Notre Dame thought outside the box with Nicco Fertitta.
The Irish offered the safety from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas more than a year before his National Signing Day, seeing a potential special teams staple in the undersized athlete. When Notre Dame moved on Fertitta that January the other programs in with offers were Boston College, Hawaii, Utah, Villanova and Indiana. In other words, it wasn’t like Notre Dame followed a crowd. The Irish simply saw something valuable.
Fertitta would commit to Notre Dame that spring, then get to work on flipping five-star tight end Alizé Jones from UCLA to Notre Dame. Ultimately that happened near the end of the process as Fertitta’s personality not only helped land his friend/teammate but also sewed the class together before it signed.
Obviously, there’s the connection to father Lorenzo Fertitta, entrepreneur and owner of UFC. That’s part of the sophomore’s story too as he’s been able to train at a high level going back to high school, which has helped him create a unique drive. Fertitta played his final high school game at Bishop Gorman with a broken hand. Training with UFC fighters has its benefits and it helped shape the Irish safety.
Nicco Fertitta is next in Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z series.
Fertitta evolves into a special teams ace and helps the Irish improve their coverage and return games. Notre Dame was below average in all four return phases last year despite bringing back a kickoff and punt for touchdowns and not allowing any. The Irish lacked true special teams warhorses and Fertitta is wired to be one. In terms of buy-in with special teams, the Irish coaching staff won’t have to think twice about the sophomore running that show. And the Irish need replacements for Jarrett Grace, Nyles Morgan, Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell, four of the team’s top five tacklers on special teams (Morgan won’t play much coverage while starting at linebacker). This kind of role might seem minor, but last season – Farley in particular – showed it’s critical to building a championship level team. This could be the beginning of a quality career in the return games for Fertitta.
Fertitta can’t hold off Notre Dame’s incoming talent, having been passed by Devin Studstill during spring practice at free safety. Jalen Elliott seems impossible to stop from rising up the depth chart as well in August. That would leave Fertitta as a fourth-team free safety on a squad that’s hurting for help at the back end. That’s a tough outlook for the long haul, although it doesn’t need to affect his special teams work.
Some might throw out Robby Toma because he was a high school teammate of a five-star prospect too, although Manti Te’o was much more of a must-have than Alizé Jones. Toma and Fertitta were both under 5-foot-10, a rarity in past commitment lists. In terms of undersized safeties, the best comparison might be Ray Herring, a 5-foot-10, 187-pound prospect who was a three-star in Charlie Weis’ first class. Like Fertitta, he played special teams out of the gate, where his role remained for the coming three years, although he started once due to a Tom Zbikowski injury. Fertitta seems on track for that kind of post too, helping in the kicking games and offering depth.
Development Vs. Recruiting Ranking
Fertitta was universally ranked a three-star prospect out of Bishop Gorman with his positional slot at safety ranging from No. 54 (Scout) to No. 93 (ESPN). While he was a U.S. Army All-American, Fertitta was also a prospect in need of development. That’s how his freshman year played out. In terms of hitting the mark as a three-star prospect, Fertitta is off to a solid start.
Fertitta At His Best
Fertitta posted his only tackle on the season against UMass and also forced a fumble in that game. He played in 11 games on the year, but that blowout was his best shot at making a real impact. He did.
Quote To Note
“What I love about Nicco is the toughness that he brings every single play, every single snap. I was looking for somebody in this class to bring that kind of dominant competitor spirit to our defense, and Nicco brings that. He's going to make an impact right away. You'll see him on every special teams. You'll see him with the energy that he brings, he's pretty infectious to a football team.” – Brian Kelly on National Signing Day, 2015