Tracking fifth-year spots and the bumpy road to 85 scholarships

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With Notre Dame on break, the campus is quiet one week before spring practice gets started. But the work inside the Gug is still likely underway, with recruiting efforts for the 2016 cycle pushing forward and discussions about the 2015 roster taking center stage.

While Matt Hegarty’s transfer announcement was the first big move, there are other very difficult conversations likely happening in the near future. With the 24-man recruiting class set to hit campus this June—along with graduate transfer Avery Sebastian—we will get a closer look at how Brian Kelly plans on dealing with the very first roster crunch of his tenure in South Bend.

As we look at the fifth-year senior candidates, it’ll be very interesting how the Irish coaching staff—not to mention the players who will all likely have immediate transfer opportunities after earning their degrees in May—let this play out.

There’s a chance Notre Dame could have players practicing this spring that aren’t a part of the roster come summer and fall. And that’s before taking into consideration the very likely return of KeiVarae Russell and the intention of bringing back Ishaq Williams as well.

Here are the fifth-year candidates currently on the roster:

Josh Atkinson
Jalen Brown
Amir Carlisle
Ben Councell
Matthias Farley
Everett Golson
Jarrett Grace
Conor Hanratty (Kelly already announced)
Matt Hegarty (Hegarty announced intent to transfer)
Chase Hounshell
Nick Martin
Anthony Rabasa
Joe Schmidt
Ishaq Williams

 

Let’s make some assumptions:

We have seen the last of Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown. The veteran cornerback duo didn’t even travel to most away games last season and will be given every opportunity to catch on at a different program, but their time at Notre Dame is finished.

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, you can make the same assumption for Chase Hounshell. Multiple shoulder injuries took Hounshell’s career off course, and he’ll likely have to go to a smaller school to find a home.

Anthony Rabasa played a small role on last year’s defense, serving as a pass rusher in a defense in desperate need. If I were managing the roster, I’m not sure there’s room for him as a player, though what he does off the field and in the locker room (things we don’t know) could be the bigger determining factor.

On the flip side of these decisions, starters Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt are locks to return. The same for Matthias Farley and Everett Golson, with Golson holding the eject button if he feels the quarterback job won’t be his. (I don’t see this happening.)

Jarrett Grace needs to be healthy. We’ve heard Kelly nearly will him back to health with his frequent updates, but after a catastrophic injury that stayed far more under the radar than it should have, Grace seems to be back to playing shape this spring.

If he can play, he’ll be back. If not, it’ll make for a very difficult loss to the team, even if his shoes have been filled capably by Joe Schmidt on the field.

Because Amir Carlisle started the season opener in 2013 at tailback and had a successful first season as a slot receiver, he’s a good bet to return in my mind. Again, more opinion more than confirmed truth, but Carlisle is a high-character kid who can play a position of need on the roster, making him valuable.

Ben Councell might be a different story. Recovering from an ACL injury suffered in 2013 wasn’t easy . He’s also a tough fit in Brian VanGorder’s defense. We heard early last season that Councell would be a versatile piece of the Irish defense. That didn’t happen. So if he doesn’t feel like he’ll have a large role in the defense—or doesn’t feel like he can compete because of the injuries that have piled up—Councell might be on the bubble.

As Pete Sampson reported a few weeks ago, Williams needs to reapply to the university. From there, it’ll be very interesting how it all shakes out, as numbers seem to be tight. But Williams is a veteran body up front, something we saw a need for last season.

Fun With Numbers

Let’s look at how the Irish will get to 85 scholarships by the fall:

 

24 incoming recruits
22 second-year players
22 third-year juniors
11 seniors
graduate transfer (Avery Sebastian)
re-enrollment (KeiVarae Russell)
12 remaining fifth-year candidates
92 scholarship players

We’ve already basically subtracted four or five members from the fifth-year group if we’re to believe our assumptions. So that makes the seven subtractions look much more manageable than two or three scholarships.

