Notre Dame Football: KeiVarae Russell
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.
"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.
"I believe it is [for all five players]," Kelly said after practice. "I don't have confirmation on all five, but I know that from what I hear it's, first-hand I know Tuesday and Wednesday. I'm hearing second-hand that they're trying to get them all wrapped up by Thursday of next week."
"I'm not really certain of that," Kelly said. "I've heard a committee. I know that committee is comprised of faculty and students. I don't know the ratio, and I don't know if it is the same committee hearing all five. I don't know the specifics, nor have I, quite frankly, asked."
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. The school had said that the Office of General Counsel initiated an immediate investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence July 29.
The five suspended players attend classes and have been welcomed back into the football complex, dining with teammates and working out with Irish strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo.
Kelly has chosen all along to hold the players out of team meetings, and he said Thursday that, despite considering putting them back in those gatherings to potentially have them ready to play, he opted against it because the process is seemingly close to completion.
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.
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.
Kelly said after practice that he had been told on Monday that the hearings for DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and Eilar Hardy would take place very quickly. He also said that process — a result of an internal academic misconduct investigation that the school announced Aug. 15, and that concluded Aug. 28 — has yet to be completed.
"I could get 'em ready, like right away. I mean, they're physically conditioned. I know they're working out with [strength and conditioning] coach [Paul] Longo, I can tell you that for sure. So they are conditioned and they've been going to class; I know that. And other than that, they haven't been taking any football reps. But if we were hypothetically to get that call, they'd be running out of that tunnel on Saturday."
The five players have been held out of games, practice, team meetings and film study, but they are attending classes and are welcome around the football complex. Kelly said holding them out of meetings and the film room was his decision, as he would rather them focus on their schoolwork. The fifth-year Irish coach said he has had little personal contact with the players but has checked up on them in text message. They still receive their four tickets for games and are in the stands.
Kelly said he is not expecting a decision to come Friday, but attributed that more to the mindset he has taken with the Irish since news of the investigation broke nearly three weeks ago.
"I have not had expectations really one way or the other," Kelly said. "I haven't woke up in the morning going, 'Is this the day?' I have dealt with this situation when I first heard of it with maybe blinders on in that I'm focused on the guys that I have. And maybe — I miss the guys, I care about them, but I've really just, I have a responsibility to the guys on my team, and so I've really just stayed focused on them and coaching the heck out of them. And I hope that doesn't come across as callous, but that's really been my focus. I haven't woke up every morning going, 'Is this the day?' I really haven't done that."
"I don't even know what that feels like," Cody Riggs said of the memory.
Cold weather was about the only thing Riggs was unfamiliar with upon his arrival from Florida. The graduate transfer has played cornerback, nickelback and safety. He has defended passes against the best of the SEC and has gained first-hand lessons from a family long on football lineage.
"He clearly is our top guy," head coach Brian Kelly said, adding, "He's been more than advertised for us. He's been a leader, he's been accountable, he's been a guy that can play multiple positions. It's going to be difficult now to play him in multiple positions."
Riggs' transfer was borne by academic desires as much as football ones. He earned his undergraduate degree as a Gator in family, youth and community sciences. He enrolled this summer in Notre Dame's master of science in management program.
He was thrown into an accelerated program of a different kind this summer as he tried to learn a new defense, which helped for the simple fact that his fellow teammates were also still adapting to new coordinator Brian VanGorder.
"I was struggling this summer because I just got here, it was rough," Riggs said. "But I think I'm very comfortable with it, with the terms. The language was completely different and that was the hardest part for me. But now that the language is down I communicate better with the coaches and explain to them what I don't understand and why is this that."
Added VanGorder: "He was at Florida with Coach (Will) Muschamp. He’s been through a lot of scheme work in his career. His value to us has been invaluable, so to speak. It’s been great to have him.”
