Career-ending injury and the transfer of three student-athletes will challenge that reality.
First senior offensive tackle Tate Nichols knocked the team's scholarship count from 85 (including incoming 2013 freshmen) to 84, his career over due to repeated knee injuries. Then 2012 five-star quarterback prospect Gunner Kiel chose to transfer from the program prior to the start of spring practice, knocking the number from 84 to 83.
Two unexpected fifth-year returnees bolstered the total back to 85 as current gradating seniors Tyler Stockton and Nick Tausch claimed the open spots.
But Wednesday the 2013 roster took another pair of hits with news that Kiel's fellow 2012 signees, slot receiver Davonte; Neal and wide receiver Justin Ferguson, would both transfer as well.
"We have a couple of roster moves," said Kelly Wednesday morning in a previously unplanned press conference. "Davonte' Neal and Justin Ferguson are no longer part of the football program. And they won't be in the future. We wish them the very best in their future endeavors."
Asked for insight into either player's decision to defect, Kelly replied, "I'm not going to get into the specifics of it other than they're no longer with us."
Both Neal and Ferguson earned monograms as true freshmen last fall, primarily as special teams players. Ferguson caught one pass in Notre Dame's 50-10 season-opening win vs. Navy but was not targeted for a pass thereafter, playing in nine of the team's next 10 games as front-line blocker on the kickoff return unit.
Ferguson did not play in the BCS Championship game vs. Alabama.
Neal likewise caught a pass against the Midshipmen but was targeted just once more through the next 12 contests. He served as the team's punt returner in each of its 13 games, earning 46 yards on 21 attempts (2.2 yard average) with a long return of 11 yards, also earned against Navy.
Neal suffered three fumbles, recovering each, including one in the BCS Championship loss to Alabama.
Asked if either of the pair would remain on campus (as has Kiel) to finish spring semester requirements, Kelly said, "I don't know. All I can tell you is, when we break to start to stretch (at practice), and they're not out there, they're no longer on the roster."
The losses of Kiel, Neal, and Ferguson this month, coupled with the pre-spring transfer of early enrollee Tee Shepard 12 months ago drops the 2012 class's number from an already low 17 student-athletes, to just 13 scholarship players still on board prior to the outset of the group's second season at the school.
"There'll be more guys leaving, there'll be more guys coming," said Kelly of the sport's transfer cycle. "This is a process that every year you go through. You're going to have some additions, you're going to have some deletions. But we didn't miss a step. They've been through it (the remaining players) and they're prepared for the 'Next Man In,' he noted of his oft-referenced mantra.
"They didn't blink. Nor do I, nor the staff."
Transfers are rarely surprising at Notre Dame. The program lost three players to transfer prior to last season: the aforementioned Shepard, sophomore-to-be Aaron Lynch in April 2012, and his classmate Jordan Prestwood in August. (Research by Irisheyes.com confirms the program has had at least one player transfer out following a football season over the last 31 years, with said research stopping at that acceptable sample size.)
"Nothing surprises me," said Kelly of the recent transfers' timing. "I just deal with strictly, when I meet at 7 am, who are the guys that are here? I focus strictly on the program and the guys that I coach. I know that they're no longer in the program, nor will they be in the future.
"The roster is going to shift and move," Kelly offered. "We're going to have some additions, we're going to have some deletions, but when its time to kickoff vs. Temple, we're going to have a football team that's going to go out and compete for a championship."