And this is when we get used to the law of averages. Last year, Nile Sykes never made it to the season. From the 2013 recruiting class, we never saw Eddie Vanderdoes in South Bend and Rashad Kinlaw was dismissed as well.

Attrition hit the 2012 recruiting class even harder. Gone are Justin Ferguson, Gunner Kiel, Will Mahone, Davonte Neal and Tee Shepard.

So before we sound the alarm, there’s likely a very strong grasp on what is going on inside this program when the staff decided to expand their signing class to 24, and very good reason why Kelly sounded bullish on accepting a few graduate transfers as well.

Notre Dame doesn’t officially recognize redshirts. One of the benefits of forcing students to earn a degree in four years before being accepted into the graduate program is that it allows both the coaching staff and student-athlete to have full flexibility.

So while it certainly makes for some uncertainty as we try our best to track the roster, after five years of program building, we’re finally experiencing the first champagne roster problem of the past decade.

Friday at 4: A holiday with reason to be remembered

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This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and it has its mainstays. Some weekends will hinge around the parade up Main Street. At some point, everyone comes across a hot dog or hamburger during the long weekend. A beer or pop inevitably accompanies that grilled good.

Gathering college friends may even add a whiffle ball and bat to the grocery list.

Between innings, during one of those many social breaks, take a moment to remind yourself why Monday is a federal holiday, why it is a long weekend.

It isn’t just because the weather has finally turned as desired and now white pants are socially acceptable.

It is — as we all know but do not always take the time to recognize — because it is Memorial Day, a chance to remember all those people who died while serving the United States’ armed forces.

That obviously includes some former Irish football players, but they are merely a representation of the larger item.

Rather than continue on for who-knows-how-long with this point, let’s take this opportunity to deliver some Notre Dame-related tidbits. As it pertains to Memorial Day as a whole, either you already grasp the importance of taking a pause and understanding the significance of so many lost in service, or you don’t. This space is not going to be the piece that changes the latter’s view.

Looking through some of the internet’s depths, it appears at least 19 former Irish football players are among those who should be remembered Monday, including 17 from World War II, most notably 1942 captain George Murphy. In 2004, ESPN published a worthwhile story on a football game Murphy helped organize among Marines in the southwest Pacific.

Those 19 are among the approximate 500 alumni who died in World War II, the Korea War and the Vietnam War. The Clarke Memorial Fountain — more commonly known as “Stonehenge,” directly west of the campus library, more commonly known as “Touchdown Jesus” — commemorates alums lost in each of those three wars, as well as those alums lost in times of peace.

Of course, it should be noted many other World War II veterans — and simply by logic, many other World War II casualties — passed through Notre Dame. The naval training established on campus is the impetus to the Navy football series continuing to this day. In addition to the usual students, about 12,000 officers trained at Notre Dame in those days.

Campus features two other prominent acknowledgements of this country’s conflicts. The statue of Rev. Corby in front of Corby Hall depicts him delivering a blessing and absolution to troops during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a copy of a statue standing where Corby stood back in 1863.

Perhaps most famously, an entrance to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart bears the etching of “God, Country, Notre Dame.” Partly since he titled his autobiography with those four words, many tie them to Rev. Ted Hesburgh. “God, Country, Notre Dame,” in fact, predates Hesburgh’s arrival to campus. The Basilica’s eastern entrance was constructed in 1924 as a World War I memorial. During World War II, 20 years later, the accompanying statues of St. Joan of Arc and St. Michael the Archangel were added above the well-known phrase.

Lastly, it has become something of a Notre Dame tradition to bemoan the selection for commencement speaker each spring. Forgotten amid the misguided vitriol and inaccurate historical claims is a recognition of one of the first University commencement speakers. Nowadays, he, too, would certainly draw some magnitude of controversy.

During the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman — yes, he of Sherman’s March — moved his family to South Bend. His children attended Notre Dame, and Sherman delivered the 1865 commencement address. That ceremony took place June 21, in short order after Sherman accepted the surrender of Confederate armies in the Deep South in April of 1865.

Sherman urged the graduates to “perform bravely the battle of life.”

