Notre Dame Football: Building the Perfect Irish Roster

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Notre Dame Football: Building the Perfect Irish Roster
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Last week reminded Notre Dame fans once again that college football is all about expecting the unexpected. As George Atkinson, Troy Niklas and Stephon Tuitt became just the ninth, 10th and 11th true juniors to enter the NFL draft, Brian Kelly and his football staff were forced to adjust their roster expectations for 2014. 

The loss of Niklas and Tuitt are undeniable blows.

Both were likely to garner preseason All-American kudos, and could have been the top player at their respective positions in next year's draft. But if there's a silver lining to be found (and you might have to look mighty close to see it), it's that a roster pinch that seemed just around the corner was deferred for another year.

Late last week, news broke that the Irish were likely to bring back four seniors for a fifth year. And as the recruiting cycle comes down the home stretch with a little more than two weeks to go, finding the perfect recipe for 85 scholarships seems to be coming into focus. 

Let's take a closer look at how next year's roster will likely be built.  

 

Fifth-Year Graduating Students (4)

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Christian Lombard will return for a fifth season.

Austin Collinsworth, S
Christian Lombard, RG
Kendall Moore, ILB
Justin Utupo, DL

Thoughts: Andrew Hendrix, Alex Welch and Lo Wood will all join former Irish coach Chuck Martin at Miami, getting a chance to play early and often for a team that lost every game in 2013 by an average of almost four touchdowns. 

As for the fifth-year players that are sticking around, bringing back Collinsworth and Lombard seemed like easy choices—both have experience in the starting lineup. And while their jobs will likely be open competitions, veteran depth is something Kelly and his staff covet. 

The inclusion of Moore and Utupo acknowledge some of the thinner position groups on the roster. Moore finally gets his shot to play on the inside, where his path had been blocked by Manti Te'o, Jarrett Grace, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. Utupo likely returns because Tuitt will not, and with Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell both coming off significant injuries, Utupo as an insurance policy makes a ton of sense. 

 

Seniors (20)

Everett Golson, QB*
Cam McDaniel, RB
Amir Carlisle, RB*
DaVaris Daniels, WR*
Ben Koyack, TE
Nick Martin, C*
Conor Hanratty, G*
Matt Hegarty, C*
Chase Hounshell, DL*
Tony Springmann, DL*
Ishaq Williams, OLB
Ben Councell, OLB*
Anthony Rabasa, OLB*
Jarrett Grace, ILB*
Joe Schmidt, ILB*
Josh Atkinson, CB
Jalen Brown, CB*
Eilar Hardy, S*
Matthias Farley, S*
Kyle Brindza, K/P

Thoughts: If you thought this year made for some tough decisions for Kelly and his staff, wait until next offseason, when the staff will have 15 players with a fifth year of eligibility. The roster management should be fascinating to watch. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Cam McDaniel enters his final season in South Bend.

While there are certainly some question marks surrounding next year's defense, there is a large veteran presence. While this group doesn't really have anyone on that side of the ball that's played up to their potential yet, new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has some experience coming back that might benefit from his tutelage. 

The time is now for Ishaq Williams. Hounshell, Springmann and Councell need to make their marks and return from serious injuries. Jarrett Grace was just starting to come on before an ugly broken leg turned him into another unknown. 

After having good chemistry with Everett Golson, DaVaris Daniels will have to make due without spring practice. Sitting out the semester after academic struggles, Daniels won't be back on campus until summer school. 

 

Juniors (13)

Will Mahone, RB*
Chris Brown, WR
C.J. Prosise, WR*
Mark Harrell, OL*
Ronnie Stanley, RT*
Sheldon Day, DE
Jarron Jones, DL*
Romeo Okwara, OLB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Nicky Baratti, S*
Elijah Shumate, S
John Turner, S*
Scott Daly, LS*

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Stanley had an impressive first season in the starting lineup.

Thoughts: This group has already seen its share of attrition, with Gunner Kiel, Tee Shepard, Justin Ferguson and Davonte Neal all departing before making an impact. (Only Neal played, and that was sparingly as a freshman.)

Having a small group here might actually make things smoother down the road. Difficult decisions next offseason could be easier knowing that this class is shy on numbers. 

 

Sophomores (23)

Malik Zaire, QB*
Greg Bryant, RB*
Tarean Folston, RB
James Onwualu, WR
Corey Robinson, WR
Will Fuller, WR
Torii Hunter Jr., WR*
Mike Heuerman, TE*
Durham Smythe, TE*
Colin McGovern, OL*
Hunter Bivin, OL*
John Montelus, OL*
Steve Elmer, OL
Mike McGlinchey, OL*
Jacob Matuska, DE*
Isaac Rochell, DE
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Doug Randolph, OLB*
Michael Deeb, ILB*
Rashad Kinlaw, DB*
Devin Butler, CB
Cole Luke, CB
Max Redfield, S

Thoughts: Spring will be our first closer look at the dozen players that stayed off the field this season. At tight end, Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe will be thrown right into the mix—Niklas' departure is made even tougher with Welch's transfer to Miami. 

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Along the offensive line, we'll see if the other young linemen can join Steve Elmer in the mix. Kelly raved about Mike McGlinchey's future and believes Hunter Bivin is going to be a special player as well.

The front seven desperately needs bodies and Doug Randolph and Michael Deeb have a chance to make a move. And after starting his Notre Dame career at the back end of a five-deep position group, Malik Zaire will get a ton of work as one of just two scholarship quarterbacks on campus. 

 

Incoming Freshmen (Currently 22)

247Sports.com
Andrew Trumbetti is already enrolled at Notre Dame.

Justin Brent, WR (Enrolled)
Andrew Trumbetti, DE (Enrolled)
Alex Bars, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Johnathan Bonner, OLB
Jimmy Bryne, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Kolin Hill, LB
Corey Holmes, WR
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Greer Martini, LB
Nyles Morgan, ILB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, K/P
Nile Sykes, LB
Drue Tranquill, S/LB
Nick Watkins, CB
Nic Weishar, TE
Jhonathon Williams, OLB
Richard Yeargin III, OLB

Thoughts: The Irish coaching staff is looking to close strong, adding a few more bodies to this group, especially up front. They also want to add some skill, with the Irish staff still chasing California prospects Michiah Quick and John "JuJu" Smith. 

Kelly talked about taking up to 26 players in this group, which would push the projected scholarship number up to 85 if Joe Schmidt's one-year scholarship isn't renewed. That would put the Irish at a full roster heading into next year—something that hasn't happened in a very long time. 

 

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