January isn't the easiest month to be a Notre Dame football fan. Last year, the Irish got waxed by Alabama, embarrassed by Manti Te'o and nearly abandoned by Brian Kelly.
It looks like 2014 isn't starting too hot, either.
In the past week, Notre Dame's roster has taken a bludgeoning. Stephon Tuitt decided to head to the NFL, a 50-50 decision that shakes the foundation of the Irish defense. Running back George Atkinson joined him, a head-scratching decision that takes the Irish's biggest home run threat and return man off the roster, even if he has as much a chance of going undrafted as he does climbing back up the depth chart.
Perhaps the most shocking news of the week came this afternoon when wide receiver DaVaris Daniels acknowledged that an academic issue will keep him away from Notre Dame for the spring semester. The Irish's leading returning receiver will be eligible to re-enroll for the summer semester, but the heir to TJ Jones' No. 1 receiver spot certainly threw his career into murky waters by not fulfilling his "academic responsibility."
The capper seems to be the surprising addition of Troy Niklas to the NFL draft pool. The 6'6", 270-pound tight end only had 32 catches this season, but his rare blend of athleticism and power make him one of the draft's most intriguing early entries.
A week ago, Irish fans were wondering if Brian Kelly's recruiting class would push the Irish up to the 85-man scholarship limit. Today, they're wondering who's going to fill all the holes.
(Future Irish members weren't immune to attrition either this week. Four-star defensive tackle Matt Dickerson switched his pledge from Notre Dame to UCLA today, citing the need to stay close to his father who was just recently diagnosed with prostate cancer.)
Where do the Irish go from here? Well, to the "Next Man In," as Brian Kelly so often likes to say. While Irish fans were shell-shocked on social media as the hits kept coming, this could be the beginning of the new normal for Notre Dame.
Earlier today, Alabama held a press conference to announce the four underclassmen that would be heading the NFL early. While that's never going to happen at a school that preaches education throughout the recruiting process, as Kelly and the Irish coaching staff continue to turn out top-10 recruiting classes and properly evaluate talent, roster attrition—especially at the top of the depth chart—is going to become more likely.
That doesn't make the news any easier to take.
Tuitt's departure turns the defensive front into a guessing game. With a new coordinator and personnel tweaks potentially making the Irish a better 4-3 team than 3-4, spring practice will likely be used to sort out a front seven that's been thrown into disarray.
Atkinson's departure makes the running-back depth chart a bit more manageable and defuses a testy situation—Atkinson was suspended for the Pinstripe Bowl— that could've stayed unpleasant. With Tarean Folston, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Greg Bryant and Will Mahone all returning, there'll be no lack of options to pick up the slack, though the group certainly won't have the same top-end speed as one of college football's freak athletes.
Small bump. Not entering the draft. Can't wait to get back with my brothers this summer!— Toot Daddy Fresh™ (@DaVarisDaniels) January 9, 2014
Daniels' departure for the spring is a blow if only because it'll cost the junior valuable developmental time. Even while boosting his numbers to a more-than-respectable 745 yards and seven touchdown catches, Daniels still frustrates this coaching staff with his inconsistent effort, too often checking out mentally or losing battles on the field.
Without Daniels on the field, only Chris Brown will have caught an actual pass from Everett Golson. Only one—a 50-yard bomb against Oklahoma. But Daniels' loss will be the depth chart's gain, with CJ Prosise, Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Will Fuller, Torii Hunter Jr., and early-enrollee Justin Brent getting acquainted with Golson early and often, even if the offense doesn't yet know its coordinator.
What is most surprising about this week in Notre Dame football?
Niklas' departure might hurt that unit the most. But even with Alex Welch deciding to play his fifth year at Miami with former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, it won't be an empty cupboard at a position that's turned the Irish into Tight End U lately. Niklas actually took the depth chart into consideration before deciding to head to the NFL.
"Knowing Ben Koyack was coming back, that was taken into consideration in the process. He doesn't want to leave his alma mater high and dry," Don Niklas, Troy's father, told SI.com. "Troy feels good knowing these guys are in the works, and the level of their talent, that Notre Dame would still be left in a good spot."
After a whirlwind week, it's hard to call this a good spot for the Irish.
Four key contributors are gone. Two All-American caliber talents will be playing on Sunday next year instead of starring on Saturdays for the Irish.
And while Notre Dame won't celebrate players leaving their education behind to head to the NFL, this is part of the evolution of a team quietly growing into an elite program.
Even if it hurts for now.