Perhaps that is the message to remember this weekend. Perform bravely the battle of life. At least 19 Irish football players did, as well as more than 500 Notre Dame alums, and so many more, of which each of us assuredly knows of one personally.


It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who as given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Solier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Charles Michael Province, U.S. Army

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 86 Alize Mack, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 245 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: The artist formerly known as Alizé Jones, now Alizé Mack, co-headlines a talented tight end corps along with fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. Due to Smythe’s edge in experience—and therefore further coaching trust in his reliability and blocking acumen—he may start the season ahead of Mack, but Mack will have plenty of opportunities to change that in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s two tight end-dependent system.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Mack originally committed to UCLA before opting for Notre Dame.

CAREER TO DATE
Mack saw action in all 13 games of his freshman season, making enough impressions to set future expectations high. His most notable statistic from that season may be his average of 14.6 yards per catch.

Mack spent last season on the sidelines, though he was allowed to participate in practice, due to academic issues.

2015: 13 catches for 190 yards

QUOTE(S)
Mack’s return and subsequent progress was an oft-discussed topic this spring. His freshman season showed glimpses of his athleticism and playmaking ability. Irish coach Brian Kelly made it a point to acknowledge Mack’s development as a blocker since he was last seen in a competitive environment.

“You can’t cover him, he just has that kind of talent,” Kelly said in March. “The one thing that stands out to me in the few days [of spring] is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Long echoed those sentiments the day before the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s a perfect fit, that’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State,” Long said. “He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.”

If Mack earns that trust as a blocker, then Kelly and Long can play him in any situation, only furthering the mismatches presented.

“I don’t know how you’re going to defend him,” Kelly said the week of the spring finale. “There’s not a safety or a linebacker—if you start spreading him out, maybe a corner can get a hand in there and deflect the ball, and maybe he doesn’t run the route quite the way a receiver would—but he’s going to be very difficult to defend.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Jones could turn into Notre Dame’s No. 2 receiver in 2016 if he takes this opportunity and runs with it. That could mean a huge uptick in numbers, with 40 to 50 catches not out of the realm of possibility.

“While size and match-up issues haven’t necessarily turned Irish receivers into targets, Jones could also pick up some of the slack in the red zone, knowing that the Irish offense desperately needs to improve their efficiency in the scoring zones, especially without quick-strike scorers like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise. Matching Chris Brown’s four touchdown catches seems like a logical next step for Jones.

“In many ways, Jones is one of several unknown quantities that’ll help determine whether or not the Irish are a playoff contender or just a team with some nice young talent. While much of his productivity will likely be determined by the team’s offensive identity and philosophy, he’s another key piece to an offensive puzzle that doesn’t have a lot of experience but has plenty going for it.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Obviously Keith’s projections for Mack were skewed both by the ineligibility and by the name change. That does not mean they would have been wrong.

Notre Dame’s second-leading receiver last season, Torii Hunter, Jr., caught 38 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns in only nine games. It does not take much of an imagination to see Mack producing at a similar pace—though in a very different role than the 6-foot, 195-pound Hunter—over a full season, perhaps something along the lines of 55 catches for 750 yards and four scores.

That would rival, but not exceed, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s output from a year ago (58 catches, 961 yards, nine touchdowns). St. Brown’s dynamism from all positions on the field makes it unlikely Mack outpaces him for top receiver honors, but the two can aid each other by forcing secondaries to split their focus.

More than St. Brown receiving an appropriately high number of targets, the biggest hurdle between Mack and impressive statistics will indeed be his blocking and overall attitude. The Irish have other options at tight end (see below: No.  89, Brock Wright) to contribute to Long’s preference for two tight ends. If Mack does not earn the playing time in all aspects of the game, he will not receive it.

DOWN THE ROAD
The excitement around Mack this spring may have exceeded realistic expectations. In that regard, Mack is set up for perceived failure in 2017. If he matched the above theoretical stat line, some would lament the fact that he scored only four times.

