Just as the stars seemed to be aligning for Brian Kelly's Notre Dame football team, the cloud of another academic scandal threatens to push the season off course.
Notre Dame has removed four players from practice as an academic-misconduct investigation gets underway in South Bend. A year after Everett Golson's suspension derailed the 2013 season, the uncertain future of starters KeiVarae Russell, DaVaris Daniels and Ishaq Williams could dramatically alter Kelly's squad.
After rumors swirled for hours on Friday, Notre Dame acknowledged the ongoing investigation involving multiple students and four members of the football team. University president Rev. John Jenkins had this to say in the school's official release:
Integrity is at the heart of our mission and academic misconduct will not be tolerated at Notre Dame. If the suspected improprieties are proven, we will use the experience to reinforce among our students the importance of honesty in all that they do.
We are also examining ways of better conveying to students that they can avail themselves of legitimate academic assistance without resorting to cheating.
RedditCFB first reported via Twitter that the four players were dismissed from school. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports was the first of the mainstream media to confirm the report, with other major news outlets following.
Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick acknowledged the four players were being held out from participation until they could dig deeper into the allegations, but they vehemently denied dismissals or suspensions have taken place, with the honor-code investigation in its early stages.
"This is not an athletic process, it is an academic process. All will be judged as students first," Jenkins said.
Regardless of how this all turns out, it is another black eye for a football program that boasts one of the most elite academic profiles in the high-stakes world of college football. For the second straight season, those standards have threatened to short-circuit the team before it ever takes the field, which undoubtedly upsets Kelly:
No timeline has been put on the investigation, meaning Notre Dame's top cornerback, wide receiver and defensive end are all out indefinitely. That's a nightmare for a program looking to avoid distractions, something that's next to impossible with the deep dig for truth only just beginning.
With so much still to be determined, let's look at how potential suspensions could affect the Irish on the field.
If there's a dagger in the side of the Irish, it's the loss of Russell. A 26-game starter who manned a cornerback spot from the day he stepped onto the field, Russell is one of the top players on the team, and he's expected to be the Irish's lockdown cornerback, a potential star in the making.
A candidate to be a team captain and considered a great leader both on and off the field, Russell's inclusion on this list is a puzzler.
Held up as an example by position coach Kerry Cooks and praised by Kelly during fall camp for his drive and determination, losing Russell takes one of the Irish's most confident players off the field and robs defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of a key coverman in a system that's reliant on playing man-to-man.
Notre Dame's depth at cornerback makes the loss something the Irish can absorb, with Cody Riggs, Cole Luke and Devin Butler all starting-caliber players. But losing a player many on campus believed to be an early-round talent is probably the toughest pill to swallow in all of this.
Russell has never hidden his NFL ambitions. He'll be eligible for the draft after this season, so depending on how this works out, he may never wear an Irish uniform again.
After having to sit out the spring semester because an academic suspension forced him off campus, Daniels' loss robs Notre Dame of their one established receiving threat. Coming off a 745-yard, seven-touchdown 2013 campaign, Daniels was expected to serve as Notre Dame's No. 1 receiver this season.
Without Daniels, the entirety of the Irish receiving corps has one official catch from Golson, a 50-yard connection to Chris Brown against Oklahoma in 2012. Daniels expected to use the 2014 season as a springboard to solidify his standing as a top-flight NFL prospect.
This could be the second academic strike against Daniels, with Swarbrick making it very clear to differentiate between the receiver's struggles to make grades and the current situation.
"Don't confuse academic probation with academic dishonesty," Swarbrick said.
There is talent and depth behind Daniels, and sophomores Will Fuller and Corey Robinson will team with Brown to form a talented trio of outside receivers. But primed for a big season, if the charges stick, we've likely seen the last of Daniels in a Notre Dame uniform.
If this is it for Williams, it's a career that'll be defined by underwhelming results. After picking Notre Dame over Penn State as a 5-star outside linebacker, Williams was a headliner among the trio, including Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch, with that group going out with a collective whimper.
Williams was stuck behind Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo, never winning the job at "Cat" linebacker, a hybrid position Williams seemed the prototype to play. Set to start at strong-side defensive end, there was optimism that Williams was primed for a big season, but that could all be down the drain.
Notre Dame already plans on starting freshman Andrew Trumbetti, after Kelly announced he'd surpassed junior Romeo Okwara for the job opposite Williams. But with zero experience at the position with Sheldon Day now shifting inside, how the Irish patch together their front four will be one of the season's most pressing questions.
The seldom-used fifth-year senior wasn't expected to play much of a role on the Irish defense. So while his potential loss won't be felt on the field, it's likely to cause a ripple effect through the locker room.
Like reserve defensive lineman Tyler Stockton last season, Moore's return as a grad student for his fifth year was likely decided because of the positive influence he'd have on younger players, but this certainly changes that.
Moore could have seen time on special teams or in short-yardage situations. But at an inside linebacker position that's among the thinnest on the roster, his suspension puts more pressure on first-year contributors Nyles Morgan and Michael Deeb, and it forces the Irish into a tough situation if Joe Schmidt gets hurt and Jarrett Grace can't make it back from his slow-healing broken leg.
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