Barring a transfer, a likely occurrence considering the competition expected this spring, either 79 or 80 (one more verbal commitment) of Notre Dame's 85 allotted scholarships are occupied for 2011.
(The potential exists for a 25th verbal commitment as well, pushing the occupied scholarship number to 81).
With nine potential 5th-year senior applicants waiting in the wings.
In today's column, IrishEyes breaks down the case for each graduating senior: pros and cons, but with the ultimate focus of how a 5th-year of football from the lot would help Brian Kelly's second Irish squad in 2011.
The conversation between coach and prospective 5th-year player are long past. Contingencies regarding the total allotment of incoming freshmen and their impact on a 2011 scholarship were likely discussed and weighed between both parties.
But the grant of a 5th-year of eligibility is ultimately in the hands of Notre Dame's Faculty Board on Athletics; each player must have the academic standing to enroll in a graduate studies program at the University. (To be blunt, IrishEyes can't remember an instance in which a quality football player and passable student was denied that extra season when recommended by his coaching staff.)
Note: After two seasons on the shelf due to a recurring back problem, we assume senior place-kicker Brandon Walker will not be included on the list of potential returnees. Walker concluded his career on a 13 for 17 field goal streak after a rough start (7 of 19). Though he last kicked in Hawaii on Christmas Eve 2008, Walker worked his way back to the Irish practice field in 2010 after missing the entire 2009 season due to injury. His streak of 58 consecutive PAT ranks fifth in program history.
Mutual Admiration SocietyThe following quartet of players would likely be welcomed back by Kelly, his staff, their teammates, and every member of the Irish fan base.
Safety Harrison Smith: One of the few players in recent memory to offer the non-politically correct answer of, "Senior Day doesn't apply to me; I'm coming back next year." Of course, it's not his choice, but it's highly unlikely this future team captain wouldn't be granted a 5th season of eligibility by the Faculty Board. Smith is enrolled in the Mendoza College of Business (Management-Entrepreneurship major) – not a bad track when looking for a legitimate 5th-year of study.
Ranks as the only player in program history with 200 tackles, 15 TFL, and 15 passes defended. His seven interceptions in 2010 tied the high-water mark of the decade (Shane Walton in 2002) and was the highest total since All-America Todd Lyght thieved eight passes in 1989.
On-field argument against: None. A slam-dunk for the team's most improved player award in 2010. The Irish have just three scholarship safeties behind Smith, one of whom has limited field experience entering his senior season.
Likelihood Smith will return: 99 percent
2011 Scholarship No. 80
Cornerback Gary Gray: Dipped his name into the NFL Draft Advisory pool though was never a serious candidate for entry (purportedly received a 4th-round grade and Top 20 CB listing). In an October on-field interview, Gray noted that a fifth-season would allow him to "finish a minor or begin a Master's Degree." (Gray is a Sociology major). Though Gray missed the spring of 2009 for personal reasons, his early enrollment in January 2007 likely allowed him to keep his academic progress on track.
IrishEyes ranked Gray as the team's third-best overall player in 2010 (behind Michael Floyd and Manti Te'o) but he was also likely the most consistent defender from Week One through the Bowl Game. His return in tandem with senior Robert Blanton affords the Irish a top 10 CB pairing entering 2011.
On-field argument against: None. He's among the team's five best players and a top level corner is irreplaceable in the college game.
Likelihood Gray will return: 98 percent
2011 Scholarship No. 81
Right Tackle Taylor Dever: Helped solidify the 2010 offensive line by serving as one of the unit's top two players when healthy last fall. Made his first 10 career starts, all at right tackle and offered solid pass protection throughout, at least when he wasn't battling back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two games. Dever's a marketing major in the Mendoza College of Business.
On-field argument against: Nothing rational. The Irish have two untested freshman tackles in Christian Lombard and Tate Nichols waiting in the wings. Kelly was high on both in August and throughout the season, but the offensive line needs depth, not potential. Dever is a necessity in the 2011 lineup.
Likelihood he'll return: 95 percent
2011 Scholarship No. 82
Kicker David Ruffer: "I think the team is going to do great things next year, but at the same time, I know there's a process," Ruffer said in December. "I've got to apply for it and the numbers have to match up. It's something I'd be interested in, but other things have to work out that are out of my control."
The key component out of his control? A scholarship offer. The nation's best kicker toiled as a walk-on in 2010 which brings to mind a quote by Irish basketball coach Mike Brey regarding Luke Harangody vs. other scholarship players.
"Some times you want to ask for the money back. On the other hand, I think we owe (Harangody) quite a bit at the end of this (career)."
Ruffer, a tremendous student and Economics major who is absolutely guaranteed acceptance into nearly any 5th-year of study he should choose, performed his duties as well as any player in the country, at any position in 2010…yet a free ride has yet to come to fruition.
"Financially, it would be a pretty big investment just to come back and kick," he said. "It would be pretty contingent on a scholarship because it's such a huge investment, it's such a huge amount of money."
On-field argument against: There isn't one. Ruffer beat out incumbent Nick Tausch (junior-to-be) and at present, the presence of freshman kicker Kyle Brindza is just that: a presence. The litany of ballyhooed Irish kicker recruits that continually kicked and missed is long and distinguished. Ruffer is a sure thing at a position that has been anything but for the better part of 20 seasons in South Bend.
Likelihood he'll return: 90 percent
2011 Scholarship No. 83
Note: Click here for Part II.