Taking a longer view of his potential, a stat line like that would make Mack seriously consider the NFL after this season, if only because of that buzzword of potential. Some team might draft him on the second day simply to have the opportunity to find out what he becomes. It is more likely Mack comes back for another year, with Smythe gone, but, frankly, it seems unlikely to think he will use the final season of eligibility lost to academics last year.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 87 (theoretically) Jafar Armstrong, receiver

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot, 170 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman with four years of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Armstrong joins a crowded receiver corps headlined by juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin and sophomore Chase Claypool. If the Irish are shallow at any of the three positions, it is behind Boykin and sophomore Javon McKinley at the W-receiver position, otherwise known as the boundary receiver. Armstrong could fill in those ranks, or his speed could be utilized at the X position, the field receiver, a la last year’s usage of now-sophomore Kevin Stepherson. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, it is likely Armstrong is asked to learn both positions.
Recruiting: A rivals.com three-star recruit, Armstrong was committed to his home-state Missouri before a visit to Notre Dame the weekend before National Signing Day. Shortly after leaving South Bend, the No. 3 recruit in Missouri de-committed and did not hold the suspense long, announcing his Irish intentions the same night.

QUOTE(S)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly specifically mentioned Armstrong’s speed in connection with the X-position on National Signing Day.

“We played a lot of young players on the offensive side of the ball, in particular at the wide receiver position [in 2016],” Kelly said. “Jafar Armstrong out of Bishop Miege High School is somebody that now adds some size and speed to that position that makes it very intriguing for us. We think Jafar is somebody that could possibly be that X-receiver that gives you that deep threat, a guy that can really push the field vertically for us. He was a nice addition to this class.”

Kelly also clarified why Armstrong was such a late addition to the class. Without mentioning former Irish commit Jordan Pouncey by name, Kelly indicated the effect Pouncey’s de-committment in Deceomber had on the recruiting process.

“When we were looking at the receiver position, [Armstrong] was on our radar from day one,” Kelly said. “We just weren’t going to take [three receivers]. When we had somebody de-commit, he was the first guy we went after. We could have gone either way on that. Jafar was somebody that we wanted from the very beginning. We just from a numbers game weren’t going to be able to take [three]. That was an easy one for us to get back into.”

The consensus three-star Pouncey eventually signed with Texas.

WHAT WE SAID WHEN ARMSTRONG’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Armstrong flipped to Notre Dame over the weekend, ending a commitment to Missouri. His large frame and strong hands should provide new receivers coach Del Alexander a solid foundation with which to work.”

2017 OUTLOOK
This fall, Alexander will have 10 receivers at his disposal (11 if counting sophomore receiver-turned-running back Deon McIntosh), not to mention the couple of tight ends (namely, junior Alizé Mack and early-enrolled freshman Brock Wright) who could line up in the receiver position in specific situations. It is hard to envision all of those players seeing worthwhile snaps in the Irish offense.

With that in mind, a season preserving eligibility appears to be Armstrong’s most likely path. He and fellow incoming freshman Michael Young are obviously the most inexperienced of the grouping.

For that matter, few—if any—of the 10 receiver options come across as placeholders. Each one brings a tangible skillset to the field. Thus, there are no candidates prime for Armstrong to move ahead of in his first few months on campus.

Unless it is decided Armstrong is needed on special teams—a distinct possibility given how special teams coordinator Brian Polian lamented his lack of options this spring—a season learning the offense is his most likely outcome for 2017.

DOWN THE ROAD
Armstrong’s speed makes for tantalizing long-term projections. St. Brown may head to the NFL after this season, but even if he doesn’t, 2018 will be his last at Notre Dame (barring unfortunate injury). Kelly’s first instinct was to project Armstrong for that, the X, position.

It is not outlandish to expect Armstrong to present a playmaking target on the wide side of the field for the latter half of his career. Even if rarely leading to a connection, the mere threat of a receiver blazing past a secondary forces a defense to adjust its coverage. Armstrong could present such a concern, much as former Irish receiver Chris Brown did throughout his career. Brown affected games much more than his career statistics may indicate (104 catches for 1,410 yards and six touchdowns in 51 career games with 31 starts).

