Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly offered what appeared to be a tongue-in-cheek explanation regarding his pending roster machinations at Wednesday's signing day press conference, but it's one that could prove more prophetic than glib.
"It's an extremely fluid situation, and I'm not trying to be coy with anybody," said Kelly when asked about the status of myriad fifth-year seniors. "We really have until the first day of (August) classes to get to 85. And we're going to need every one of those days."
The roster's pending number's crunch is as follows:
Twenty of 24 members of Notre Dame's 2015 recruiting class won't officially enroll at the University, and thus count against the scholarship limit of 85, until the fall semester begins (August 24). Four others, linebacker Te'Von Coney, defensive linemen Micah Dew-Treadway, center Tristen Hoge, and defensive linemen Jerry Tillery enrolled in January.
Returning sophomores, juniors, and seniors occupy another 55 spots. Add suspended hopefuls KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams and the combined number of freshmen and veterans reaches 81 players inked for the 2015 season -- that doesn't include a potential 12 fifth-year applicants of which seven are returning starters, including the rapidly healing Jarrett Grace (more on Grace below).
Rather than trying to limp toward the allotted total as August approaches as he has in season's past, it appears getting DOWN to 85 scholarships is the new world order for Kelly's program.
Yet for the spring session, Notre Dame remains well under the NCAA's 85-scholarship allotment -- 20 of today's pledges remain in high school. As such, every prospective fifth-year player is allowed in the fold, as would be any player considering transfer out of the program or an unfortunate medical scholarship alleviation (retirement from football while remaining enrolled at the University).
Kelly referenced "the start of classes" as he's well-aware his roster will change between today and the outset of August camp. The Irish head coach has lost *21 players between the beginning of spring practice and conclusion of August camp to either transfer, dismissal, suspension, or medical scholarship alleviation.
(*The number doesn't include the five players famously suspended in mid-August 2014. Just two Notre Dame players in the Kelly era transferred between season's end and National Signing Day.)
On a more positive not, he's apparently not done adding talent for the 2015 team.
"There's some more work to be done. There'll be some more tweaking of this roster," said Kelly, hinting at potential transfer(s) into the program. "We did that last year as well and we will do that (this cycle). We are not done. We have a couple of more things in the works right now that are very promising that we'll find out in the next two to three weeks that will strengthen our roster."
THE WALKING WOUNDED
Beaten to a pulp at the conclusion of the 2014 regular season, Notre Dame's front-line players appear on the mend heading into spring ball 2015. That includes a potential fifth-year senior left for dead by many, doubted by all.
"Jarrett Grace vertical jumped 28.5 (inches) yesterday. Had a 4.46 short shuttle. So he's really close to being back to where he was. We're really pleased there," said Kelly of Grace, out of action since Oct. 5, 2013 due to a severe multiple fractures in his lower leg.
"Nick Baratti's doing well," Kelly added. "He'll be cleared for spring, probably no contact in the spring but he'll be cleared to go through everything but probably we won't let him contact."
"Drue Tranquill is coming back from ACL (surgery). He's so far ahead right now. I think he had 315 pounds on his back yesterday for his squat at two-and-a-half months (recovery." said Kelly. "That's crazy. He's way ahead of schedule.
"(Nose tackle) Jarron Jones gets his boot off Monday (LisFranc surgery). Joe Schmidt has had his boot off (broken and dislocated ankle) now for close to three or four weeks, so he's starting to move through his rehab," Kelly added of his 2014 team MVP and starting mike linebacker. "Jones and Schmidt are probably the two guys that are the most behind."
While the interior starting pair remains on the mend, one former starter and potential fifth-year addition is officially out.
"Conor Hanratty will not participate," said Kelly of the team's left guard starter last September. "He has made the decision he will not participate. He is not going to play football again. That's a decision he's made with his family."
A source told Irish Illustrated that Hanratty chose to retire due to concussions that plagued his senior season, including one that kept him out of the Music City Bowl win over LSU.
Rumors persisted on Notre Dame-dedicated websites Wednesday that staff upheaval -- predicted by most but apparently avoided through the National Signing Day crunch -- has again struck the Irish roster. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks, an original Kelly-era hire in 2010, has purportedly accepted a position at Oklahoma while 2014 staff addition Matt LaFleur (quarterbacks coach) is expected to return to the NFL for a position with the Atlanta Falcons.
Kelly however would not confirm the attrition.
"We have nine coaches today. We have nine coaches today," he said. "We're going to talk recruiting today. Any changes that we have on the staff, we'll definitely get you up-to-date on, but I'm not going to get into that (regarding) coaches and who's going and who's staying.
"I'm staying," he added.
Kelly has endured staff attrition following 2011, 2013, and it appears, the 2014 season.
A PAIR OF SIX STARS
Tight end pledge Aliz'e Jones ranks as Notre Dame's top rated recruit per Scout.com, the lone five-star pledge in the 2015 Irish class.
Of more importance for the forthcoming season was the return of two former highly touted freshman-turned-senior stars: defensive tackle Sheldon Day and left tackle Ronnie Stanley, both of whom chose to forgo the 2015 NFL Draft for a final season in South Bend.
Kelly's in-person recruiting push in January might have played a part in the pair's decision.
"We had great success with keeping a number of our players in past years, going to back to Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, (Manti Te'o) and Zack Martin," said Kelly. "I felt this year, after a couple players leaving (last year), that I wasn't going to leave it up to a phone call. That I was going to go and visit both of them.
"I was accompanied (to their homes) by Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director. We had (director of player personnel) Dave Peloquin, and academic support. We really wanted to be aggressive and show them and their families why it was in their best interest to come back to Notre Dame.
"If they weren't good locker room guys, if we felt it wasn't in their best interest, I probably would not have gotten on a plane, to be quite honest with you," Kelly said. "But they're good guys that needed to get their degrees from Notre Dame, and that's why we did it."
PURGATORY OR LIMBO?
Likewise in search of their Notre Dame degrees are suspended seniors KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, the only remaining players from last season's exhaustive (and in this case, exhausting) academic misconduct investigation that could compete for the Irish next fall.
"I know KeiVarae's situation is he's working on classes right now at the University of Washington and he's had communication with the appropriate people to get those classes transferred back here and meet with the Dean's relative to transfer requirements relative to eligibility," said Kelly. "There's work to be done and our expectations are to have him back.
"I think Ishaq has similar criteria. His bar is a little bit more complicated but he knows what he needs to do as well. We're hoping both of them can get back."
Kelly was unaware if Williams is presently enrolled in classes.
The remaining suspended trio from the investigation, Kendall Moore, Eilar Hardy, and DaVaris Daniels, have moved on. Moore, a 2014 Notre Dame graduate, will pursue his dream of the NFL while Hardy elected to transfer to Bowling Green for the 2015 season. He's expected to earn his Notre Dame degree in May 2015.
Daniels chose to forgo a final season of eligibility to turn pro.
Asked if Daniels would have been welcomed back to the program, Kelly offered, "I think there were some complications with eligibility that we'd have had to work through, some high standards that would have to have been met. There were some academic eligibility requirements that would have made it difficult for him to be here."