It is simple: Between now and kickoff against Michigan on Sept. 1, Notre Dame’s roster will lose at least four players. The Irish coaches knew they were creating that situation when they signed six recruits on Wednesday’s National Signing Day, bringing the expected roster’s total to 89, four more than the NCAA maximum allowed in the season.
“We’re comfortable where we are,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that we’d go into this blindly without a plan, and so we feel pretty comfortable about where we are at this point.”
Logic says the Irish should feel pretty comfortable. The average summer includes a couple transfers (ex.: offensive linemen Parker Boudreaux and Tristen Hoge in 2017), a medical hardship (such as tight end Tyler Luatua) and, far more often than not, at least one dismissal from the team due to an academic or legal infraction. None of those situations would be influenced by roster size or coaching pressure. They are simply the realities of dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds.
If there is reason to think that attrition rate will slow this summer, it is only because it sped up this winter. Notre Dame has already logged a few transfers in receiver C.J. Sanders and defensive tackle Elijah Taylor, and Kelly promptly dismissed four players due to transgressions. While that transfer rate may still be within the norm, removing four bad apples from the mix now would, theoretically, indicate there are fewer to worry about moving forward.
To speculate about exactly whom the four (or more) to go may be is an exercise in futility. The peanut gallery does not know players’ academic standings, internal disciplines or personal thoughts. If, however, considering which players may want to look elsewhere for playing time considering the current Irish depth chart, Notre Dame would appear to have more bodies than available snaps at both linebacker and safety.
That competition will sort itself out during the spring and perhaps give a few players pause about their football futures with the Irish, and that is somewhat by design.
“Returning an experienced roster, wanting to solidify depth, [we wanted to] secure players that were going to be able to come in and compete and push that middle part of your roster forward,” defensive coordinator Clark Lea said Wednesday in discussing the needs met by a defensive class of 14 early-enrolled or incoming freshmen.
“The only promise we make is the chance to compete, because we know at the end of the day, each player needs to be driven.”
Pushing that middle part of the roster was the impetus behind creating the roster crunch and expanding the recruiting class in hopes of finding a few more impact players. Kelly spoke of improving from “that 65th scholarship to the 85th scholarship.” Doing so should help prop up a tired team in the latter third of the season.
“This will strengthen our football team at that area, which sometimes goes unnoticed in the length of your season,” Kelly said. “We have to play better football in November, and that’s my job.”
To be sure, Notre Dame does need to hold up better in November. Over the last four seasons, the Irish are 23-8 in the season’s first two months, but only 7-10 in November. The injury-riddled season of 2014 and its 1-4 finish in November may skew that figure, but even a 6-6 rate pales in comparison to going 17-7 in the first two months the last three years.
Kelly’s “65 to 85” is more a catchphrase than necessarily an accurate expectation. A total of 80 players saw time in 2017, but if removing the 13 who appeared at the end of a blowout or two, 67 makes more sense. (The most notable member of those 13 is then-sophomore safety D.J. Morgan’s two appearances in September.)
In 2016, 70 players saw time, but only 64 saw legitimate time, even including then-sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford’s two games before an injury ended his season.
In 2015, 74 players took the field, but 64 is again the more accurate number, and that includes the likes of running back Tarean Folston, quarterback Malik Zaire and safety Drue Tranquill, all of whom played in fewer than three games due to season-ending injuries.
Admittedly, a more talented roster would likely see more players see competitive snaps, but by no means would that approach “65 to 85.”
For example, with 13 offensive linemen rostered, the hope would be to play no more than seven and if injury absolutely demands it, then eight. Those remaining five or six would not be asked to contribute on special teams, either, unlike the reserves at linebacker, safety and receiver. Two more names likely join such a list at quarterback, although which two that will be is a question for another day. Undoubtedly, some of the freshmen will preserve a year of eligibility outright. It may be a nit to pick, but “65 to 75” would be more accurate and, frankly, the concern is likely “55 to 70.”
Improving those 15 players will coincide with a stronger finish to 2018. As Notre Dame’s roster shrinks over the next six months, a want to improve the talent of the middle of the Irish roster will be forcing such attrition.
2017: 7-1 in September and October; 2-2 in November.
2016: 3-5 in September and October; 1-3 in November.
2015: 7-1 in Sept. and Oct.; 3-1 in Nov.
2014: 6-1 in Sept. and Oct.; 1-4 in Nov.
2013: 6-2 in Sept. and Oct.; 2-2 in Nov.
2012: 8-0 in Sept. and Oct.; 4-0 in Nov.
2011: 5-3 in Sept. and Oct.; 3-1 in Nov.
2010: 4-5 in Sept. and Oct.; 3-0 in Nov.
Brian Kelly at Notre Dame: 46-18 in Sept. and Oct., a .719 winning percentage, and 19-13 in Nov., a .594 winning percentage.