Unless you've been hiding under a rock since Thursday, you've probably heard about the ongoing investigation going on at Notre Dame involving four current football players who are being accused of some form of academic dishonesty. We know that KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams, DaVaris Daniels, and Kendall Moore are all not currently allowed to participate in any team activities because of this. And that's about all we know right now.
We have no idea if or when these players are going to be able to rejoin the team. We have no idea how far this might go back and if other players who were previously in the program might be implicated. For now, all we have is message board speculation about what might have happened, more speculation about how someone has heard that two of the players may be cleared to return to practice this week, and a lot of other rumors about things that may happen as a result of what they find in the investigation.
That's a very unsettling feeling for anyone who follows Notre Dame football.
Imagine how unsettling it is for Brian Kelly and the rest of the Notre Dame coaching staff. It sounds like they are as in the dark with the situation as most of us who are clicking refresh at home or at work. Knowing that, it's really kind of ridiculous to speculate as some local and national media members have about what might have gone on. Instead of another "hot take" on the integrity of Notre Dame's academic reputation, the only thing we can do at OFD is act like Brian Kelly and move on without those players for now.
Under the assumption that these four players may not suit up for Notre Dame this season, we're going to take a look at what losing them from the roster means on the field this season.
It really showed the lack of knowledge about Notre Dame's roster from several national college football writers when they mentioned in stories or tweets that Notre Dame either dismissed or was suspending four prominent players from their team.
I don't mean to kick Moore when he's down, but there is no confusion about his role on the team for anyone who covers the Irish or follows the team closely. He is a backup Mike linebacker at best and one who did not distinguish himself on the field despite being a fifth year player and the current lack of depth at the position. He was not considered a threat to beat out Joe Schmidt for the middle linebacker job and was likely going to get knocked off the two deep as soon as Jarrett Grace made his return this season.
I hope Moore is able to return to the team just as much as the other players involved in this situation, but his loss is by far the least significant on the field.
For a player who has not lived up to the 5 star expectations that followed him when he signed with Notre Dame, his loss from the defensive line is a huge blow. Williams had finally won a starting job at strong side defensive end at camp and was likely going to be counted on as a player that had the potential to deliver a consistent pass rush.
The biggest problem if Williams is unable to return to the team is the lack of depth behind him at defensive end. Sophomore Isaac Rochell is taking Williams' place, but he played limited minutes as freshman last season. The player currently slated to start at the opposite end from him is true freshman Andrew Trumbetti. That's two unproven commodities in the starting lineup. In other words, yikes.
And if those two get hurt? Romeo Okwara is a junior with some experience and potential, but little production. Behind him at end are more true freshmen. Players like Jhonny Williams, Anthony Rabasa (an upperclassman who has not seen much action), and Kolin Hill have been touted by Brian Kelly as guys who should see some action rushing the passer on third down this season, but once again, none of them have produced anything at the college level.
When Notre Dame goes through that stretch of three straight games against Stanford, North Carolina, and Florida State in consecutive weeks, are these players going to be able to hold up? How will these young players perform against the triple option attack of Navy? Yeah, it's Navy, but unless you have been cut blocked 4500 times in a row then you really don't know what's it like to play against a team like Navy.
I'm going to stop writing about this now because I really don't want to be worrying about Notre Dame playing Navy. It's just not healthy.
The depth and talent at receiver makes the potential loss of Daniels possibly the least concerning of the three players who were expected to be major contributors this season. The emergence of Chris Brown in fall camp (he's been getting rave reviews for his overall play and leadership) certainly helps ease the pain. Can you imagine if Daniels was lined up on the opposite side of the field of him though? Two big time receivers are always a lot better than one.
Daniels flashed in his first two seasons of play and this was supposed to be the year he made a similar leap to the one TJ Jones made last season. Him not being in the lineup means that Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, and Justin Brent have to turn potential into production this season for Notre Dame to be as prolific on offense as expected with the return of Everett Golson. With Torii Hunter Jr. now out for the beginning of the season with an injury, those three players are the best candidates to step up in Daniels absence.
#NotreDame HC Brian Kelly: Football-wise, "You don't replace a KeiVarae Russell."— Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna) August 16, 2014
Should I just end it right there? No, even though Kelly is right and and Russell cannot be replaced. The Irish are deeper and more talented at cornerback than anytime in the last two decades, but losing a player of Russell's caliber cannot be understated.
He's an All-American candidate. A player that has found his name in some early first round mock drafts. He's been continually praised by coaching staff for his level of play and has been projected as potential shutdown corner in Brian VanGorder's scheme that asks his cornerbacks to play a lot of man coverage. There is no way around the fact that potentially losing him makes the defense quite a bit worse.
Cole Luke is the most likely player to replace him as a starter with Devin Butler playing a lot more as well. Florida transfer Cody Riggs is going to be needed more than ever with no Russell around. Freshman Nick Watkins will likely have to play more than previously expected as well. These four players are all good players. None of them are considered to be as good as Russell is at this time.
To reinforce how important Russell is to this season, I'm going to list some of the best wide receivers in college football:
Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess. Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery. North Carolina wide receiver Ryan Switzer. Florida State wide receiver Reshad Greene. Arizona State wide receiver Jaelen Strong. Louisville wide receiver DeVante Parker. USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor.
Notre Dame's secondary has to face all of these players this season and now might have to do it without Russell. This does not sound promising.
There's a quote that I think best sums up this entire situation extremely well.
"If it was easy, everyone would do it."
That quote not only pertains to being a student athlete at Notre Dame, but also to winning football games at Notre Dame. With the schedule set up as it is for this season, nothing was going to come easy even with those four players around.
Losing Williams, Russell, Daniels, and Moore does not mean the season is over or that Notre Dame is incapable of winning a lot of games this season. It does mean it's going to be a lot harder to do so.