Brian Kelly dreams about an overloaded roster next year, but he knows Notre Dame will not be so lucky. When the NCAA granted a universal eligibility mulligan for the 2020 season, removing the tumultuous and possibly truncated schedule from every player’s ticking clock, it created the alluring thought of Ian Book as a four-year starting quarterback behind an Irish line returning intact for a third season. If Kelly was being hyperbolic in describing that as a dream, he could be forgiven for at least daydreaming about that ideal in 2021.
“I had a dream the other night that all of the guys used the COVID eligibility and decided to all come back,” he said last month. “Of course, that was a dream. I don’t think it’s reality.”
Book, senior right tackle Robert Hainsey and fifth-year left tackle Liam Eichenberg, as a few examples, did not have any version of an NFL-or-stay dilemma entering the year. They simply expected 2020 to conclude their eligibility.
Joining them in renewed uncertainty, senior offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons’s 2021 would have been determined by Notre Dame’s scholarship count as much as anything else, injuries having cost him multiple opportunities throughout his career thus far. In that instance, the NCAA also did away with the scholarship limit of 85 for 2021, as well. (Teams can still add only 25 players to their roster in a given year, so that will put a mild limit on any rampant transfers.)
The scholarship limit will return in 2022, so the unexpected fifth- and sixth-year questions will linger into next offseason and further, but gauging these pressing possibilities is already an uncomfortably-speculative exercise.
The names that fans most want to stay are also those almost certainly in the twilight of their Irish careers. Book and fifth-year defensive ends Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes have already accepted invites to the Senior Bowl, essentially declaring their NFL intentions. Considering Book pondered heading to the NFL last offseason, putting off that personal test any longer would serve little purpose. Ogundeji’s and Hayes’ sacks to beat Clemson in double overtime will serve as appropriate codas to their careers.
— Ian Book (@Ian_Book12) November 19, 2020
Similarly, Eichenberg and senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah have no genuine decision to make. The latter is a surefire first-round draft pick, and the former may end up one by the time April arrives.
Fifth-year receivers Ben Skowronek and Javon McKinley could each conceivably return, but both are familiar with the fickle nature of injuries in this sport, are playing well now and would have an unproven quarterback throwing to them in 2021. Expect neither to stick around. Particularly as it relates to injury history and playing well at the moment, sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford will presumably head to the NFL as long as he has his health, not something for him to take for granted.
Senior running back/receiver Jafar Armstrong and senior tight end Brock Wright are already seeing their playing time dwindle as young talent shines. If anything, each is likely to use their added eligibility elsewhere as a transfer. (Armstrong will have two seasons remaining.)
Senior kicker Jonathan Doerer has said he is “most likely” returning for an extra year, and one should presume the same of senior receiver Avery Davis. He would have another season of eligibility, anyway, and may or may not have been in the Irish scholarship plans under normal circumstances. Now, without a 2021 limit, Davis should be assured another fall if he so wishes. Through a handful of position changes and years spent idling, Davis never blinked, only wanting to help his team.
“To play for Notre Dame, it’s a dream,” he said after the 2018 Blue-Gold Game cemented his first position change, away from quarterback. “… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”
If given the chance by the University, Davis would likely help the Irish again in 2021.
Senior linebacker Drew White joins those two, though without the certainty of Doerer’s proclamation or the obvious locker-room credos earned by Davis. White likely would have returned for a fifth season under normal circumstances. Senior offensive lineman Josh Lugg also would have been returning no matter what. Next year will finally be his chance to start, one of the pieces that led Kelly to say, “We’ll still put together a very strong offensive line in 2021.”
The rest of the bits that give Kelly that confidence were underclassmen, but there is a chance the Irish enjoy more stability than turning to current sophomore Andrew Kristofic. Neither Hainsey nor left guard Aaron Banks would offer much insight to their possibilities.
“It’s an interesting situation for everyone,” Hainsey said. “That’s a bridge we’ll cross when we get to it.”
The idea of Hainsey coming back as a five-year starting tackle is genuinely unprecedented, but the possibility Banks comes back to kick out to left tackle from left guard would be equally as tantalizing. It could also represent a personal investment into his future, bumping up his NFL stock, and thus may be something Banks would strongly consider.
A similar suggestion could be offered to current fifth-year Tommy Kraemer, turning his 2021 venture into a guessing game. One way or another, with these three veteran linemen in play, Notre Dame should have at least one veteran tackle next season.
The same may or may not be true at defensive tackle. Both Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa have put enough on tape to warrant an NFL draft evaluation, and that subsequent grade will determine their respective decisions this winter.
North Carolina State graduate transfer cornerback Nick McCloud may also wait on a draft grade, but it could need to be a bit more demanding to convince him to turn what was expected to be a six-month stay in Indiana into an 18-month residency.
All in all, the reasonable and possible returns that would not have been possible in any other circumstance: Doerer, Hainsey, Kraemer, Hinish and McCloud, but four of those are very much up in the air and will be past Christmas.
GOOD AS GONE: Book, Ogundeji, Hayes, Owusu-Koramoah, Eichenberg.
REASON TO GO: Skowronek, McKinley, Crawford.
OFFENSIVE LINE POSSIBILITIES: Hainsey, Kraemer, Banks.
PERHAPS A TRANSFER: Armstrong, Wright.
50/50: Hinish, Tagovailoa-Amosa, McCloud.
LIKELY TO STAY: Lugg, Doerer, Davis, White, Gibbons.