At the TopQuarterback Everett Golson is expected back for the bowl practice sessions. Nose guard Louis Nix's college career is likely over, though he hasn't closed the door to a return for a fifth season in South Bend, and fellow defensive lineman, former All-American and future first round NFL Draft pick Stephon Tuitt remains undecided on his future plans.
If two of the three listed above play for Notre Dame in 2014, the Irish will enter the season among the nation's top 10. If each of the three returns, consider Brian Kelly's fifth-edition Irish a bona fide national title contender and a likely favorite in 11 of 12 regular season games next fall (at potential pre-season No. 1 Florida State the only exception).
The more likely scenario is that only Golson takes the field and the Irish are thus planted firmly inside the nation's Top 15-20 (pending your chosen analyst) with a high ceiling. If Tuitt (or Nix, especially) returns, the Notre Dame 2014 defensive line goes from question mark to team defensive strength.
The unit, and the overall team's realistic aspirations, follow thereafter.
Fifth-Year ProspectsIncluding expected NFL draft entrant Louis Nix, 10 graduating seniors could elect to return, though cornerback Lo Wood and tight end Alex Welch are likely to seek a fifth season of playing time elsewhere (and at a school not on Notre Dame's 2014 slate).
Assuming Nix is gone, seven members of Kelly's first recruiting crop are in line to petition for a fifth season in South Bend:
OL Christian Lombard: Lombard is returning for a fifth season. RG, LG, RT, or LT are all potential landing spots for a certain starter assuming good health after October back surgery.
S Austin Collinsworth: An 10-game starter that played his best football Saturday in Palo Alto -- and intermittently at the line of scrimmage vs. read-option offenses throughout the season -- Collinsworth is a lock to return and has been since losing his 2012 season, his true junior year, to a shoulder injury. While a repeat starting spot will be tough to earn among a deep safety unit in 2014, a role, both defensively and in kick coverage (he was the 2011 Special Teams Player of the year as a sophomore), is guaranteed.
LB Kendall Moore: Per Brian Kelly, Moore will be asked back as well. With only Jarrett Grace returning as a starter inside, and with his chief competition either an incoming freshmen, or former walk-on Joe Schmidt, or current freshman Michael Deeb, Moore's best chance for 2014 playing time is in South Bend, not elsewhere.
And he wouldn't be the first fifth-year inside 'backer to far exceed his previous career production. (Paging Corey Mays…)
DE Justin Utupo: An experienced fifth-year senior backup defensive lineman isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. Utupo isn't experienced by top program standards, but the staff -- namely defensive line coach Mike Elston -- trusts him more now than at this point last season. If Nix and Tuitt both leave, Utupo would be a member of the spring two-deep and likely remain there, at least while a freshmen crop of promising D-Linemen get their feet wet early next fall.
If you need precedent, look no further than 2013 fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton who, after 2.5 seasons with zero snaps to his credit, played a key reserve role throughout four November games.
QB Andrew Hendrix: Kelly noted last week that he'd have a talk with Hendrix regarding a potential fifth season. That conversation will likely include the reality that precious few varsity snaps will be available next fall, though he could receive plenty in the spring. Hendrix would have to be open to occasional scout team duty to return to the fray. If not, incoming freshman DeShone Kizer becomes the default No. 3 behind Golson and Malik Zaire.
A quarterback quartet that included Hendrix for 2014 seemed likely prior to his performance against USC. But his play that evening and the question it cast on his ability to help the team on Saturdays in a pinch clouded the situation. I wonder if the fallout (read: reality) from that day hurts his status with the head man in charge.
OL/DL Bruce Heggie: Could be asked back if Notre Dame ends Signing Day with 83 or 84 scholarships, short of the allowed total per the NCAA. Heggie could also receive a spring invitation following the program's inevitable transfer(s). Though he'll not be part of the two-deep or even the varsity if he returns, a fifth-year player that can fill in across the offensive and defensive lines in practice is something Kelly, and any coach perpetually low on numbers, covets. (Notre Dame practiced last spring with eight offensive linemen, at times seven.)
The addition to a fifth freshman offensive lineman, coupled with no attrition from the OL or DL due to transfer would likely push Heggie to the back of the priority list. He's nonetheless been a selfless "program player" even earning a spot with the varsity as a sophomore in 2011.
WR/QB Luke Massa: If Hendrix goes, and pending an open scholarship post-signing day or before spring practice begins, Massa could be asked to return as a fourth-string emergency quarterback, a scout team QB and/or wide receiver, and the team's holder on Saturday's for 2014. He's an admired teammate, well-versed in the offense, and can serve as an emergency player at multiple positions.
Add to this group the near-certainty of one, two, or even three or more transfers from current underclassmen and off-season roster machinations become unwieldy before the New Year commences.