Riggs will also have a chance to boost the Irish's anemic punt return game, as Kelly anointed him and running back Greg Bryant as his primary punt returners. Riggs was a kick returner at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High and spent plenty of time on special teams while in Gainesville, but never as the punt returner, a role he asked about upon his arrival to Notre Dame. He said he is relishing the chance to get another 10 chances or so to impact each game.
Regardless, Riggs' role will be huge, especially with Russell not currently in the picture. At Florida, the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder tallied 107 total tackles (nine for loss), two sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and eight pass break-ups in a variety of roles.
"You can see that he's not afraid of anything," defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said. "He's played in the SEC, he's played against high-level wide receivers and quarterbacks for years. He's got awesome leadership; doesn't say a lot vocally, but he comes to work every day, preparation is on point. So I'm very, very pleased. I told him that he's the best free-agent pickup that I've had since I've been in college football."
Riggs' father is former All-Pro NFL running back Gerald Riggs. His brother, Gerald Jr., starred as a running back Tennessee before playing briefly in the NFL and CFL. His uncle, Bobby Brown, also played briefly in the NFL, after starring as a receiver at Notre Dame.
Riggs was familiar with the Irish thanks to that connection, and thanks to his old Florida roommate, current Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy. Murphy's father, Peter, is a die-hard Notre Dame fan who gave Riggs a call shortly after he landed with the Irish.
"Seeing Cody go to Notre Dame and get a chance to get his MBA there and play there, me and my dad are both excited for him and happy for him," Tyler Murphy said. "We're looking forward to seeing him finish off his career and have a great season."
Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:
Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth
Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson
Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC
Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)
Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.
High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.
Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.
Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)
Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.
They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe
"That day was funny," Russell said. "Everybody thought I did it on purpose. I didn't know they were playing. U-Dub [Washington] was playing that day, too."
And yet, the Everett, Wash., product was an expected running back or receiver upon his commitment.
"I know," Russell said with a smile. "I didn't think I was going to be corner, but I'm enjoying it now."
That he is, with the junior entering 2014 as confident and talkative as ever as he looks to take advantage of more 1-on-1 matchups that will exploit his speed. Russell has started all 26 games of his college career through two seasons, having been thrown into an emergency corner role during fall camp of 2012 after then-projected starter Lo Wood tore his Achilles tendon. Now he is on watch lists such as the Bednarik and Nagurski, which honor the nation's top defensive players.
And yet he's not on the watch list for the Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back.
"It doesn’t make sense," he said. "I always look at stuff like that because it’s so funny. I can’t wait. I’m excited. Another chip on my shoulder, a reason to work harder and show the guys I can be one of the best corners in the country. I have work to do, and I’m excited."
Russell is hoping the switch from zone coverage under Bob Diaco to more press coverage under new coordinator Brian VanGorder will only grant him more opportunities to build off his three career interceptions and 10 career pass breakups. The aggressive style should, in theory, provide a boost to Russell and the rest of an experienced secondary, which is playing behind a relatively green front-seven.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder admitted that the new concept was somewhat tiring at first during fall practice No. 1 Monday, joking that he probably dropped 10 pounds running around in the heat. But he simplified the approach, allowing himself to get into a groove and, in true Russell fashion, become a pest in the receivers' sides.
"I have to get to that point where my technique is flawless," Russell said. "When people go against me they’d be like, ‘Oh damn, him again?’ Perfecting every part of my game. Not just press-man, but off-man, when they’re in bunches, I have to play off. With a three-way bunch I have to be able to play man-to-man that way, just perfecting my game."
Brian Kelly sees Russell taking on the challenge of trying to be among the best in the country, with the fifth-year Irish coach throwing out names like NFL stars Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson when discussing what his junior corner is aiming to be like.
"He wants to be the very best at his position, so he's driven to be that player," Kelly said. "He's not there yet, so that's his focus."
Russell, for his part, has already done some scouting of upcoming receivers he will likely find himself up against later this season, drawing analogies with his teammates each time he faces them in practice.
"I studied that little slot from North Carolina, I studied him," Russell said of the speedy Ryan Switzer. "I studied [USC's Nelson] Agholor, I still look at those guys now, and I studied Rice receivers. But they're all different body receivers."
