Hansen: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly can't ignore festering numbers crunch
SOUTH BEND — What’s quickly becoming the most daunting aspect of recruiting for Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly — and his peers, for that matter — is math.
As the NCAA scrambled this summer to provide a safe and soft landing for underclassmen who pondered opting out of the 2020 season for reasons related to COVID-19, it balanced that by not making the opt-out more rewarding than playing.
The result was a blanket extra year of eligibility for everyone on an active college football roster. That means six years to complete five seasons of playing for those who didn’t opt out, six years to complete four seasons of playing for those who did, and seven years to complete five for those rare individuals like Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford, a sixth-year student already.
There are some individual exceptions, including those relating to some players who transfer. But without exception there’s a roster-management nightmare festering for coaches like Kelly and what appears to be significantly more limited scholarship opportunities for current high school juniors — the 2022 national recruiting class.
While Kelly’s attention is rightly centered on No. 3 Notre Dame’s first road game of the season — a Saturday date (3:30 p.m. EDT; ABC-TV) with Pitt and its vaunted run defense — the impending numbers crunch can’t simply be deferred until after the season.
The Irish (4-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), and others, are evaluating, offering scholarships and building their 2022 classes already. Three players — Georgia tight end Jack Nickel, Indiana offensive lineman Joey Tanona and Michigan safety/linebacker Nolan Ziegler — are already verbally committed to the Irish for 2022.
“I had a dream the other night that all the guys used the COVID eligibility and decided to all come back,” Kelly said Thursday on a Zoom call with the media, when asked about the numbers game. “So, of course, that was a dream. I don’t think it’s reality. But your point is well taken. The numbers affect 2022.”
The NCAA made allowances for teams to go over the traditional 85-scholarship limit in 2021. But because the limit of how far a program can go over is solely based on players with expiring eligibility, teams can’t simply gorge on the transfer portal or indiscriminately swell their 2021 recruiting classes.
In Notre Dame’s case, there were 13 players with expiring eligibility on the roster. So the Irish could carry as many as 98 scholarship players next season. Only kicker Jonathan Doerer among the 13 has publicly stated that he’s strongly considering a return.
The fact that ND’s 2021 recruiting class already has 19 players in it and isn’t done building means the attrition to get to the base 85 will have to come from the younger classes — via transfers, medical hardships and/or players wading into the NFL Draft pool early.
Where it gets sticky is 2022. Theoretically, there would be zero players with expiring eligibility on the ND roster among the base 85. And the NCAA is committed to getting schools back down to the traditional max of 85 by the 2022 season.
So how can teams add players through recruiting?
The loophole is that schools don’t have a financial commitment to the added COVID eligibility year. Only the player’s eligibility is guaranteed, not scholarship money. And that takes some financial strain off athletic departments as well.
Keep in mind the NCAA implemented the policy when it wasn’t a given that any FBS teams would play a fall season or a season at all in the 2020-21 school year. The fact that by Nov. 7, 127 of the 130 FBS teams will have made it to the starting line begs the question of whether it would be prudent to walk back the extra year for players who were willing and able to play.
One problem with that is some players who would have been redshirted have already burned through the four-game cap to redshirt. The NCAA could also reconsider adjusting the hard cap in 2022 and kick it down the road a bit, but that still creates financial stress for athletic departments still reeling in that area from COVID-19 consequences this season.
As things stand, the 2022 dilemma still potentially makes for some public relations mayhem and definitely makes for some difficult choices.
“We’re looking ahead to manage those numbers,” Kelly said. “A lot of our work is internal. You’re not going to be able to figure out what that looks like from the outside (looking) in. A lot of that has to do with conversations internally about how we manage this.
“Whoever you take into your class in 2022, you’ve got to make it right within your program.”
Future gazing, part II
The offensive line group that Kelly has called collectively his best at ND — and the 2017 Irish O-line won the Joe Moore Award, mind you — faces its toughest test to date, a Pitt defense that ranks No. 1 nationally against the run (61.5 ypg) and No. 2 in sacks per game (4.8).
And they’ll come at the Irish offensive line in waves.
“Maybe Clemson is the only team we face that has that kind of depth at the defensive end position,” Kelly said Thursday.
Looking way beyond Saturday’s game against Pitt (3-3, 2-3 ACC), there’s a good chance all but center Jarrett Patterson will be gone in 2021, pursuing NFL careers, after the current season ends. Tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey along with offensive guard Tommy Kraemer would have been in their final season of eligibility before the extra COVID year was added.
Left guard Aaron Banks, with the amended eligibility, technically has two years left now after 2020 but hasn’t committed to anything beyond this season.
So who’s building momentum toward becoming the next wave of Notre Dame’s starting offensive linemen in 2021?
Kelly cited sophomore tackle Andrew Kristofic, senior tackle Josh Lugg and sophomore guard Zeke Correll as those who have impressed him as strong possibilities to join Patterson as starters next year.
“Then we’ll see what happens with the rest of those guys that are ready to go,” Kelly said. “Does one of them decide that it’s in his best interest to take another year? So I think we’ll still put together a very, very strong offensive line in 2021.”
Keep an eye on incoming freshman guard Rocco Spindler as someone who could surprise with early playing time.
Wide receiver/punt returner Lawrence Keys III, who missed the 12-7 win over Louisville on Saturday, has cleared concussion protocol and will make the trip to Pitt, Kelly said.
“Feel really good for Lawrence,” Kelly said. “He’s had a rough run of it. It’s nice to have him back out there and smiling.”
Senior Josh Lugg, ND’s versatile sixth man on the offensive line and a Pittsburgh-area product, is out this week with an ankle injury.
Notre Dame reported Monday night one player in isolation and one in quarantine because of COVID-19 testing.
“Nobody in our two-deep or who (would normally be) traveling will be unavailable for us,” Kelly said.
• Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said Thursday he knows who is going to start at quarterback for the Panthers on Saturday. He’s just not willing to share it with the rest of the college football world.
No. 1 QB, senior Kenny Pickett, missed Pitt’s 31-19 loss at Miami last Saturday because of an ankle injury. Joey Yellen, a redshirt freshman and Arizona State transfer, made the start against the Hurricanes.
Narduzzi even threw in a third option, redshirt freshman Davis Beville, and gushed about the strong week of practice he’s apparently had.
For the record, the Pitt media is expecting Yellen to start and Pickett to be unavailable.
• A day after reserve running back Jahmir Smith explained via Twitter that his exit from the Irish roster this week was so he could attend to some mental health concerns, Kelly lauded Smith for both addressing the issue and sharing it publicly.
“Mental health has been an issue in my 30 years of coaching,” Kelly said. “I think it’s just today — I don’t know if it’s ever easy to talk about, but it doesn’t have, I guess, a connotation of weakness.
“Jahmir is the opposite of weak. He’s a strong young man, and I love Jahmir for his courage, more than anything else. … It’s always been a concern when you’re playing a competitive game, one where there’s so many pressures to live up to expectations, whether they be your own or others’.”