be under center wearing them when things kick off, well, that appears less clear, as Greyson Lambert recovers from an ankle injury he suffered in last week's loss at BYU. The Hoos know the offense is in capable hands with Matt Johns regardless, and their defense will look to revert to its early-season form after stumbling in Provo, Utah.

7 p.m.

North Carolina at Clemson, ESPNU, #UNCvsCLEM: The Tigers might be getting the perfect medicine following a heartbreaking overtime defeat at Florida State. They have a talented and growing offense, led by Deshaun Watson, who will be making his first career start. And they are facing a UNC team that laid a major egg defensively last week against East Carolina, surrendering 70 points and nearly 800 yards of total offense. The Tar Heels have given little indication through three games they are ready for the challenge that awaits them in Death Valley, but that's why they play the games, right?

7:30 p.m.

Duke at Miami, ESPN2, #DUKEvsMIA: We should learn much more about both of these teams when they face off at Sun Life Stadium. The Blue Devils are 4-0 but were hardly challenged during nonconference play, while Miami struggled against the two good teams it faced. It will be interesting to see what kind of response the Hurricanes defense shows after Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah gashed it for 229 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday. Perhaps more importantly, Duke dominated the Canes' D to the tune of 358 rushing yards last year, running away in the fourth quarter. If Miami has any hopes of competing for the Coastal crown this year, it has to show more this time around at home.

8 p.m.

No. 8 Notre Dame at Syracuse, ABC, #NDvsCUSE: The Irish unofficially kick off their ACC football alliance by taking on old Big East (hoops) foe Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It is the first "road" game for the 3-0 Irish, though they will likely have most of the home crowd on their side. One thing to watch out for is how Notre Dame's offensive line performs, as it used the bye week to shake up a so-so unit and will now take the field featuring four players in different spots than before. Can the Orange's aggressive defense take advantage of this? Ball protection is key for Syracuse if it wishes to pull the upset, as Terrel Hunt and the offense are capable of putting points on the board when they stay out of their own way.

Early Offer: What a win for Wilson 

September, 22, 2014
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Missouri and Indiana often tangle on the recruiting trail, but now Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a big victory to recruit against the Tigers with. Plus, UCLA and Notre Dame are locked in a battle for the nation's top tight end prospect.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireKevin Wilson and Indiana hope to get a recruiting boost from Saturday's 31-27 win against Missouri.
1. Indiana's 31-27 victory against No. 18 Missouri this past Saturday is the type of win that can go a long way on the recruiting trail. Because of its location, Missouri is one of the few SEC schools that actively targets players in the Midwest, and it is quite common for the Hoosiers and Tigers to tangle over players in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and even in St. Louis. For the most part, Mizzou has had its way with IU, but now Hoosier coach Kevin Wilson has a breakthrough win to recruit with. As one Big Ten recruiter told me on Monday, "that's the type of win that can change recruits' minds."

2. On Monday RecruitingNation released the latest edition of the Recruiter Power rankings and UCLA’s Adrian Klemm came in at No. 2 on the list. A big reason why Klemm is ranked so high is because he was able to land ESPN 300 tight end Alize Jones, the No. 1 tight end in the country. However, there’s some legitimate concern in Westwood that Jones could end up at Notre Dame. A source indicated the Bruins are doing everything they can to "fight off Notre Dame's advances." Jones continues to say he’s still with the Bruins and is only looking around at the Irish as a security blanket, but insiders believe the interest is much more than just that.

3. What an interesting few days it’s been for Draper (Utah) Corner Canyon offensive tackle Branden Bowen. On Saturday, Bowen, the No. 5 player in Utah, committed to the Utes to give Kyle Whittingham a nice in-state recruiting victory. Then hours later on Sunday, he tweeted he had picked up an offer from Ohio State, a school he admitted he was hoping to receive an offer from earlier in the process. It will be interesting to see if the Utes can keep Bowen on board, or if the Buckeyes' offer is too tempting to pass up.

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Social Studies

Often players link their highlight videos on their social media accounts, but you almost never see them posting their grades or test scores. So give Alabama commit Christian Bell a whole lot of credit for posting his ACT score for everybody to see. It's the type of highlight that also should be cheered.

Everett GolsonMatt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsA young Notre Dame offense now looks to Everett Golson as the team's leader.
Ivan Simmons is the cousin who gives Everett Golson tough love, the guy who hosted Golson in Chicago two summers ago before the quarterback flew to San Diego to work with position guru George Whitfield Jr.

But with a 3-0, turnover-less start from Golson that has generated some early Heisman talk, Simmons is finding it harder and harder to nitpick.