To Russell, teammate Chris Brown is like Agholor. Corey Robinson is like Arizona State's Jaelen Strong. Short and fast, tall and strong, Russell is ready to take on all comers this season.
Florida State's Greene may be on the docket again this Oct. 18 as well, but Russell is more concerned with the bigger picture from that night he committed to Notre Dame nearly three years ago.
"We ain't going to be in the Champs Sports Bowl," he said with a smile.
- Tough news out of Houston concerning Week 1 Irish opponent Rice, as offensive lineman Drew Carroll has been forced to retire because of a kidney disease.
- KeiVarae Russell wants opponents to dread facing him, Rachel Terlep writes in the Elkhart Truth.
- Per LaMond Pope, Jeff Samardzija had some to say about the end of the Michigan rivalry.
Jeff Samardzija on MLB Network on end of #NotreDame-Michigan: "That's about as absurd as Notre Dame putting FieldTurf in instead of grass...— LaMond Pope (@lamondpope) August 6, 2014
but hey that's the way things are going these days and times are changing in college football. ...— LaMond Pope (@lamondpope) August 6, 2014
It's an awesome rivalry and hopefully they find a way to mix it in some more down the road for sure."— LaMond Pope (@lamondpope) August 6, 2014
- The Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Greenberg says Notre Dame is looking to rediscover its mojo.
- CSNChicago's JJ Stankevitz explains some of his rankings of the top 25 Notre Dame players.
- BlueandGold.com's Andrew Owens says Jaylon Smith deserves to be named captain, regardless of age. (Subscription required)
Could we have a new slogan on our hands in 2014? Some fans seem to think so.
A T-shirt with the phrase "Catholics vs. Criminoles" has surfaced this offseason, in anticipation of the Irish's Oct. 18 matchup at Florida State. These are two of the most storied programs in college football history, and, of course, Seminoles quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has faced no shortage of scrutiny for off-the-field issues, the most recent being his theft of crab legs.
The shirt does touch on that, showing a picture of a crab next to the name "Criminoles." (There is a leprechaun doing the Heisman pose next to "Catholics.")
If Notre Dame can go into Tallahassee in three months and come out victorious, perhaps we'll see this headline take off. The teams will, after all, play each other more regularly now -- roughly every three years -- with Notre Dame's ACC affiliation. But if the game proves to be unremarkable, I doubt we'll even remember this shirt, much like the many Notre Dame/Alabama shirts that surfaced before the 2013 BCS title game.
On to the rest of the links ...
- More watch list honors were released Thursday: Sheldon Day made the Outland Trophy list, while Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell made the Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch list.
- IrishEyes' Tim O'Malley looks ahead to November's Irish/USC game.
- IrishIllustrated's Tim Prister looks at all of the receiving and tight end groups on Notre Dame's 2014 schedule. (Subscription required.)
- BlueandGold.com's Lou Somogyi looks at Notre Dame's history recruiting Maryland and Washington, D.C.
“That’s what the school has told him,” Gentile said. “If for some reason those felonies are reduced or something happens, then he’s free to reapply.”
The report says that Mahone was in Mahoning County Court for a pre-trial hearing Monday at which a July 23 preliminary hearing was set. Mahone entered not guilty pleas on the misdemeanor charges against him, and he is not required to enter a plea on the felony charges until after the preliminary hearing.
“He’s working hard. He’s doing a lot of things to straighten himself out. He’s working hard on himself right now,” Gentile said. “He’s trying to understand what happened here and why it happened and maybe address some of the issues. That’s what he’s trying to do.”
As for the rest of your Irish links ...
- Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell were named to the Bednarik watch list Monday, and Everett Golson was named to the Maxwell watch list.
- Smith is also on the watch list for the College Football Performance Awards' top linebacker.
- IrishIllustrated's Tim Prister ranks the quarterbacks on Notre Dame's schedule this season.
- BlueandGold.com's Lou Somogyi looks at Notre Dame's history recruiting Kentucky.
