Notre Dame suspension epidemic: No good ‘Wood’ for Coach Kelly

They were given a choice between two distinct paths and they responded with poor decisions… especially [as] our veteran team leaders. –Notre Dame Fighting Irish Head Football Coach Brian Kelly, on his suspension of defensive lineman Carlo Calabrese and starting quarterback Tommy Rees earlier this summer

Our players are aware of the standards I set for this program, and failure to meet these expectations will result in consequences. –Kelly, on his suspension of starting running back Cierre Wood and special teams player Justin Utupo this week

The 2012 Fighting Irish season has not been a good year for Wood(s)–or, for that matter, Utupo, Rees or Calabrese…

On the heels of last week’s news that Lo Wood, Notre Dame’s only cornerback with game experience, was out for the season, we now hear that the Irish’s more famous football Wood, starting tailback Cierre, is out for two games too.

But while Lo’s absense was due to injury, Cierre’s is due to stupidity; suspended along with Utupo for the Navy Midshipmen and Purdue Boilermakers contests for “violating team rules.” These suspensions, combined with the earlier ones of Calabrese and Rees, not only doubles the blotter count for Saturday’s clash with the Midshipmen to four, but calls into question whether Coach Kelly’s Irish program is spinning out of control.

Call it the “Michael Floyd Syndrome,” but once Kelly decided not to suspend his star receiver (and subsequent first round NFL draft pick) for any games last season despite three alcohol violations (the last a DUI at more than twice the legal limit) all hell seemed to break loose.

First, Aaron Lynch, a monster defensive end who recorded five-and-a-half sacks last season as a freshman and was supposed to be the “lynch” pin of this year’s defense, left Notre Dame this spring when Kelly would not treat his disruptive behavior with the same kid gloves he did Floyd’s.

Then, not much more than a month later, Rees was arrested not only for underage drinking, but he and Calabrese were charged with resisting arrest. And while we don’t officially know why Wood and Utupo were just kicked off the team, if they received a two-game suspension from Kelly after a drunken brawl with the cops merited the other two players only one, we can only assume it was for something pretty serious.

While I don’t disagree with the analysts that say Rees’s suspension was a blessing in disguise (as it forces Kelly to start the more talented but untested Everett Golson) and that the loss of Calabrese and Utupo can be overcome since neither was a starter, anyway you look at it, the absence of Cierre Wood is huge. Not only was he the starter and leading ground gainer for the Irish last season with over 1100 yards (the next remaining back, Theo Riddick, had 68) but you’d expect as a senior leader he would show some–leadership.

Instead, he adds the position of running back to those of corner- and quarterback in which the Irish will have no experience Saturday, and what was supposed to be a good workout for the Irish on their good-will trip to Ireland, has turned into a Dublin donnybrook.

Now, the Fighting Irish will have to use use every legal trick available to hold off the always disciplined and determined Naval Academy, whose talent discrepancy with the Irish is not nearly as big as it was last season, or now even this summer. Meanwhile, it appears that Kelly’s tenuous tenure at Notre Dame, which started with the tragic team-related deaths of Lizzy Seeberg and Declan Sullivan and now attempts to escape an actual Irish wake, is, at the beginning of his third season, already at a crossroads.

Surely, all coaches have to deal with tragic injuries such as Lo Wood’s, and all Notre Dame coaches have had to deal with players like Lynch who could not hack Notre Dame’s tough one-two punch of athletics and academics. Other coaches have had to navigate tragedies such as Seeberg’s and Sullivan’s that, while they are not personally responsible for, happened on their watch.

But multiple suspensions are rare at Notre Dame, and how the team handles them is crucial to Kelly’s continued Notre Dame existence. If they rally around Kelly and play as Notre Dame did when Lou Holtz suspended stars Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters against Southern Cal in 1988 (the #1 Irish defeated the #2 Trojans 27-10) the coach’s ability to lead this team will be saved; if not, it will be another lost season almost before it began. Can Kelly resurrect some of the Holtz magic? Knock on Wood…oops!

With both of them missing, it’s already too late for that…

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