With the 21-man freshman class signed on Wednesday (five of whom are early entrants this semester), Notre Dame’s scholarship count in football unofficially rose to 86, or one over the NCAA limit of 85.
Yet the Fighting Irish coaching staff is still looking to a graduate transfer — if not two — to facilitate its roster. How can that be when it is already over the limit?
Apparently, the coaches realize through the years that what you have in February is not always going to be what you will have in August — when it matters to get to the 85 limit.
After the 2016 Signing Day, Notre Dame’s scholarship number stood at 87. Yet by the start of the season, the figure was down to 83 — and that was after adding sophomore walk-on receiver Chris Finke to the scholarship chart, plus the return of tight end Tyler Luatua, who had been planning before the spring to transfer to Brigham Young but changed his mind.
That’s because the Irish lost six players from February through August for various reasons: seniors Corey Robinson (receiver) and Doug Randolph (defensive end) had medical issues that precluded them from playing football anymore, thereby transferring their football scholarships to a University-paid medical expense. Another senior, starting guard Steve Elmer, opted to graduate after three years and move on to a career beyond football.
Reserve defensive end Grant Blankenship, suspended from football activities at the time, decided to transfer to Oklahoma. Finally, safeties Mykelti Williams (now at Syracuse) and Max Redfield were dismissed from the team.
This is not even including the 2016 academic suspension of top tight end Alize Jones (who remained on scholarship while enrolled in school and working with the scout team), plus the disciplinary suspension of senior cornerback Devin Butler (now using his fifth season at Syracuse) and an injury to projected starting cornerback Nick Watkins in the summer that would lead to a medical redshirt.
While the ouster of senior starter Redfield couldn’t have been predicted, the staff likely was cognizant of the other attrition and planned the numbers accordingly. The same holds true any other year.
To be at 86 scholarships at this point, Notre Dame is “ahead of schedule” from last year while inevitable attrition this spring and summer occurs: Here is the current breakdown:
• After having four fifth-year seniors last year (nose guard Jarron Jones, long-snapper Scott Daly, offensive lineman Mark Harrell and running back Josh Anderson), the Irish will have only three this season: left tackle Mike McGlinchey, tight end Durham Smythe, both starters, and reserve guard/tackle Hunter Bivin.
Notre Dame originally had 10 such candidates this year, but they either opted to use their fifth season as a graduate transfer elsewhere — most recently guard Colin McGovern (Virginia) — try out for the NFL (running back Tarean Folston) or be finished with football (tight end Jacob Matuska).
• 17 fourth-year seniors now that running back Justin Brent has joined quarterback DeShone Kizer and receiver Corey Holmes on the list of those not coming back. Kizer is turning pro and is a potential first-round pick. Holmes and Brent plan to graduate from Notre Dame later this year (Brent was an early enrollee at Notre Dame in January 2014) and will use their final two years of collegiate eligibility at other schools still to be determined.
• 22 juniors, including the aforementioned Finke, who finished last season by scoring touchdowns against Virginia Tech and USC.
• 23 sophomores, with 14 having played as freshmen, the most in head coach Brian Kelly’s seven seasons with the Irish.
• 21 incoming freshmen signed on Wednesday.
The next question is “How many scholarships will Notre Dame have to give to the 2018 recruiting class?”
Hypothetically, if the team does not lose a single player from its 2017 freshmen, sophomore and junior classes, that leaves 66 — which means 19 scholarships for the 2018 freshman class are available.
However, that does not include the 12 seniors in 2017 eligible for a fifth season in 2018: quarterback Montgomery VanGorder, tight end Nic Weishar, offensive lineman Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher and Jimmy Byrne, defensive linemen Jonathan Bonner, Jay Hayes and Peter Mokwuah, cornerback Watkins, safety Drue Tranquill and punter Tyler Newsome.
If all 12 returned, Notre Dame would have only seven scholarships to give to the Class of 2018 — and it already is at six.
If only six of the 12 fifth-year prospects return in 2018 and attrition in the other three classes follows its usual pattern, the Irish could be in the upper teens with regard to how many scholarships they have to give. Much is still to be sorted out in the next year with overall numbers.
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