Notre Dame's transfer churn continues as Micah Jones lands at Illinois State

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Less than a month after entering the transfer portal, Micah Jones has solidified where his next step — and perhaps too his first collegiate catch — will unfold.

The Notre Dame junior announced on Twitter Wednesday that he has committed to FCS power Illinois State. The 6-foot-5, 219-pound wide receiver is on track to get his ND degree in May, and will join the Redbirds this summer.

ISU (0-1) just opened its 2020-21 season this past Saturday, delayed to the spring semester because of COVID-19 concerns, and lost to South Dakota, 27-20. The Redbirds went 10-5 in 2019, reaching the FCS Playoff quarterfinals before losing to eventual champ and top-ranked North Dakota State, 9-3.

Jones becomes the seventh player to commit to or enroll at a new school since the end of the 2020 Irish season on Jan. 1. The others are wide receiver Jafar Armstrong (Illinois), cornerback Isaiah Rutherford (Arizona), walk-on center Colin Grunhard (Kansas), running back Jahmir Smith (Appalachian State), linebacker Jack Lamb (Colorado) and defensive end Ovie Oghoufo (Texas).

An eighth, senior-to-be safety Houston Griffith, also entered the portal after Jan. 1 but opted to make a U-turn back to Notre Dame.

If the transfer numbers come off staggeringly high now, they may seem more commonplace in the years ahead, particularly among players like Jones who leave with a Notre Dame degree.

The NCAA’s decision to grant a blanket COVID exemption to all FBS players for an extra year of eligibility does not come with a guarantee by the schools to fund that fifth year of playing. It also created a math dilemma, particularly for 2022, when schools must get back to the 85-scholarship limit.

Teams can go over in 2021, but only with their own players who otherwise would have had expired eligibility.

Where it has the potential to get sticky is 2022. ND at that point would only have three players with expiring eligibility and only one — transfer QB Jack Coan — who’s not exempt in 2021. Meanwhile, the Irish have seven verbal commitments in the 2022 recruiting class with the intention of signing a full class.

“Nothing’s changed about the progress toward graduation for everyone,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the Tribune last week of coping with the numbers crunch. “And then for so many of our student-athletes, they came here as motivated to get that degree as (they did) to continue to play. So that won’t change.

“For a lot of them at that point in time, with degree in hand, some will choose to get on with their careers. Some will choose to transfer to someplace where they think they can play some more with that extra eligibility.

“I’m not suggesting there aren’t some interesting discussions ahead, but I think it’s more manageable for us than a lot of people where their student-athletes are focused exclusively on that eligibility issue and the amount of eligibility they have left.

“So I think we’ll manage it, but what I ask all our coaches to do is be very transparent with our student-athletes. I don’t want anybody surprised, that all of a sudden an opportunity they thought they had, they don’t have. And our coaches have been great about that.”

Jones played in five games over three seasons with no career stats of any kind. He’ll have two years of eligibility at Illinois State and a possible third with the COVID exemption.

The former Gurnee (Ill.) Warren Township High standout was rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com out of high school, while 247Sports deemed him a three-star recruit.

Notre Dame (10-2 in 2020) is expected to open spring practice later this month, though exact spring football dates have not yet been announced. The team paused winter workouts on Feb. 22 because of COVID-19 concerns on campus and resumed a week later, on Monday.

Wide receiver Micah Jones (80) celebrates a win after the Michigan-Notre Dame game, Sept. 1, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium.