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Early enrollees Kiel, Day adjust to Notre Dame

Andrew Gastelum | Friday, April 20, 2012

It’s two weeks before prom, which means freshman quarterback Gunner Kiel should be worried about renting a tuxedo, filling a limo and what moves he will pull out on the dance floor.

 But it is a different type of fancy footwork that concerns Kiel now, where the high school superstar goes from waltzing with a prom queen to fox-trotting away from 6-foot-6, 300-pound defensive brutes.

“I haven’t really thought about [going to prom] too much. I have been thinking about schoolwork,” Kiel admitted in the first week of spring practice. “I have a lot of [football and school] stuff going on here, so I should probably do that first.”

Thrown into college life after winter break, the term ‘freshman adjustment’ took on a whole new meaning for the early enrollee. The Friday night lights are gone, as are the homeroom classes, flung away nearly as quickly as a bullet pass from the 18-year-old gunslinger. At the same time senioritis should start to creep in, Kiel said he must comprehensively focus more than ever on his academics.

“[The toughest thing] has been classwork. It’s very difficult,” Kiel said. “But it’s what you are going to get. I mean, Notre Dame is like an Ivy League school. It’s the best of the best.

“When I was getting recruited I had three things on my mind. One of them was the distance from home, the guys on the team and the education I was going to get.”

Tumultuous as it was, Kiel chose Notre Dame after switching his commitment from defending SEC-champion LSU (and Indiana long before that) just hours before enrolling, drawing the ire of Tiger fans and even eccentric coach Les Miles himself.

But that was already three months ago, and Kiel said he quickly jettisoned his persona-non-grata status in the Bayou when he took a blindside hit from the South Bend winter.

“It’s been awesome, but when I first got here there was seven inches of snow and I didn’t know where anything was at and all the buildings looked the same, so it was kind of hard to find my classes,” the five-star quarterback said. “But I’m good now.”

However, the Columbus, Ind., native was never alone in his assimilation into life under the dome. In fact, all Kiel had to do was look across his O’Neill Hall dorm room to find solace in fellow Hoosier and early-enrollee, defensive lineman Sheldon Day.

“When you have another early enrollee that comes in, it makes the transition easier because you have someone to talk to,” Day said. “When you’re going through a slump, they’re probably going through it too. You can talk to each other and work your way out of the slump.”

The premature and unanticipated departure of early enrollee cornerback Tee Shepard left the roommates as the only early enrollees, compared to last season’s crop of five. Regardless, there was football to be played – college football with new, enhanced schemes, plays and competition.

“Yeah it’s a little bit [surreal],” Kiel said. “I was talking to Sheldon about it, he feels the same way. It was completely different coming from high school … [The difference] is pretty unreal.

Looking at the playbook and terms and concepts, it’s hard but it’s something you can do.”

Day said the effect of the swift turnaround from high school All-American to the new kid in school did not set in entirely until his first practice, when he lined up behind the vaunted Irish defensive line and standouts Aaron Lynch, who announced last week he will transfer from Notre Dame at semester’s end and Stephon Tuitt, whom he calls his “big brother.”

“My first day … it kind of hit me fast,” Day said. “I was with the second group, and I’m supposed to be a senior in high school, but I’m here. It kind of hit me then.

“I get a jump start on school and jump start on the football, and I’m glad I made that decision [to enroll early].”

Always quick to cite schoolwork as his first priority in any question about college life, Kiel reiterated his roommate’s sentiment with the wisdom and foresight of a college senior, while just three months into his First Year of Studies program.

“It was pretty huge [to be an early enrollee],” he said. “Definitely to get a start on schoolwork and all that stuff, but also to get into the playbook and learn new things. And just to let the guys know that I was here and I was going to work hard and do whatever I can to make the team better.”

It is unknown whether 2011’s Mr. Indiana Football will attend his senior prom, but even he might trade in a corsage for a wristband playbook and a boutonniere for a bootleg pass.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at

agastel1@nd.edu