Analysis: NCAA's eligibility tinkering creates challenges for Notre Dame's Kelly and others

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

The new layer of reality for Notre Dame and anyone else aspiring to breach Alabama’s college football dynasty involves lots of math and probably, at some point, headache medicine.

The Crimson Tide flexed the evolved championship model Monday night in its 52-24 dismissal of Ohio State, with scoring offense continuing to become more relevant than ever in the championship metrics and an elite total defense national ranking fading as the most reliable marker of teams that reach the championship game and win them.

Recruiting, player development and culture are constants for both Alabama remaining its dominant self and for the other 129 FBS schools trying to inject more parity into the postseason picture.

Add roster management to the urgent to-do list for all the above — not that it ever was irrelevant.

The NCAA’s blanket exemption for the 2020 season — not counting against a player’s four seasons of eligibility because of COVID-19 — is as complicated for college football coaches and administrators to deal with as it was good-intentioned in its creation.

Here’s what it has created at Notre Dame, whose 2020 team (10-2) just became the first Irish squad since 1990 to go wire to wire in the AP Top 10, finishing Monday at No. 5 in the final poll.

Taking into account the COVID exemption, previous redshirt years and an incoming freshman class of 26 signees and verbal commitment for a February signing, the 2021 Irish roster technically comprises 63 players with freshman eligibility.

That’s roughly three-quarters of the roster in one class and with four years to burn. And that includes 17 players who will be juniors academically.

What may look like a potential talent/eligibility windfall, though, has challenging consequences moving forward.

In recruiting, definitely. Potentially in keeping players happy.

For instance, ideally you’d like a quarterback in each class. Instead, the Irish will have Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan and technically four freshmen from an eligibility standpoint — Brendon Clark, Drew Pyne, Tyler Buchner and Ron Powlus III,

Eight of ND’s nine cornerbacks will be freshmen from an eligibility standpoint, as will seven of its eight offensive tackles, five of its six running backs, four of its five tight ends, and seven of its eight defensive ends.

Patience, when you’re lower on the depth chart, comes easier when the person in front of you hits the eligibility finish line earlier than you do. And with the transfer portal still expected to go to a no-sitting-out format in August despite a delay in formally rubber stamping of it, expect more roster churn than you’re used to seeing and without there necessarily being a mutinous tone to it.

Theoretically, head coach Brian Kelly could ride that large class as it bubbles up through the ranks, but the size of the classes behind it would eventually lead to a crisis in overall roster numbers and roster balance once that class left.

Recruiting for 2022 is the most immediate roster management issue.

Here’s how that breaks down:

• FBS teams in 2021 are allowed to exceed the standard 85-scholarship maximum, but only by the number of players who would have had expiring eligibility under normal circumstances and only if they’re not grad transfers.

Looking at Notre Dame specifically, the Irish had 13 players with expiring eligibility after 2020, so they could have gone all the way to 98. But only two of the 13 are returning — nose guard Kurt Hinish and kicker Jonathan Doerer — so the max is set at 87.

Coan does not push that number to 88, because he is a transfer. Had he stayed at Wisconsin, he would not have counted against the Badgers’ scholarship maximum number.

• At this point, teams have to be back down to 85 total scholarships for the 2022 season, which potentially squeezes 2022 recruiting. Coan right now is the only non-exempted player on the 2021 roster with expiring eligibility after that season.

So that means, without attrition elsewhere, the Irish could only sign one player for the 2022 class next December. They have four commitments already and are pushing for more.

• How can this be remedied?

Many schools are pushing for roster sizes to be tiered in the coming seasons until all the COVID-exempted eligibility is exhausted. Notre Dame supports that idea, and it’s already reportedly being discussed at the NCAA level.

Notre Dame won’t be part of the EA Sports College Football video game until name, image and likeness issues are resolved.

How it would work is that rosters could be at, say, 95 in 2022, 93 in 2023 and 90 in 2024 before returning to 85 in 2025. The down side is the financial load of adding those scholarships, particularly if 2021 athletic revenues are still suppressed by COVID-19 restrictions on paid attendance as well as testing costs and logistics.

Another avenue is simply not offering scholarships to those seeking a fifth playing season — at least not en masse. The COVID exemption only guarantees eligibility. It doesn’t guarantee a school will honor it with scholarship money.

Notre Dame has 11 players who could seek a fifth playing season in 2022. Even if all 11 moved on after four playing seasons, the transfer portal would have to come into play in order to bring in a class the size of which the Irish coaches could fully leverage the team’s 2020 playoff run.

• Notre Dame currently sits at 91 scholarships, four over its amended 2021 max. Given that it makes sense for the Irish coaches to be combing the grad transfer market at positions such as safety, cornerback and defensive end, the number of outbound ND transfers figures to swell beyond four.

The Irish don’t have to reach their scholarship max until the first day of fall-semester classes.

• Speaking of the transfer portal, look for Notre Dame to lean toward grad transfer types rather than undergrads in the years ahead. The no-sitting-out change, that’s still expected to happen, makes the underclassmen more appealing than in the past, but no less complicated logistically.

The hang-up with a lot of them will continue to be cleanly transferring credits. Alohi Gilman, coming from Navy, was a case in which that wasn’t a factor, but with most potential undergrad transfer candidates it would be.

A name to watch

There’s no shortage of interest in the vacant safeties coaching opening for the Irish, and a name to keep an eye on is Las Vegas Raiders assistant backs coach Taver Johnson.

Johnson has connections to Notre Dame (a 1999 grad assistant coach) and to new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. He also has extensive college coaching and recruiting experience — including two tours of duty at Ohio State — in addition to his NFL ties.

Terry Joseph recently left for Texas after three seasons at Notre Dame. He coached defensive backs all three seasons and was the defensive passing game coordinator in 2019-20.

By the numbers

The Irish hit Kelly Era bests in terms of national statistical rankings in seven categories in 2020. The Irish were elite on third down on both sides of the ball — eighth in third-down efficiency and 12th in third-down defense. The other 11-year bests were in total offense (26th), tackles for loss (17th), net punting (18th), time of possession (seventh) and … punt returns (42nd).

The last one will surprise a lot of Irish fans, and it’s a little deceiving. ND’s 9.1-yard average was aided by a 31-yard return by defensive end Isaiah Foskey on a blocked punt and a 54-yard return by Osita Ekwonu on another blocked punt.

The Irish were a Kelly Era worst in red zone offense, at No. 102. They were 10th in 2019.

• Among some of the more prominent “way-to-early” top 25 rankings for 2021, the Irish were deemed No. 6 by The Sporting News, No. 10 by The Athletic, No. 15 by ESPN and No. 11 by

Nose guard Kurt Hinish (41) is one of two Irish players taking advantage of the NCAA’s COVID-19 exemption and returning in 2021 for a fifth playing season at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame place kicker Jonathan Doerer kicks a field goal against Pittsburgh on Oct. 24, 2020. Doerer will return to the Irish next year under the NCAA’s expanded COVID eligibility rule.

Sep. 5 at Florida State

Sep. 11 TOLEDO

Sep. 18 PURDUE

Sep. 25 Wisconsin*

*Soldier Field, Chicago, IL


Oct. 9 at Virginia Tech

Oct. 16 BYE WEEk

Oct. 23 USC


Nov. 6 NAVY

Nov. 13 at Virginia


Nov. 27 at Stanford