The road to 85

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It’s a dead sprint for Brian Kelly and his staff. Two years of hard work identifying, evaluating and developing relationships with recruits hits the home stretch, with the Notre Dame staff doing its best to finalize a recruiting class that’s expected to be one of the best in the nation.

Finishing off that class is the first key part of roster management for the 2013 season. With 22 commitments in the ’13 class, including five student-athletes already enrolled, any additional recruits joining the 2013 class will likely determine how many fifth-year players the Irish welcome back for next season.

Some early answers will likely come this weekend, when the Irish host one of their biggest late season recruiting weekends of recent memory. Difference makers like defensive end Kyle Fitts, linebacker Deon Hollins, wide receiver Sebastian LaRue, tight end Durham Smythe, and five-star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes will all be on campus. So will five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith, who reportedly is coming to down to help with the sales pitch. Add in an impending visit from linebacker Torrodney Prevot the weekend before Signing Day, and how the Irish fill their 25 man allotment will be incredibly interesting.

Reading the tea leaves, we can start to get a handle on the fifth-year candidates that might return. Let’s roll through the roster and look at all the options:

Cierre Wood, RB — Declared for NFL Draft.
Tyler Eifert, TE — Declared for NFL Draft.
Jake Golic, TE — Not expected to return.
Chris Watt, LG — Expected to return.
Zack Martin, LT — Announced return for fifth year.
Tyler Stockton, DT — Not expected to return.
Dan Fox, LB — Expected to return.
Carlo Calabrese, LB — Expected to return.
Nick Tausch, K — Not expected to return.
Jamoris Slaughter, S — Appealing NCAA for a sixth year.

It’s worth noting that last year, surprising defections like Ronald Darby and Deontay Greenberry likely effected the decision making on the fifth year candidates, with a guy like Dan McCarthy the recipient of a bonus season of football because of it, and Chris Salvi earning a scholarship as well. The official announcement for fifth years came in late March, when the Irish were set to kickoff spring practice.

While some wonder if the Irish can afford to bring back five players — with Slaughter’s appeal seeming less than likely after news that his original request was denied — any decision will be made after the faxes are in on Signing Day. There are log jams at positions (quarterback, safety) that might create a transfer situation. There are lingering health concerns (Tate Nichols, Matt Hegarty) that contributed to some roster uncertainty as well.

It’s all part of the high wire act elite programs walk as they maximize their 85 scholarships, something Notre Dame is finally in a position to do after replenishing a roster that had holes and deficiencies dating back to the Willingham era. The Irish will never be a program that oversigns, a strategy that’s led to dominance by the SEC over the past few years. But Notre Dame has until fall camp to get down to the number, so it’ll be worth watching as the roster numbers take shape.