9:00 am, April 23, 2012
Before Brian Kelly’s impromptu Friday the 13th press conference had concluded, the spin-forward mode of the Aaron Lynch story was moving at 4G speed.
The University of South Florida emerged as the early favorite for the defecting Notre Dame defensive end’s next stop, as first reported by Josh Newberg of 247sports.com’s USF web affiliate.
As to how the Notre Dame football program would press on without the most electric defensive lineman to land in South Bend since perhaps Bryant Young more than two decades ago, Kelly offered that displaced fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore had been reanointed as a starter.
“We really love what Sheldon Day is doing,” Kelly, ND’s third-year head coach, added. “And we haven’t even put Springmann and Hounshell on the field.”
That would be sophomores-to-be Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell, classmates of Lynch’s who have been more bystanders than participants this spring as they recover from offseason surgeries.
Lynch now becomes one too, finishing his spring-semester classes without football as his divorce from Irish football becomes final. His practice April 11, ND’s 10th of 15 this spring, thus was the last time he slipped on an Irish uniform.
“The bottom line is your head and your heart has to be in it,” Kelly said at an impromptu morning press conference on April 13. “... Look, the guys who are here, they understand how difficult it is, the challenges you have on a day-to-day basis — and they signed up for that. That’s why they’re here. I’m here for the same reasons.
“I didn’t come to Notre Dame because I thought this was a place to retire to. This is a place that has great challenges. I wanted to be part of that, and our players do too.
“And if your head and heart aren’t in it, as the head coach, you need to go somewhere else. But my head and my heart are in what we’re doing here. I have to have it for my players.”
There’s some urgency in getting to the bottom of just where Lynch’s heart is and what prompted it to separate from ND after 15 months at the school, despite earning freshman All-America honors and fashioning a 3.0 grade-point average last semester.
Why it matters is that there will be those who connect dots to Kelly’s recruiting patterns, wondering if the fit was forced all along and that others in the same situation will eventually opt out as well.
“I don’t think it was a struggle from the beginning,” Kelly said.
What we do know is Lynch’s mother, Alice, was a strong force in getting the 6-foot-6, 270-pound five-star prospect to South Bend in the first place over, most notably, Florida State.
She even uprooted from Cape Coral in Southwest Florida and moved her family to Seven Hills, Ohio — near Cleveland — to strengthen the support system.
And when Lynch was excused from practice on April 4, which elongated his Easter break, Seven Hills is where he headed. Kelly framed the trip as a chance to take care of personal business.
That the personal business evolved into an impending transfer was a jolt to many close to Lynch, including his former coach at Island Coast High School, Joe Bowen.
“It’s one of those things where I haven’t been in contact with Aaron for the last couple of months,” he said on the day Lynch’s departure was announced. “Honestly, I didn’t see it coming. I thought everything was fine.
“I did have some questions a week ago when he left, but, again, it all sort of shocked me. I figured he’s pretty busy right now, so I’m sort of letting him have his time right now.”
The two talked during the season on a regular basis, and while there were hurdles and adjustments voiced by Lynch, none of them, in Bowen’s mind, came off as overwhelming.
“His big thing was how much more complex the game was versus high school,” Bowen said. “That was his thing, and then just the adjustment to classes and the rigors of college life. But he never gave any indication that Notre Dame was too hard for him or that he disliked it for any reason.”
Maybe, in the end, it won’t be about a dislike for Notre Dame, but a pull toward something or someone else. Lynch, on his Facebook page, professes to be “engaged” to a woman who lives in Fort Myers, Fla., near his old hometown.
Texts and calls to Lynch’s cell phone went unanswered, though he did speak through a prepared statement released by the university.
“I want to thank coach Kelly for giving me this great opportunity to attend Notre Dame and be part of the Fighting Irish football family,” Lynch said. “This was one of the toughest decisions I have had to make, but I want to go back home to Florida. I’m grateful to coach Kelly for understanding and allowing me to return home.”
Contrary to published reports, Kelly did not block Lynch’s transfer to any other school — not that it was necessarily tested.
Some schools that were reported to be blocked didn’t request a release for Lynch. South Florida, the school most likely to be Lynch’s landing spot, did request permission to talk to Lynch and was not blocked.
Wherever Lynch lands, his best football is purported to be in his future, even though he showed enough flashes in 2011 to record 33 tackles. And more than half of those came after he suffered an ankle injury on Nov. 5 against Wake Forest.
He also had seven tackles for loss, a team-leading 5½ sacks, a forced fumble and two pass breakups. His 14 quarterback hurries were the most by an Irish defender since the school began charting the stat in 1998.
But Lynch’s presence in South Bend was bigger than numbers. Kelly’s ability to land a player out of what’s considered profile and away from SEC and ACC powers was a powerful symbol of what ND football could become.
Now it’s Kelly’s charge to prove the program isn’t so fragile that one transfer can shake the ambitious trajectory Lynch helped draw.
“Whether it was at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan or Cincinnati, the dynamics are the same as it relates to your team and making sure there’s a standard across the board,” Kelly said, referencing his past head coaching stops.
“And I think there is a point where you’re either in or you’re not. And like in recruiting, we’re laying our cards on the table: ‘This is who we are. This is what you’re going to get when you come here.’
“We’re not going to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to live in the dorms.’ No, you have to live in the dorms. We don’t say, ‘Hey, it’s easy in the classroom. Don’t worry about it.’ We don’t say, ‘It never snows here.’
“The fact of the matter is when you open up like that (in recruiting), then you have to be the same way within your program.
“We wish him the best.”