We have officially reached the February doldrums in college football. That is, except for the only true year-round sport—recruiting. Notre Dame is already fully entrenched in matching its impressive 2013 signing class with a comparable group in 2014,
One of the most overlooked aspects of college football coaching is roster management. The NCAA-mandated limit of 85 scholarships cannot be exceeded. For the first time under Brian Kelly, the Irish will likely use the full 85 scholarships in 2013.
While doing so will help the team's depth, it also presents some challenges when planning out how the 2014 class should look. The Irish have 10 players who will be in their fourth year of eligibility this fall. 12 additional seniors would be eligible for a fifth year due to having used a redshirt season.
Of those 12, the most likely to return for a fifth year are wide receiver Daniel Smith, offensive tackle Christian Lombard, tight end Alex Welch, cornerback Lo Wood and safety Austin Collinsworth. If those five return, that would leave 17 vacated spots available for incoming freshmen.
It's safe to add in one or two spots for juniors who turn pro (Stephon Tuitt, perhaps) or players who transfer or go on medical scholarship, which injured offensive lineman Tate Nichols is likely to do. Doing the calculations, that leaves Notre Dame looking at a class of 18-19 signees in 2014.
That's just one part of the equation, however. The next challenge is how to divide those 18-19 scholarships among each position group. Currently, the Irish have four commitments—wide receiver Justin Brent, offensive lineman Jimmy Byrne, defensive lineman Jay Hayes and linebacker Greer Martini.
That leaves 14-15 open spots. Linebacker is a major concern, with just four signees in the past two classes. Ideally, three more linebackers come on board in addition to Martini. Expect seven spots, including Byrne and Hayes, to be used for linemen (four offense and three defense, preferably). That would leave just 6-7 available scholarships.
Notre Dame could pass on a quarterback, but that's a risk I don't foresee Kelly taking. Add in one running back, two wide receivers and a tight end, and they're probably down to two spots for defensive backs or another position of need.
In all likelihood, the Irish won't meet their goals for at least one position, such as they did for linebacker in the 2013 class, when Alex Anzalone left the Irish at the altar less than a week before he was expected to enroll. Kelly and staff must be much pickier this year in terms of who receives scholarship offers.
The proverbial arrow continues to point up for the program, but a poor signing class next February could change that. The red tape at Notre Dame regarding fifth years, which cannot be officially granted until the spring of a player's senior year, further complicates the process.
Recruiting is more than just watching film and selling the program. There's a mathematical element as well, one that will deeply test the Irish staff in the next 12 months.