For most Notre Dame freshmen, orientation consists of ice-breakers conducted in the late summer sunshine. But for George West of Spencer, Oklahoma, Chris Stewart of Spring, Texas, and James Aldridge of Crown Point, Indiana, their introduction to student life included a heavy dose of weightlifting in the dead of winter.
The three football players were the first since at least the mid-1960s to finish high school a semester early and enroll at Notre Dame in January, allowing them to take part in winter conditioning and spring practice. Early enrollment of a few highly rated recruits per class is a practice that has become increasingly common at major college football programs over the last 10 years.
In the past Notre Dame was reluctant to enroll football players or any other students early because they would not be able to begin the First Year of Studies Program in the fall with the rest of their classmates, according to a statement from Dan Saracino, assistant provost for enrollment. But after a two-year review of that position, the University decided to allow a limited number of students to begin their course of study in January.
Coach Charlie Weis mentioned the early enrollees at his signing day press conference on February 1. "They broke ground as a new phase at Notre Dame as midyear admits," he said. "All reports have been that they've settled in nicely. Everything seems to be going along well."
Pete D'Alonzo, lead counselor of Academic Services for Student Athletes, said the players were taking the same 15-credit program required of any first-semester freshman, only theirs was geared toward beginning in the winter. "It doesn't matter when you come if you have the machinery and structure to help ease the transition," D'Alonzo said. For the players that structure included meeting with student mentors three nights a week and spending two hours a week at Academic Services. D'Alonzo added that enrolling in January can benefit a player with aspirations to play in the NFL, as it allows him to graduate in a full four years as well as train in the NFL Scouting Combine the spring after his senior season.
The players were not allowed to speak to the media during the spring semester, but they were the focus of a January 15 article in the _South Bend Tribune_. West, the article said, was planning to attend his senior prom and high school graduation ceremonies, and the decision to enroll early was a difficult one for him. "There was a part of me who wanted to go out and enjoy my senior year," he told the _Tribune_. "But I understand this as an opportunity to go out and do something special. The pluses outweigh the minuses."