The Elusive 85

Notre Dame rarely begins its spring practice session with 85 scholarships accounted for, but that's an attainable goal this year following a season marked by attrition and a dearth of veteran competitors. With both transfer and medical situations a certainty, Irish look to stock roster at 85 for spring ball.

They come and they go. And they go. And go, and go, and go.

Such is life among a major college football program's talent base, and no university's football team suffers more between-season-attrition to its scholarship ranks than does Notre Dame.

Academic demands, a competitive depth chart, the inevitable reality of a quarterback transfer every second or third year -- it adds up, and it usually equates to a roster short of the 85 allotted by the NCAA.

With that in mind, below is a projection and breakdown of Notre Dame's 2015 spring roster, including fifth-year senior candidates, and the logic involved at the inclusion of each.

PRESENT AND ACCOUNTED FOR
Including 22 pending pledges, Notre Dame has 78 scholarships *set in stone for the 2015 season.

(*Set in stone is an issue a Notre Dame coach faces, as the program has always honored a scholarship as a four-year, not merely a one-year commitment.)

Simple math (not the kind used against Northwestern) thus dictates seven available spots remain. The only certainty is that number won't be reserved exclusively for more 2015 pledges, not with *15 fifth-year options available to head coach Brian Kelly.

"It's huge. It's huge. It's that, getting to 85, and…that the next 20 are not 5'9", 150 pounds," said Kelly on National Signing Day 2014 of his desire to have a full roster. "So we're working on getting to 85, which is absolutely crucial."

While not certain, history dictates forthcoming transfer(s) is inevitable -- 32 consecutive off-seasons have included at least one transferred player. Fourteen (non-graduates), have transferred from Kelly's teams over his five off-seasons.

Thus, instead of using 78 as our guide, consider the number instead at 77. Logic likewise dictates a medical scholarship alleviation (five to date under Kelly) -- which lowers the current number of scholarships to 76 for our purposes. (More on projected transfer/medicals at the column's conclusion.)

That's 76 spots taken with 15 eligible to return and a handful of remaining recruiting targets. It's getting tight, though as basketball head coach Mike Brey mused when faced with a similar off-season dilemma, "These things tend to work themselves out."

Indeed they do, and our target number of 76 is likely to change between today and the beginning of spring. It might change between today and the beginning of next week. For the sake of ease throughout the rest of this column, assume Notre Dame receives three more 2015 pledges for an even 25 in the class of 2015 (thus, 79 scholarships will be accounted for as we enter the breakdown below).

With that in mind:

WELCOME BACK
Nick Martin, Joe Schmidt, Matt Hegarty, Matthias Farley, and Amir Carlisle.

Official rulings on 5th-year returnees are made by the university, not player or staff expectations, but Martin has announced he will return, as did Schmidt (conversations following the awards banquet and bowl game indicated his obvious intentions). Kelly used Farley (and Schmidt) as examples of ideal fifth-year players for a program, and the former enjoyed a successful bounce-back season after an injury-marred, ineffective 2013 campaign.

Carlisle, like Farley, offers positional versatility, extensive starting experience, and the ideal locker room/team-oriented approach to boot.

Hegarty has started 13 games for Notre Dame at both guard and center and could start or backup both center and guard next season.

None of the above will be displaced from the 2015 roster by anything other than their own choosing.

Prediction: All five return.

WELCOME BACK?
Jarrett Grace, Everett Golson, Keivarae Russell, and Ishaq Williams.

Golson's inclusion in this category has been fluid -- it would have applied in September because of a potential NFL future. It applies now because of a lost starting job at season's end. Notre Dame needs Golson to be the best it can be in 2015. The reciprocal is likely true as well, though options abound for the expected May graduate as a 5th-year "transfer" that could start for myriad quality FBS teams next season.

Grace's stunning, sudden progress from what appeared to be career-ending (leg) injury ranked as the feel-good story of December. He'll be asked back, the question is, can he make it through the spring session in good health, or show he's capable of contributing next fall. For our purposes, even if Grace is ultimately forced (by his injury, not the staff) to take a medical scholarship alleviation, he'll rank as one of the team's 85 next fall.

Russell has long-stated his intention to return, as has Williams, just less often and vociferously. Russell would start and rank among the team's top five players next fall while Williams would contend for his first starting role since joining the program in 2011. He'd rank as a valuable defensive reserve, regardless, and as often noted, a quality defensive line reserve is more important than some starting positions.

Prediction: Two, perhaps three of the four will be on the 2015 roster. (Not a commentary on Golson; merely that none from the quartet has an easy road.)

FIFTH-YEARS ON THE FENCE
Ben Councell, Conor Hanratty, and DaVaris Daniels.

Academic considerations obviously impact Daniels' status. So too does the reality that he's been suspended from the university twice. Add to that the emergence of a wide receivers' corps that won't lose a member in the off-season, and the prevailing opinion that Daniels was not an ideal practice player, and it would appear Kelly has a decision to make, should Daniels be cleared to return.

(Add to all of the above that if fully engaged, Daniels is the best wide receiver in the program, and you can see Kelly's pending dilemma.)

Hanratty missed the 2014 Music City Bowl due to a concussion. A source told Irish Illustrated that his playing career could be over. Hanratty is a former four-game starter and would be a trusted, valuable reserve should he continue to play.

Councell has likewise been plagued by concussions (Aug. and Oct. 2014, plus a purported third prior) and a surgically repaired knee (Nov. 2013), but he managed to appear in 12 of 13 games this fall. In good health, he too would be an intriguing option for a final season at the program as a reserve linebacker and veteran special teams starter.

Prediction: Taken individually, none from the trio is likely, but if forced to choose, I'd say one of the three. There's always a surprise among the fifth-year ranks.

UNLIKELY TO RETURN
Jalen Brown, Chase Hounshell, and Anthony Rabasa.

Brown did not appear in a contest in 2014 (two in 2013) while Hounshell has endured three shoulder surgeries (same shoulder) that have limited him to three appearances, Rice, Louisville, and USC, since the conclusion of the 2011 season.

Rabasa played sparingly this season as a rush end, though he did record a hit and resulting pass defensed against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. (Rabasa did not appear in a contest thereafter.) He is well-respected in the locker room and unlike Hounshell, not beset with career-altering injuries, so if an 85th scholarship is available, he'd likely be offered.

Prediction: I would expect none among the three to return, but stranger things have happened.

-- According to Irish Illustrated's Pete Sampson, senior safety Eilar Hardy is expected to graduate from Notre Dame in May and will transfer elsewhere.

SPRING ROSTER PROJECTION
I don't have a crystal ball, but taking into account all of the above, and adding my projections of transfers (at least two, though those generally materialize during the spring) and medical alleviation (one or two, also not usually announced in January), and applying logic, below is an initial look at the 85-man, 2015 opening SPRING roster, broken down by class:

-- 5th-year seniors: 8. And yes, I agree seven seems more likely. Consider it a hunch, as Kelly will also likely continue to pursue transfers into the program.
-- Seniors/RS-juniors: 10 (there are currently 11)
-- Juniors/RS-sophomores: 20 (there are currently 22)
-- Sophomores/RS-freshmen: 23 (currently 23)
-- Incoming freshmen: 24 (the No. 25 is rarely attained)

For a look at Notre Dame's current and incoming scholarship athletes broken down by class, click here.

 


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