Athlon Sports named Ben Koyack, Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell to its preseason All-America team, with Koyack earning fourth-team honors, Smith making the third team and Russell making the fourth team.
This is the second preseason All-America honor for all three players, as they all made Phil Steele's team two weeks ago, with Koyack making the third team, Smith making the second team and Russell making the fourth team.
Koyack and Russell also made Mel Kiper Jr.'s list of top draft-eligible playes at their respective positions for the 2015 NFL Draft, with Koyack listed as the No. 3 senior tight end and Russell listed as the No. 5C underclassmen cornerback. Rusell made SportsOnEarth's Matt Brown's breakout team as well.
Notre Dame's new quasi-home, the ACC, led all conferences with 27 players across all four of Athlon's preseason teams, edging out the SEC, which had 26. The Pac-12 and the Big Ten each had 18 players, while the Big 12 had 13, the Mountain West Conference had two and the American Athletic Conference had one.
Russell had some more love this week from another list that projects big things for him in 2014, as SportsOnEarth's Matt Brown named him to college football breakout team for this fall.
Both writers laud Russell's impact from the get-go with the Irish, as he was thrust into a starting role from Day 1 following Lo Wood's camp Achilles' tear. Russell had arrived at Notre Dame that summer as a running back. Kiper likes Russell's tackling, while Brown sees a bigger spotlight — along with a new defensive coordinator who favors press coverage, as Brian VanGorder does — resulting in an opportunity for Russell to emerge as a star. Brown cites an underrated secondary from last season that returns most of its key bodies, as the Irish ranked 16th in the nation in yards per pass attempt allowed (6.3) last year.
If Notre Dame's defense is going to be strong in VanGorder's first season, the secondary will likely be a big reason why. That could mean more big things for Russell, a player who does not shy away from the spotlight.
In what might come as a slightly bigger surprise, tight end Ben Koyack made the third team and cornerback KeiVarae Russell made the fourth team. Koyack's stock obviously is rising after a strong finish to last season, especially with Troy Niklas having left early for the NFL. Now a senior in the No. 1 tight end role, Koyack will be counted upon to become an integral part of the Irish's passing game, which has featured no shortage of tight end success in recent years. Steele obviously sees a lot in the Oil City, Pennsylvania, native, who caught 10 passes last season for 171 yards and three scores.
Russell, meanwhile, is coming off consecutive strong seasons at corner and, in keeping with his usual unfiltered self, has talked openly about trying to become the best cornerback in the country. Playing more press coverage under new coordinator Brian VanGorder should only help in that effort, and it would not be a huge shock if Russell were to play his way into first-team or second-team All-America status by season's end.
DaVaris Daniels, arguably the Irish's best skill player, did not make any of the 30-man teams, though receiver looks to be a ridiculously stacked position throughout the nation this year. If Daniels can pick up where left off with Everett Golson two years ago, and if his off-site training during his spring exile pays dividends, the redshirt junior figures to be one of the better receivers in the country.
One familiar name at receiver who did garner preseason All-America status was Deontay Greenberry, who was once committed to Notre Dame and enters his junior season at Houston on Steele's fourth team.
Florida State, which hosts Notre Dame Oct. 18 in the Irish's first true road game, led the nation with five first-teamers and 11 total players on Steele's list.
In addition, six former Notre Dame players signed with NFL clubs after the draft, with five of those players coming from last season's team.
Seven of Notre Dame's defensive starters from the Discover BCS National Championship following the 2012 season have now been drafted as well: Kapron Lewis-Moore (Ravens, 200th), Manti Te'o (Chargers, 38th) and Zeke Motta (Falcons, 244th) last year; Stephon Tuitt (Steelers, 46th), Louis Nix (Texans, 83rd), Prince Shembo (Falcons, 139th) and Bennett Jackson (Giants, 187th) this year.