"Sometimes I talk to him about just body language, the way you carry yourself on the field," Simmons told ESPN.com. "He's had some bad throws here and there. Just more telling him how proud I am. He's made some good steps in the right direction, and [he needs] to keep going forward. There's no going backward."

That demeanor, ironically enough, may be the area Golson has improved the most since his last stint as Notre Dame's starting quarterback. The 780 passing yards and 11 total touchdowns speak for themselves. But Golson's assertiveness as the Irish's leader is a big reason why coach Brian Kelly thinks this team has the highest ceiling of any of the five he's coached in South Bend, Indiana.

Take last week in Indianapolis, with the Irish slogging through the first half against an overmatched Purdue team. Golson saw an opportunity to establish his footing as the director of the offense, bringing the unit together on the sideline and telling his teammates to stay on-course when things weren't coming as easily as they did in the previous two weeks.

"Just really try to encourage them, make sure everybody had a sound mind, make sure everybody wasn't dropping off the bandwagon," Golson said of the impromptu gathering. "So just making sure everybody was good."

Said receiver Corey Robinson: "It turned the game around. We were down and he pulled us together and said, 'Look, guys, we need to pull together, not for anyone else, for us as a team.' … It really does help having a central, focused leader telling us to come together and fight for each other."

Golson said he understands that role better now. Notre Dame has accommodated that, making him available for post-practice interviews every week so far this season, a far cry from his last stint as starter, when Kelly had said that he was not ready to put Golson out in front as the face of the program.

Now? Kelly laughed off a Heisman Trophy question following a Week 2 win with a "why-not" approach. He reiterated later that week that he has no worries about his quarterback possibly becoming suffocated by the extra attention.

"It's been the journey that he's on and that journey started when he was a freshman," Kelly said. "Obviously when he got his opportunity to come back here, he wanted to obviously take control of his destiny on offense and that means be a leader. Since he's been here, he's gradually been more assertive every single day, and as he's become more comfortable with who he is, he's holding others accountable."

Kelly said there is still room for growth in that department, as he hopes to see Golson speak up even more.

Robinson's first experience with Golson had come after the receiver enrolled early in the spring of 2013, right before Golson's suspension. Though Robinson admits he was just trying to get his feet under him at that point, even he can see a noticeable difference in Golson since then.

"I didn't really have time to think about what Everett was doing," Robinson said. "But just looking at him then, looking at the tape, he's more comfortable out there. He's more of a natural leader. Whatever he says, everyone's going to listen because everyone respects Everett and everyone respects the work he does off the field and the work he produces on the field."

Simmons, Golson's 34-year-old cousin, sees it all coming together at once for Golson, who had enrolled at Notre Dame just days after his 18th birthday and admittedly struggled with schoolwork while redshirting during his freshman year in 2011.

Now the 21-year-old redshirt junior has returned from exile and improved his career mark to 13-1, the guy everyone looks to on a young offense.

"You have to step up and be that man at that time, and that's what he's trying to do," Simmons said. "You've got to watch your body language; you want your teammates to see that you're confident and they're going to thrive off of you, so you lead by showing examples."
Notre Dame completed its sixth Shamrock Series this past weekend. This year's stop for the Irish's home-away-from-home game series was Indianapolis.

There were several academic functions held in the area. There was the game morning Mass, at Saint John the Evangelist. There were three community service projects, including a restoration of a high school.

And, of course, there was a football game at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Irish beat Purdue 30-14 to improve to 3-0.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCoach Brian Kelly has led Notre Dame to a 3-0 start despite being without three starters and two other lineup regulars.
They did this without four players who have been suspended from games and practices for a full month, since news of an internal academic investigation became public Aug. 15. (A fifth player was suspended 13 days later.) The investigation was launched by the Office of the General Counsel on July 29, when the compliance office was given evidence. Coach Brian Kelly said Aug. 28 that the investigation was complete. He said Sunday that, as of this past Friday, the five players had not yet had honesty committee hearings to voice their responses to whatever the findings were.

Kelly has said he does not know much. Anyone with a Twitter account can tell that those being investigated are also in the dark. They are far from alone.

This is fine and all, assuming business is being taken care of in a proper, timely manner behind the scenes. And there is no reason to think that it is not. But as the Irish enter their bye week with little clarity regarding if or when they will get any of those suspended players back — and as those players continue to attend classes with their fate at the school still hanging in the balance — it begs the question of how long is too long when it comes to dealing with this matter. At what point do these kids, however innocent or guilty they may be, deserve an answer that could have major implications for their academic and athletic futures?

