During the Brian Kelly era, Notre Dame has come out on the right side of many of its players' decisions regarding whether or not to leave school early for the NFL draft.
Over the past two years, Tyler Eifert, Michael Floyd, Louis Nix and Manti Te'o all chose to return for fourth seasons in South Bend. Without Eifert and Te'o in 2012, the Fighting Irish's 12-0 regular season never would have happened.
The law of averages kicked in Sunday night, however, as star defensive end Stephon Tuitt declared for the NFL draft after just three seasons, becoming the first Irish player since Kyle Rudolph following the 2010 season to turn pro after just three years.
The story was first reported by SI.com. Tuitt later offered a goodbye on Twitter to Notre Dame teammates and fans.
Nix, who had the option of returning in 2014 due to a redshirt year in 2010, graduated last month and is headed to the NFL as well. That leaves Notre Dame with rising junior Sheldon Day as its only returning starter on the defensive line, a unit that struggled with injuries for much of 2013's 9-4 season.
As preparations for 2014 begin, Notre Dame will be without all three of the defensive line starters from its 2012 BCS Championship Game team (Nix, Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore).
If the Irish hope to compete for one of four spots in the College Football Playoff which debuts next year, shoring up the line of scrimmage is a must.
Day, who was limited by a nagging ankle injury in 2013, is a lock to start at one of the defensive end positions. Sophomore Isaac Rochell, a Georgia native like Tuitt, saw significant snaps as a freshman and likely has the inside track for the other end position heading into spring practice.
The wild card is Chase Hounshell, a 2011 signee who has missed each of the past two seasons with injuries. His shoulder injury, suffered in March, healed well enough to allow him to work with the scout team late this season. He is expected to be a full participant in spring practice and, if he can stay healthy, could push Rochell.
No other Irish defensive end has played a game. The Ishaq Williams-to-defensive-end debate will likely continue, but the Cat linebacker has just one season of eligibility remaining.
New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose background is with a 4-3 defense, could tweak the Irish's schemes, but remaining multiple—as they were under Bob Diaco—is most likely. Barring a complete overhaul by VanGorder, Williams will likely remain at Cat.
247Sports.com indicates that Notre Dame currently has five defensive end commitments, as well as 2013 signee Jacob Matuska, who redshirted this past season.
Justin Utupo is eligible for a fifth year and may now be asked to return in order to avoid having a player with no experience in the two-deep. Notre Dame generally does not announce its fifth-year players until just before the start of spring practice.
Replacing Nix at nose guard will be senior Tony Springmann and junior Jarron Jones.
Springmann is limited athletically, but held up well when filling in for Nix in 2012. He missed 2013 with a knee injury and is expected to be limited through the spring.
It has taken awhile for the light to come on for Jones, but he appeared to turn a corner late last season and will be counted on heavily in the fall.
|Projected 2014 Notre Dame Defensive Line Depth Chart|
|Defensive End||Nose Guard||Defensive End|
|Sheldon Day (Jr.)||Jarron Jones (Jr.)||Isaac Rochell (So.)|
|Justin Utupo (5th Yr.)||Tony Springmann (Sr.)||Chase Hounshell (Sr.)|
Notre Dame fans still cringe when they hear the name Eddie Vanderdoes, but reality is that the 2013 Irish signee who transferred to UCLA before ever enrolling at Notre Dame has left the Irish in a significant conundrum. A Day-Vanderdoes duo would have given Notre Dame a great base with which to work, with Vanderdoes having the flexibility to move inside at times.
Hypotheticals are worthless, however. Tuitt and Vanderdoes won't be around, and a unit that Kelly focused so much of his recruiting on early in his Notre Dame tenure is back to being a major question mark heading into 2014.
Expect the 2014 defensive line to look more like the 2010 unit from Brian Kelly's first year that featured Ian Williams at nose guard and Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson at defensive end.
It should be good enough to get by, but isn't going to win games on its own like in 2012 and last year against USC.
Players leaving early for the NFL isn't a bad thing. It means a program is producing elite talent. It just so happens that Tuitt's departure comes at a position where the sophomore and junior classes are perilously thin.
For Kelly and VanGorder, much of the next eight months will be spent attempting to mesh the limited ability of Notre Dame's defensive line veterans with the limited experience of its underclassmen to produce a unit with which the Irish can threaten to be a top-four team.