It's not a stretch to say that linebacker Danny Spond, who also started against Alabama in the title game, was on track to be drafted prior to retiring before last season because of hemiplegic migraines. It's also worth noting that safety Jamoris Slaughter, who was drafted 175th overall by the Browns last year, started on the Irish's 2012 defense before suffering a season-ending Achilles' tear in Week 3. Two defensive starters from that title game, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, still have two years of eligibility left at Notre Dame.
Here's a recap of Notre Dame's 2014 draft weekend. Irish transfers Shaquelle Evans (fourth round, 114th overall) and Aaron Lynch (fifth, 150th) were both drafted as well.
LT Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (first round, 16th overall)
DE Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers (second, 46th)
TE Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals (second, 52nd)
NG Louis Nix, Houston Texans (third, 83rd)
LG Chris Watt, San Diego Chargers (third, 89th)
LB Prince Shembo, Atlanta Falcons (fourth, 139th)
CB Bennett Jackson, New York Giants (sixth, 187th)
WR TJ Jones, Detroit Lions (sixth, 189th)
UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT SIGNINGS
RB George Atkinson III, Oakland Raiders
LB Dan Fox, New York Giants
LB Carlo Calabrese, Cleveland Browns
QB Tommy Rees, Washington Redskins
NG Kona Schwenke, Kansas City Chiefs
C/G Mike Golic Jr., New Orleans Saints
Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt! This question is around the new FieldTurf. In the past, the grass was always "hit or miss" as an advantage. (Unofficially), ND could grow the grass to limit opponents with better athletes, and vice versa. Do you think the FieldTurf decision was in part signed-off on because Coach Kelly is recruiting better athletes, and that more of these athletes are coming from FieldTurf in high school anyway, which helps future recruiting? Do you think this is a good move for ND, putting tradition aside? Thanks as always, and great work!
Matt Fortuna: Hey Mike. While I understand some of the attachment that many had to playing on a traditional grass field, I think in the end this decision was a no-brainer. Yes, Brian Kelly has recruited better athletes at Notre Dame. And yes, many of those athletes are coming from FieldTurf in high school. But at the end of the day, the field that the Fighting Irish had been playing on by the end of last season (and in the spring game) was nothing short of an embarrassment. The players, most of all, deserved better, and they are the ones whose preference mattered most on a decision like this. There are other positives that could come from this as well, be it a hockey game or a concert taking place at Notre Dame Stadium.
Richard from Austin, Texas writes: Is the ACC the right place for ND? Though ND can afford travel, a regional conference is better. A 10-team conference with an 11 game season for example: ND, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, NIU, Bowling Green, Toledo, Central MI, Eastern MI plus 2 non-Conference games: USC & Navy. Every FBS team needs to move to a regional conference with 10 teams based on the Power Five. The SEC with 3, B1G with 3, ACC with 2, PAC with 2, Big XII and a 12th from the old PAC.
Matt Fortuna: Richard, that's a lot to digest, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Notre Dame brand would be greatly diminished by playing only regionally. Part of the football program's luster is that it plays across the nation and attracts a countless number of fans, many of whom don't even know where the school is located. (Trust me, I grew up with people like this.) At the end of the day, the ACC agreement was perfect for the Irish, who can show their product off from Boston to Miami while, football-wise, protecting that national brand. The only thing Midwest about the rest of the Irish's sports is location, as Notre Dame has a strong East Coast affiliation and regularly recruits that area for basketball, lacrosse and other sports.
Michael Fry writes: Hi Matt. Just looking for some thoughts on who was off the radar last year but who fits well into the new DC's system well. Thanks for the great blog -- keeps the off-season interesting.
Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Michael. I think Joe Schmidt is going to be a very important piece for this defense, as Kelly called him the leader and Brian VanGorder said there is a significant knowledge gap between Schmidt and the rest of the linebackers. We all know about Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell, two guys who have the potential to be among the best at their respective positions nationally next season. But one guy I think could take a big step is Jarron Jones, who showed plenty of promise at the end of last season and was forthcoming this spring when discussing how much he enjoys playing in VanGorder's scheme.