The 2018 Notre Dame roster churn begins with impending transfers of Mokwuah, Sanders

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Before the team plane had even departed for South Bend, the 2018 Notre Dame football roster was already starting to take shape.

To offset 22 additions — and counting — through recruiting, there needed to be some deletions to get to the NCAA maximum scholarship count of 85.

The process actually begun after the regular season. With the recruiting calendar being moved up, because of the new early signing period, Irish head coach Brian Kelly gauged the intentions of his returning players earlier than usual as well —most notably seniors with fifth-year options.

The upshot of that process started to show itself Tuesday, the day after the 14th-ranked Irish (10-3) capped the 2017 season with a 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over No. 16 LSU (9-4) at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

Reserve senior defensive tackle Pete Mokwuah kicked things off, announcing Tuesday morning on Twitter that he would be seeking to play out his fifth year of eligibility at another school.

“Love my team and Love Thee Notre Dame forever,” he tweeted. “I'm thankful for the opportunity that Notre Dame has given me.

“With that being said, I look forward to attending another school for my 5th year option. Go Irish!!”

Irish Illustrated, meanwhile, was the first to report the news of junior C.J. Sanders’ impending transfer. A source confirmed ND’s featured kickoff return man and backup wide receiver plans to graduate after the summer term and take a grad-style transfer (no sitting out) after that.

The source said Sanders couldn’t have handled the situation any better, and that there is no bad blood nor hard feelings between 5-foot-8, 181-pounder and the coaching staff. He simply wants a chance to be a featured receiver and hasn’t even begun the process of shopping for new schools as of yet.

The transfer news may not be done for the day — and certainly not for the coming days. But the decisions regarding the four juniors pondering early entry into the NFL Draft aren’t expected just yet.

Those four are running back Josh Adams, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, nose guard Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney.

Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft, to be held April 26-28 in Arlington, Texas. Quenton Nelson, a senior with a fifth-year option, has declared.

The unanimous All-America guard is expected to be a first-rounder in April. None of the four juniors have that kind of round projection, with Tillery’s ceiling being the highest among them, as a potential second- or third-rounder at best.

Notre Dame entered the Citrus Bowl with 83 scholarship players, 84 if you count defensive lineman Daniel Cage, who did not play because of injury in 2017 and isn’t expected back in 2018.

Only seven of those 84 had expiring eligibility, which would place the Irish at 77. Add the 21 signed recruits, offensive lineman Luke Jones’ verbal commitment and three more players the Irish hope to sign on Feb. 7, and that put the count at 102 before subtracting Nelson, Sanders and Mokwuah.

Much of the roster churn is likely to come from the ranks of the 15 seniors, including Cage, with fifth-year options.

Positions in which underclassmen are most likely to leave are wide receiver, defensive line, linebacker and safety — positions groups that are either bloated and/or have young players who have pushed older players down the depth chart.

It’s a foregone conclusion that indefinitely suspended sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has played his last game in an ND uniform, though Kelly has not confirmed that yet officially.

For purposes of the accompanying scholarship chart, only players with exhausted eligibility or players who have made official announcements of their departures have been excluded.

There could also be some subtle position switches ahead, particularly if Tillery and/or Coney depart. For instance, rover Drue Tranquill could move to one of the inside linebacker positions. Defensive end Jay Hayes could slide inside to defensive tackle.

Safety Jordan Genmark Heath would get a look at linebacker or rover. The safety ranks may also raid the depth at cornerback. Linebacker Jamir Jones, a surging reserve at season’s end, may grow into a defensive end.

One or more players could end up as a medical hardship, retiring from football but able to finish school on scholarship and not count against the NCAA limit of 85.

As far as Tuesday’s departures, after redshirting in 2014, Mokwuah saw action in six games over the balance of his career, recording one career tackle. He didn’t see any game action in 2017.

Sanders was a regular on offense in 2016, playing in all 12 games and garnering seven starts. He caught 24 passes for 293 yards and two TDs. But under new offensive coordinator Chip Long, his role was reduced, and Sanders finished with one reception for zero yards in 2017. His receiving stats were identical to that his freshman season.

Sanders held the kickoff return job for all three seasons he played for the Irish, averaging 23.5 yards on 89 career returns with three TDs. His career average as a punt returner was 8.8 yards, with a TD, on 35 returns.

He was ND’s regular punt returner in 2015 and halfway through 2016, when turnovers on punt returns prompted the Irish to turn to fellow receiver Chris Finke.

Notre Dame’s C.J. Sanders (3) returns a kickoff during the ND's 49-14 victory over USC, Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)