That is not to say Armstrong will not put up numbers in coming years. It is just to say those will not be the only metrics of his success or failure.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Armstrong, hence slotting him at No.87.

Jafar Armstrong very well may not wear No. 87, but it is possible, and, frankly, it should be close.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 220 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: McKinley spent this spring behind junior Miles Boykin at the W-receiver position, also known as the boundary receiver. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, though, receivers must learn multiple positions, so it may be more accurate to say McKinley is among a second-tier of options including the likes of juniors Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders, all behind a current starting group of Boykin, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American

CAREER TO DATE
McKinley appeared in seven games last season but recorded no other statistics. A late-October broken leg cut his freshman campaign short and also kept him somewhat limited in spring practice. (Notre Dame’s official 2016 statistics list McKinley as having appeared in seven games, including the season finale against USC. Without finding footage of that game and watching every snap, it is quite possible that is a mistake and McKinley appeared in only six games. Frankly, there is no difference between six games and seven in this instance.)

QUOTE(S)
Whenever Irish coach Brian Kelly spoke of McKinley this spring, it was in reference to an injury, be that of his own and his recovery or of another receiver’s aggravation providing McKinley more chances to impress.

“He’s such a big kid, I think the red jersey should go on the guy that’s going against him,” Kelly said toward the end of spring in reference to McKinley’s non-contact designation. “He always gets the other guy hurt.

“He’s a good player. He just needs to get out there. He’s gotten behind a little bit, but he’s going to help us in the fall. He’s a good player.”

Earlier in spring practice, a hamstring issue limited St. Brown for a day or two. In his absence, McKinley indeed got out there and caught up a bit.

“It was a great opportunity for Javon in there,” Kelly said. “We think we can get him some more work as we progress.”

McKinley capitalizing on St. Brown’s absence shows the fluid nature of the receiver positions in Long’s offense. (For further explanation, see this discussion of the Irish receiver depth from early April.)

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I think McKinley’s too good to keep off the field. But I also think his freshman ceiling will be in line with the better of Brian Kelly’s young receivers, so I’m still going to put a cap on his season totals around 15-20 catches.

“If McKinley were the early enrollee, I think all of us would’ve been buzzing about him instead of Stepherson. And those 15 practices might be enough to give Stepherson the nod over McKinley, though the latter is far more game-ready from a physicality standpoint.

“Regardless, Notre Dame’s young receivers—Stepherson, McKinley and Chase Claypool—might be the most exciting incoming class at a position that I’ve seen in my time covering the Irish, so while it’s too early to say it, McKinley could be the best of the bunch.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Even without the leg injury, McKinley was going to fall far short of Keith’s optimistic projections. That is partly due to the Irish depth at receiver, including some breakout performances in 2016, and that is partly due to Keith pondering McKinley-to-Michael Floyd comparisons, at which point the scribe native to Minneapolis may have gotten distracted by Floyd’s unique skillset.

This season, that depth chart is still not going to do McKinley any favors. St. Brown, Claypool and Stepherson all showed magnificent flashes last season, and Boykin was the primary praised receiver throughout the spring.

Nonetheless, Keith’s optimism was based off McKinley’s sheer size, and it cannot be denied. It fits right alongside the likes of the presumptive starting trio, meaning McKinley should be able to fill in for either the boundary or the field receiver whenever needed. Do not look only for McKinley to match Keith’s year-ago projection of 15-20 catches, but also look for some of those to come in pivotal situations, providing first downs or breaking open stagnant drives.

DOWN THE ROAD
Projecting McKinley’s future is much like projecting his 2017, as no Irish receiver will be out of eligibility following the season, and only St. Brown looks the part of a possible NFL Draft entry following his junior year. Emphasis on possible.

That said, if McKinley can gain the coaches’ and Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s trust, the provided depth at the receiver position may be the easiest spot on the field to capitalize on it, theoretically to McKinley’s benefit.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end