It looks like the 2014 roster is coming into focus. While Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are on the road trying to add some final pieces to the recruiting class, four seniors are likely to return for a fifth season. Multiple outlets are reporting that Austin Collinsworth, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo will return for a fifth season. Credit Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated for breaking the news on Utupo, seemingly the last decision made by Kelly and his defensive staff.
That these four return isn’t much of a surprise. Collinsworth spent a considerable amount of time in the starting lineup at safety, playing his best football down the stretch. Lombard is a multi-year starter whose season was cut short after surgery.
Depth chart issues are likely the impetus for bringing back Moore and Utupo. With questions marks at inside linebacker, Moore will be given a shot to compete for playing time. A productive special teams contributor, Moore has been stuck behind Manti Te’o, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox for his time in South Bend. Always considered a heavy hitter and good in run support, Moore’s getting a fresh start with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. It’s not inconceivable that the change could turn on a lightbulb on for Moore, and he becomes a player late in his career like Corey Mays did in his fifth year nearly a decade ago.
Utupo could also benefit from VanGorder’s arrival and a change of scheme. While Kelly still wants to play multiple fronts, Utupo just isn’t big enough to be a traditional two-gap nose guard in the Irish’s three-down fronts. But at just a shade over six-foot and weighing 290 pounds, Utupo could be the type of gap-shooting defensive tackle that is productive, showing hints of that when he got his chances after injuries ravaged the defensive front.
The road to an 85-man scholarship roster remains a fascination for Irish fans watching the management of a roster with sharp eyes. That means it’s likely the end of the road for a handful of seniors that have eligibility remaining. Veteran receiver Luke Massa has never been the same after a major knee injury. Bruce Heggie, long a fascination for Irish fans after his out-of-the-blue recruitment and commitment, provided depth on both sides of the line. Meanwhile, Alex Welch and Lo Wood will play for Chuck Martin in Miami, where they’ll join Andrew Hendrix.
There is no official decision date for fifth year announcements. Student-athletes need to gain admission into a graduate program and need to have earned their degree or be on pace to earn it in May. Who comes back is also likely a product of the final number of recruits incoming, as well.
In the past, Kelly has talked about sitting down with seniors and discussing what he sees their role to be in the program going forward. From there, the decision is made together. Not all returning players need to play key roles on the field. Veterans like Tyler Stockton made their impact in the locker room, providing leadership and a work ethic for younger players.