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Irish beating peripheral opponents, too

10/12/2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Following his second touchdown grab Saturday, his team-leading seventh of the season, Will Fuller blew a kiss with three fingers and pointed to the sky. It was an innocuous enough gesture, one that went over the heads of most people outside the Notre Dame football program until DaVaris Daniels, watching like the rest of us, issued a series of tweets pointing to a connection.

Max Redfield -- No. 10 himself, just like Daniels -- sported a towel hanging from his uniform Saturday with hand-written numbers: 6 (KeiVarae Rusell), 8 (Kendall Moore) and 11 (Ishaq Williams), saying that was all he could fit.

Before practice Thursday, as Russell delivered a speech to his teammates about his plans to return to their side next season, Cole Luke, who was thrust into Russell's role two weeks before the season, had a few words with the exiled cornerback.

"He was positive about it, that's the kind of guy he is," Luke said. "But he came up to me and was like, 'Keep balling man, I love you.' I said, 'I love you, too.' That was it."

Collectively, this all made for the most public display -- and even mere mention, really -- of any of the five Irish players who have been suspended since Aug. 15. Notre Dame, after holding a press conference that day to announce its internal academic investigation, has said it would not be revealing any of the results from the players' hearings, leaving those decisions in the hands of the college kids who were involved.

So there was Russell, the only of the five players whose fate seems remotely clear, announcing his intentions on Instagram on Friday. And there was head coach Brian Kelly, who has been the de facto spokesman for this ordeal despite not receiving full information, standing up there at the podium some three times a week, doing his best to decipher the indecipherable for everyone.

And, after escaping North Carolina on Saturday, winning 50-43 to get to 6-0 before their showdown at Florida State, there were Notre Dame players talking about those who weren't there, finally letting some of their feelings show as a process that began on July 29 -- when the Office of General Counsel initiated an investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence -- continued on through the weekend with little clarity.

"Obviously we've shown appreciation to them, because they've been out there with us over the summer and in the spring, working just as hard as we work," Redfield said. "They're no different than us. They're still our brothers even though they had to leave the team."

Kelly has driven home the message of blocking out noise since he first arrived on campus five years ago. He has said throughout this season that he feels for the suspended guys, though he cannot spend too much time playing the what-if game.

But even he was fine with his players expressing themselves in the manners that they did this past weekend, recognizing that keeping quiet for nearly two months could not have been the easiest thing for curious teammates.

"I think they're being good teammates and just recognizing their teammates in that situation," Kelly said Sunday. "I'm generally not big on that, but they've handled themselves very well through social media. They have not formed opinions of such, and so I did see a towel, I did not make a big deal of it because I thought that our team as a whole has handled the situation very well and felt that I was OK with it."

Notre Dame faces its biggest opponent yet in five days, as it puts its perfect record on the line at the defending champs' house, the location perhaps not being such a bad thing.

"I think it can work both ways," Kelly said of playing on the road. "One way is you're at home and it's great to be at home. Being away there can be a lot of noise. It just depends on your team. This team, the great thing about it is that they love to play and they believe they're going to win. I really don't know if it matters one way or the other."

The Irish can enter Tallahassee a confident bunch. They have not lost in two months, despite the absence of five players creating an eternal silence that seems as deafening as most outside noise is.