With roster still in flux, Kelly plans on being at 85 by Texas

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For the first time in over a decade, Notre Dame has a roster crunch.

As Notre Dame’s fifth-year candidates submit their applications to the university, Brian Kelly plans on moving forward and using every minute he has to figure out his roster.

“You have to be at 85 when you kick off,” Kelly said of his maximum-capacity roster. “We’ll be at 85 when we kick off.”

That’s a far cry from the team’s of recent memory, when coaching transitions, recruiting washouts and roster holes left many Notre Dame football teams involuntarily working with far less than a full allotment of 85 scholarship players. (By rough count, Notre Dame’s 2007 squad—where Tyrone Willingham’s recruiting woes had officially caught up to Charlie Weis—had just 74 scholarship players.)

But after seasons of coming close, it appears that the Irish will have a full 85-man roster come the Texas game. And how they get there remains to be seen.

Kelly confirmed that all seven fifth-year players—Nick Martin, Joe Schmidt, Amir Carlisle, Chase Hounshell, Jarrett Grace, Everett Golson and Matthias Farley—have submitted their paperwork to return. Who ends up back with the Irish in 2015? We’re not quite there yet.

“They’ve all turned them in. They were due last Friday and they were all turned in. We should have an answer on whether they’ve been granted a fifth year,” Kelly said.

There are givens: Martin, Schmidt, Farley and Carlisle all are in the staff’s plans for 2015. It appears that Grace is as well, a miraculous return from injury all but complete. Add to that graduate transfer Avery Sebastian, the Cal safety has signed a letter-of-intent and will play out his eligibility at Notre Dame.

Golson, the team’s most important fifth-year player, looks to be returning as well, though Kelly acknowledged that he isn’t 100 percent certain what the quarterback will be doing until he’s enrolled in summer school. Even Hounshell, working as a reserve tight end after spending four seasons as a defensive lineman, is doing his best to earn a spot as a blocker.

As Kelly discussed the situation, it didn’t sound like a man facing difficult decisions. And after poking around with some contacts in the program, it’s certainly on the radar, though hardly the concern that it is amongst the hard-core fanbase.

That’s because Notre Dame’s head coach is well in control of his roster. And he has been doing his job long enough to understand that every year, unplanned attrition hits.

Tim O’Malley of Irish Illustrated did the digging, but in every season since 1980, the Irish have had a football player transfer out of the program. (A media guide change made any additional searching too difficult to continue.) So while we’re not sure who it could be, 35-plus years of data points to Kelly and the Irish being just fine.

Speculating on transfers isn’t easy. Nor is it habit to put into print baseless speculation. But potential transfers could include younger players buried on the depth chart. Or veterans in a similar situation. It’s not hard to see who those players are, and it’s likely they’re the ones doing their due diligence this spring, ready to make a move when classes end.

We already know that KeiVarae Russell is set to return this June. Ishaq Williams‘ return isn’t as clear, though Kelly said he’ll have a conversation with Williams after spring practice ends as he looks for clarity inside the program and Williams needs to be readmitted to the university. In all likelihood, Williams is on the bubble.

One thing may be changing inside Notre Dame’s program. After keeping certain malcontents on the roster and allowing them to stay through graduation, there’s reason to suspect that the tightened numbers have Kelly and his staff reconsidering that policy.

While we’ve seen the ugly side of oversigning—just look at what’s going on at Ohio State as Urban Meyer tries to shed scholarships before next season and what’s gone on in the SEC the past decade. But as Kelly gets his roster capable of competing with the elite in college football, he takes an NFL approach to the process.

“It’s a salary cap. You’ve got to get to your salary cap,” Kelly said. “We’ll get to 85.”