Notre Dame football recruiting: Crunching the 2014 scholarship numbers

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

With the calendar turning to November, the final stretch of the 2014 recruiting cycle is starting to come into focus. The current season has shown the evolution of Notre Dame’s roster and provided a clearer picture of decisions needed to be made in the offseason.

Currently, the Irish have 16 verbally committed recruits in their 2014 class. But how many more scholarships will they likely make available? Some careful number crunching provides a rough outline for how the 2014 roster will be constructed.

Notre Dame’s 2013 roster includes 81 scholarship players, four short of the NCAA allowed maximum of 85. Thirteen of those players will exhaust their eligibility at season’s end. That leaves the Irish with 17 scholarships immediately opening for next season. The number shrinks down to 16 when anticipating the return of suspended quarterback Everett Golson.

More scholarships will also be available after the Irish evaluate candidates eligible for a fifth year at Notre Dame. Ten seniors on Notre Dame’s 2013 roster fit that category. In addition, junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt’s return for next season remains in question with his potential to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Of those 11 players, the Irish seem most likely to retain four, leaving an additional seven scholarships available for 2014. That leaves an estimated 23 spots open for 2014 recruits with wiggle room to increase that number with transfers and medical hardships that have become part of most offseasons.

With that number in mind, here are the decisions facing Notre Dame and its players that will directly impact the scholarship availability for next season, listed from most likely to return to least likely.

OL Christian Lombard: A back injury ended the 2013 season for Lombard, but shouldn’t end his ND career. The senior lineman started 20 games – 13 at right tackle and seven at right guard – for the Irish since the start of the 2012 season. Lombard would become the elder statesman of the offensive line next season with the departures of Zack Martin and Chris Watt. Lombard didn’t see action as a freshman.

S Austin Collinsworth: A veteran in the secondary, Collinsworth can return after missing his junior season with a shoulder injury. He has started seven games this season, the first starts of his career, and played in all 34 games during his career when healthy. Alongside Matthias Farley, Collinsworth can provide safety stability for 2014.

QB Andrew Hendrix: The decision on Hendrix might be the most intriguing. With Golson’s return next season, Hendrix will be in line to be a reserve quarterback for a fifth season. The Irish should also have Malik Zaire and verbal commitment DeShone Kizer on the 2014 roster, but neither has played a snap of college football. Will Brian Kelly opt for only three scholarship quarterbacks on his roster for the second year in a row, or will he bring back Hendrix in case of emergency?

TE Alex Welch: Slated behind juniors Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack, Welch’s role as a senior has been limited to mostly special teams. Because he missed his junior season with a knee injury, Welch hasn’t caught a pass since his sophomore year. Will Welch be needed for depth in 2014, or will freshmen Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe and a recruit or two be enough for the Irish?

LB Kendall Moore: A special teams regular, Moore has yet to find consistent playing time at inside linebacker. With the departures of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese from the middle this offseason, a starting role and playing time will be up for grabs in 2014. With thin depth at the position, will the Irish bring back Moore knowing he’s athletic enough to be relied on for special teams as well?

CB Lo Wood: Wood finds himself in a similar situation as Moore, but with younger players already pushing their way past him for playing time. Neither has started a game this season and both have recorded eight tackles. Freshmen Cole Luke and Devin Butler look primed to battle for a starting role next season. Wood could remain an option if the 2014 recruiting class remains without defensive backs as it currently does.

DE Stephon Tuitt: There’s no doubt the Irish would love to have Tuitt back. But with the temptation of millions of dollars as a first-round draft pick looming, Tuitt will be faced with a tough decision. Tuitt could stay and get a degree, but after backing off his statement earlier this season to the ND student newspaper that he’ll return, the odds seem to be shifting toward Tuitt moving on to the NFL.

DL Justin Utupo: In his senior season, Utupo has remained a reserve player on a talented defensive line. The Irish may be short on experienced defensive linemen next year, but will Utupo’s services be needed? His two career tackles came last week in the win against Air Force.

OL Bruce Heggie: The senior offensive lineman’s run as a reserve at Notre Dame will likely come to a close at the end of this season. Heggie has seen action in six games over four years, with last week’s Air Force game becoming the first action this year.

WR Luke Massa: The quarterback-turned-wide receiver has found a niche as the holder on field goals for the 2013 Irish. He was even prepared earlier in the season as an emergency quarterback while Malik Zaire was sidelined with mononucleosis. This season should be the end of Massa’s career at Notre Dame after being recruited by Brian Kelly at Cincinnati first and then Notre Dame.

DT Louis Nix III: Notre Dame’s plug in the middle appears destined for an NFL roster next season. His four years at ND have allowed him the chance to earn his degree before moving on to a professional football career. A return to play for the Irish next season is less likely than the return of Chocolate News videos on YouTube.

TJames1@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly extended an offer to punter Tyler Newsome after watching him kick on campus Thursday.