There is no set public blueprint for this, to be clear. Yes, Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey, who lost leading scorer Jerian Grant for the spring semester last season because of an academic mishap, said recently that the entire honor-code process with Grant took about three weeks. But these cases are often apples and oranges: Grant's ordeal presumably took place with classes still in session last fall, while Notre Dame fall classes this year did not start until Aug. 26, 11 days after the investigation into the football players became public. Grant's case was also not as widespread as with the football players.

To Kelly's credit, he has been remarkably diplomatic publicly, going through the season's first three games without three starters and two other potential contributors to a football team he is paid handsomely to coach to success, and doing so without complaint.

"This is separation from church and state in the sense," he said Thursday. "This is the deans, and they have their domain and that's their business, and it truly is their business, and I respect that. They don't give me advice about play calling, and that's the truth of the matter. Whether that's a poor analogy or not, they handle academic honesty and they handle those things, and that's their domain and that's their world, and I want my guys back. But I get it, and they work and that's their job, and so I really don't have any say on it."

Notre Dame is about more than athletics; we know. Athletes and nonathletes will receive the same treatment; we get it. But the idea that this whole ordeal cannot be completed too soon for fear of unequal treatment or misguided priorities is a bit much, especially in light of another successful Shamrock showcase of Notre Dame in a major metropolitan area.

"The Shamrock Series has activated our city," Indiana Sports Corporation spokesman John Dedman told the school's athletic website. "Notre Dame has made this so much more than an athletic event. The university has been involved in service projects in the city, and there have been academic events, and the city has embraced it. It's just been great for Indianapolis."

More than an athletic event, but only possible because of athletics. Those are still pretty important, too. And there's no shame in acknowledging that.

ACC bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
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The ACC makes no sense right now. Virginia Tech thumps Ohio State on the road, then loses to East Carolina at home. Boston College coughs up 214 rushing yards to James Conner one week, then holds USC to 20 yards on the ground the next. Georgia Tech is 3-0, but has hardly looked impressive yet. Oh, and there’s that little matter of the conference’s top two teams facing off this coming Saturday.

For now, we’re doing the best we can with a fluid situation, so fair warning that these projections are a moving target at this point in the season.

College Football Playoff: Florida State
Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Notre Dame*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Virginia Tech
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Pittsburgh
Belk Bowl: Duke
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Louisville
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Virginia
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: North Carolina
Quick Lane Bowl: Boston College
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: Georgia Tech

*Note: Notre Dame is eligible for a bid to any ACC tie-in game unless it is selected for a New Year’s Six game, which can include playing an ACC team in the Orange Bowl.

Kelly: No update on suspended five

September, 11, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The waiting game continues for No. 11 Notre Dame as it approaches its third game of the season still without answers regarding the five players being held out amid an internal academic investigation.

Coach Brian Kelly said Thursday that he still has not been updated on the status of the suspended players since he last shared information on the matter with reporters. Whether he was referring to his comments on Sept. 4 that none of the players had been through honesty committee hearings yet is unclear. What remains clear, though, is that Kelly and the Irish would welcome the players back for Saturday night's game against Purdue if they were cleared Friday.

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Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsDaVaris Daniels and four other Notre Dame players remain suspended as an academic investigation continues.
"We'd get them down there as quickly as we could and welcome them and put them in the uniform," Kelly said, two days before the Irish face the Boilermakers in Indianapolis. "Whether we could get them to know what we're doing offensively, defensively and special teams, who knows about that? But they would certainly be welcomed as part of our football team."

Kelly reiterated that he does not know much about the process that has been going on for nearly a month now, after the school announced Aug. 15 that it was withholding DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and KeiVarae Russell out from practices and games as it investigated academic misconduct. The school later announced, on Aug. 28, that Eilar Hardy would be withheld as well, and Kelly said that same day that the investigation was complete, meaning only hearings and potential appeals remained.

The players attend classes and have been welcomed back in the football complex, eating with teammates and working out with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, though Kelly has chosen to hold them out of team meetings.

The school had said that the Office of General Counsel initiated an immediate investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence July 29.

Kelly said Thursday that he is anxious, that the players are anxious and that reporters are anxious, but that he does not know much, choosing to let the academic arm of the school conduct matters as it sees fit.

"This is separation from church and state in the sense," Kelly said. "This is the deans and they have their domain and that's their business, and it truly is their business, and I respect that. They don't give me advice about play-calling and that's the truth of the matter. Whether that's a poor analogy or not, they handle academic honesty and they handle those things and that's their domain and that's their world, and I want my guys back but I get it, and they work and that's their job and so I really don't have any say on it."

Notes: Kelly said that former Irish and NFL player and current graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy has not missed a day of practice despite undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer. The NCAA allowed the school to hire former player Pat Eilers as a GA in light of the matter, but Kelly said Eilers cannot coach a unit during practice while McCarthy is still there.

