You can hardly blame some Irish fans. Yesterday’s news that Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson were leaving school was the first sign of the apocalypse. After all, things seemed to be going almost too well for Notre Dame football, a group that at this point should expect a maelstrom every 60 days or so.
Most could understand Gunner Kiel’s departure. A promising quarterback recruit isn’t expected to wait his turn, especially with the program so securely in Everett Golson’s hands after an impressive debut season. Neal’s departure has a sense of nobility, a young father heading home to be closer to his girlfriend and six-week old child. Yet Ferguson’s decision to leave came out of the blue. There was a place for him on the depth chart, or so it seemed to those of us that watch the program from afar.
The totality of the moves, especially when you consider Tee Shepard’s pit-stop in South Bend last spring, puts a real dent in the 2012 recruiting class. Kiel, Shepard and Neal were three blue-chips at the top of the class, with Ferguson also rating well depending on the recruiting service. A 17 man class is now down to 13, a Willingham-like number that some worry could put a crater in the Irish’s momentum.
You’ll have to forgive Brian Kelly for not sweating it.
“The roster is gonna shift and move. We’re going to have additions, we’re going to have some deletions,” Kelly said on Wednesday. “But when it’s time to kick off against Temple, we’ll have the football team that we need to go out and play for a championship.”
Those final words should tell you everything you need to know. Kelly and his staff believe that they’ve got a roster that can play for a championship, and the loss of three back-up sophomores isn’t likely to change anything.
Roster shifts like this happen in every major college football program. And they’ll continue to happen at Notre Dame, where the competition for playing time is only going to get more fierce. With 83 scholarship players set for the 2013 roster, the Irish are still in better shape than just about every major program that’s not in the SEC, where stashing contingency bodies is still somehow acceptable.
Losing talented players certainly hurts. But Ferguson’s appraisal of the roster — specifically the depth chart in front of him — is something that only reiterates the perspective that there’s nothing to worry about. This is a roster with talented personnel. This is a group of players that’s won a lot of football games. (The Irish are 20-4 in their last two dozen games. That number is only bettered by two programs: Alabama and Oregon.)
The adjustments Kelly and his staff make to fill any roster deficiencies will be well chronicled. We’ve already seen one of them, with CJ Prosise moving to wide receiver, a decision made well before either Neal or Ferguson alerted the staff to their intentions. And while Chase Hounshell’s shoulder injury puts some more pressure on the defensive line, the Irish will fill his shoes by cross-training Ishaq Williams, a five-star prospect who is more than capable of sliding down.
The optimist looks at the three spring departures as another chance to reload. The weakest recruiting class in Kelly’s tenure trades three scholarships with a group that’ll likely be Kelly’s strongest. Any coach will take three extra bodies in a class coming off a twelve-win season.
A star-rating only matters until a recruit steps foot on campus. Any fear that the ’12 recruiting class will put a hole in the roster should be mitigated by the fact that the group has already unearthed its share of top-level players, with KeiVarae Russell, Sheldon Day, Elijah Shumate and Chris Brown leading the way. So as yesterday’s news scrolls along the ticker and raises more than a few skeptical eyebrows around the world of college football, the beat goes on in South Bend.
“Our guys are going to go out and compete,” Kelly said. “They know. They’re prepared for the next man in. They didn’t blink, nor did I, or the staff.”