What's in the number?

National Signing Day has concluded and Notre Dame remains nine scholarships short of the NCAA allotted 85. A number of 5th-year returnees and 2012 recruits still in play will bring that total closer to the full roster head coach Brian Kelly covets for his program.

The Spirit of the 76

When a program is allowed 85 scholarships, holding 76 on signing day is admittedly a bit sparse. One Irisheyes.com Football Forum poster referred to the number as "self-imposed sanctions," a reference to rival USC's 75-scholarship limitation thanks to NCAA probation (through which they've thus far survived and prospered).

But roster additions over next two months will better portray the makeup of the Irish roster in 2012 and beyond. At present, head coach Brian Kelly has the following at his disposal entering spring ball:

Seniors (15) – 2009 recruiting cycle: Eight of the 15 have are eligible through 2013, though without getting into semantics, one of those eight, NFL prospect Tyler Eifert, is highly unlikely to return for a 5th season following 2012.

Juniors (20) – 2010 recruiting cycle: 10 of the 20 are eligible through 2014 including crucial starter Louis Nix. None of those 10 presently appears a threat to leave college without accepting a 5th-year invitation. Another, Chris Badger, is eligible through 2015 after serving two years of a religious mission in Ecuador. He'll return to enroll at the University in the summer.

Sophomores (25) – 2011 recruiting cycle: The number includes transfers Jordan Prestwood and Amir Carlisle as both are eligible through 2015. Of the 25, 14 including Prestwood did not play last fall (all eligible through 2015).

Freshman (16) – 2012 recruiting cycle: We've chronicled each over the last 10-11 months and will continue to do so throughout February.

Prospective 5th-year seniors (13): One of the 13, Sean Cwynar, told the Chicago Tribune he decided not to return, though the coaching staff asked him back. Look for the full-court press by Kelly & Co. on the invaluable nose guard, but for now we'll consider Cwynar no longer a member of the football team.

Five graduating seniors are expected to return for a 5th season next fall: Jamoris Slaughter, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave, John Goodman, and Mike Golic. Should each return to the fold, Notre Dame would have 81 scholarships filled for 2012.

Another graduating senior, Dan McCarthy, was rumored to have been asked back, moving the scholarship total to 82. Of the remaining six graduating seniors, none appeared likely to return – that is until Notre Dame's class dropped to 16 members on National Signing Day.

Some Assembly Still Required

Let's assume McCarthy returns, giving Kelly six fifth-year seniors and 82 scholarship players for 2012. One, if not more, 2012 recruiting targets remain, including top-tier cornerback recruit Davonte Neal, who'll decide among Ohio State, Arkansas, North Carolina, home-state school Arizona, and the Irish in the next 10 days.

Another potential scholarship spot could be awarded to current preferred walk-on and sophomore-to-be, Joe Schmidt. A linebacker and special teams competitor last year, Schmidt traveled with the Irish to at least one road game – status given to only 70 players for each game played outside South Bend and something not awarded to a number of scholarship seniors last fall.

Said Kelly of the 6'2" 225-pound Schmidt last October: "He's a good player. Tough, physical, got a great sense for the ball. He's just in a tough position (inside linebacker has several scholarship athletes), but he's going to play for us. That guy is going to be on the field. He's a football player. I like that kid."

Two-year contributing walk-ons and upcoming graduates Ryan Kavanagh (holder and long-snapper) and Chris Salvi (coverage units and backup safety) could also earn scholarships as returning 5th-year student-athletes.

If the 5th-year returnees fill out the scholarship number to 81 or 82 as projected above, Neal would be target #1 for the 82nd/83rd roster spot. Salvi would be the logical choice for the 83rd/84th with Schmidt a potential 84th/85th. Then again, Schmidt is already in the fold and at the University as a student (sophomore-to-be), so the football program wields the power in their relationship.

Irish legacy and Cincinnati prep linebacker Joe Burger (6'2" 228) has reportedly been offered preferred walk-on status for the 2012 squad (meaning he wouldn't have to tryout with the other prospective walk-ons). Burger, a Scout.com 2-star prospect, must decide among Notre Dame, the same preferred walk-on offer from Ohio State, or a full-ride scholarship from Buffalo in the coming months. Irisheyes.com believes Ohio State leads for his services.

(For more on Burger, click here.)

Cornerback prospect Anthony Standifer is another former Irish target that did not sign his National LOI. The 6'1" 180-pound corner reports an Irish offer but also the need for a second year of Spanish class as a hurdle to his admittance. The Crete-Ill.-prospect has offers from Boise State and Pittsburgh among others.

Final Steps

The 5'9" 175-pound Neal would add another coveted, not to mention much-needed skill position player to the fold. Scout.com's 5th-rated cornerback could challenge for a starting spot on the perimeter as early as 2013 for an Irish secondary that boasts no proven players at cornerback entering spring ball 2012.

Look for the Irish to bring back six 5th-year seniors, for Neal to sign with the Irish or home state school Arizona late next week, for the walk-on Salvi to be appropriately rewarded with a scholarship for 2012, and for Kelly to leave (at least) one scholarship spot open to welcome another transfer between now and September 2012.

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