"Incredible," Kelly said of McCarthy. "His resolve and his [desire] to be out at practice, just [a] pretty inspirational young man. It's been awesome to be around him and to get to know him even more, it doesn't surprise me why he's been such a favorite around here. He's a pretty inspirational kid."

Kelly also said Torii Hunter Jr. (Grade 3 groin tear) will not play Saturday despite showing progress throughout the week.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has put together a top 15 recruiting class that should only get better as we head toward signing day, and Rutgers has a real chance to slow down Penn State’s recruiting momentum in New Jersey this weekend.


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Ties run deep between Cutcliffe, Weis

September, 10, 2014
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David Cutcliffe can't help but think sometimes at how he ended up where he is now. Duke's head coach -- the reigning winner of numerous national coach of the year awards -- had been hired by Charlie Weis at Notre Dame just nine short years ago, but never got to coach a down with the Fighting Irish.

He suffered chest pains. He underwent open-heart surgery. He had numerous other complications, and he eventually had to walk away from a potential dream opportunity.

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Peter Casey/USA TODAY SportsDavid Cutcliffe agreed to join Charlie Weis' staff at Notre Dame before health problems prevented that.
"It was an emotional time for me and I knew that at that point, and I told Charlie Weis, 'I can’t earn my paycheck there,' " Cutcliffe said. "No way that I can get myself back and ready to benefit Notre Dame’s football program. I was very appreciative of the opportunity he had given me there."

Cutcliffe and Weis will meet again Saturday when Duke hosts Kansas, and it's hard not to look at how each's career has played out since initially agreeing to hook up in South Bend. Adding to the layer is the fact that Cutcliffe's current boss, Blue Devils athletic director Kevin White, was in charge of Weis back when both were with the Irish.

Weis couldn't overlook the connections this week, opening his Tuesday press conference by thanking White for the opportunity that the AD allowed the first-time head coach less than a decade ago.

"Probably one of the finest men that I've ever met in my entire life," Weis said of White. "He taught me a lot about college football. He taught me patience."

The parallels between Weis and Cutcliffe run a little bit deeper. Weis had initially hired the ex-Ole Miss head coach because of his reputation working with quarterbacks and calling plays. With eventual Heisman Trophy finalist Brady Quinn waiting in the wings, the pairing seemed perfect.

There are also the ties that linger in the NFL -- Cutcliffe from his well-publicized work with the Manning brothers, Weis with his three Super Bowl rings as Tom Brady's offensive coordinator. Weis said this week that he's never debated with Cutcliffe whose pro pupils are better, joking that he's too biased about Brady to even bother with an argument.

"I’m telling you, he’s the most knowledgeable, smartest football coach I’ve been around," Cutcliffe said of Weis. "He was like a machine, just the system. It was pretty amazing to watch him work and watch how his mind worked, and not only his football knowledge, but his motivational skills and his energy."

The little time Cutcliffe and Weis did spend together came on the heels of what Cutcliffe said was an unusual time in his life. He was unceremoniously fired from Ole Miss after his only losing season. Upon Weis hiring him, Cutcliffe lived with then-Irish and current Duke offensive line coach John Latina in South Bend before the health scare forced him out of coaching for a year.

Weis, meanwhile, made consecutive BCS bowls in his first two years at Notre Dame before getting fired after going 16-21 during his final three years. Assistant stops with the Kansas City Chiefs and Florida gave way to his hiring as the Jayhawks' head coach, where he's now 5-20 in his third season. During that time, Cutcliffe moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where his two sons attended college. He eventually became Tennessee's offensive coordinator from 2006-07 before landing the head job at Duke, where his work in getting the Blue Devils to the ACC title game in six years has further cemented his respect within the profession.

"What he's done there is what I would expect him to do anywhere," Weis said. "Just about anywhere he's gone in an ample amount of time he gets things going the right way, especially offensively. He's a very, very good coach."

How would things look today had the two quarterback gurus gotten the chance to collaborate with the Irish? That's for others to debate. Cutcliffe, for one, is content with how things turned out, as strange as the path that led him there might have been.

"I’d never been without a job in my life," Cutcliffe said. "We lived (in Knoxville) that spring, summer and fall. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know if I’d coach again, but I always think there’s purpose to things that happen if we do what we should do with them. I believe the couple years I spent back at Tennessee were rewarding, but I think I found my right place here.

"Not to be eerie and now to be, 'Oh this is all destiny.' I’m not saying that. I was able to find my right place, and that’s Duke University."
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To win at the highest level in the SEC, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze knows he has to recruit well in Memphis, Tennessee, and Charlie Strong's job of returning Texas to the top just got more difficult after the loss to BYU this past weekend.


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