Counting today we are just 45 days away from National Signing Day and welcoming the 2016 Notre Dame recruiting class into the fold. From there, spring football will be right around the corner and we'll be knee deep into the next recruiting class. The process of adding talent to the Fighting Irish never stops.
Six days ago Notre Dame added their 20th commitment for 2016 when Palm Beach Gardens safety Devin Studstill pledged for the blue and gold. While we typically experience at least one decommitment in the weeks leading up to NSD, in addition to a couple targets coming out of nowhere with legit interest in Notre Dame, the reality is that this class is mostly all sewn up.
The word out of the Gug in South Bend is that the Irish would like to take 25 players for this 2016 class which is certainly an ambitious number. One way Notre Dame could get there is with an upset of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl while jacking up the momentum in the New Year with a National Signing Day surprise or two.
Even if Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, and C.J. Prosise all enter the NFL Draft and Montgomery VanGorder is removed that leaves us with 79 scholarships before any 5th-year players are taken into consideration. We know Jarron Jones is coming back for a graduate season and Avery Sebastian is likely to be granted a 6th-year of eligibility which brings us, at minimum, to 81 scholarships at present time.
Edit: Freshman receiver Jalen Guyton is apparently leaving Notre Dame which would open up one more scholarship and brings the total to 80 under the above scenario.
While the scholarship situation is indeed getting tight there's also the factor of the remaining uncommitted players and their interest in Notre Dame. There are roughly a dozen prospects still on the radar, with final needs at only a few positions, and about half a dozen remaining players with serious potential to sign with the Irish. Batting near a thousand and adding a new commit per week on average until National Signing Day is going to be tough.
As it stands, here's who we predict will complete Notre Dame's 2016 class:
For purposes of today's discussion let's remove Jaylon, Stanley, Prosise, Russell, Guyton, and VanGorder from scholarship and include Will Fuller, Jarron Jones, Avery Sebastian, Mark Harrell, and Scott Daly--plus the 4 new potential commits above. That gives us a roster spread as such:
Potential 2016 Roster
Clearly this is far from perfect as it's 87 scholarships and we don't know who, if anyone, will transfer or receive a medical scholarship in the off-season, if C.J. Prosise comes back instead of Will Fuller, if they both come back, or they both leave.
In terms of roster balance and eligibility the first thing that jumps out is that the offense is in much better shape.
There's a small hole at receiver where the movement of Justin Brent to running back has left Corey Holmes as the only 2014 wideout on the roster. If Fuller leaves the Irish will go into 2016 with 9 receivers, 7 of whom are underclassmen with 5 true or redshirt freshmen. It's definitely a very young group but the good news is that C.J. Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown appear to be future starters as soon as next year. Still not great roster balance but having a pair of young players who can start for 2 or 3 years apiece lessens the need for bodies. If there was more room adding 2 more receivers (perhaps Alloway) would be nice but it's not a huge need.
If Prosise returns the balance at running back will be outstanding with at least one player in every eligibility slot, and of course 3 players with legitimate claims to the starting position.
Skipping a tight end for 2016 is rare but there are 2 current elite commits for 2017 already. From there we can get back on schedule with 1 tight end per year.
Of course, offensive line is well stocked and fairly balanced. Five or 6 bodies every two cycles is a sweet spot for the Irish. That looks to be the course for both this cycle and next with 2 verbals already among the 2017 class.
The defensive side of the ball has a much cloudier picture. For starters, guys can grow into other positions, and in some cases, are being expected to do so. Corners could play safety, safeties could grow into linebackers, linebackers could grow into defensive ends, and ends could grow into interior linemen.
Nevertheless, we're counting Daelin Hayes as a lineman which means 9 out of the current 20 commits (45% of the entire class right now) are either safeties or defensive ends. If Notre Dame gets a Christmas Eve treat from Troy Pride that'll be 57% of the class from the secondary or defensive end.
That's bad balance.
Which is not to say that the staff shouldn't have hit those positions hard, clearly they had to this cycle, but you need a lot of things to break your way in order to gain the balance we see on the offensive side of the ball and go into the spring knowing you won't have to overload at a position just to make ends meet the following season. Additionally, history suggests we will see a high number of transfers down the road from this overloading.
2017 Recruiting Numbers Projection (20 players)
Brian Kelly has come close to locking in a balanced roster AND recruiting cycle but he's never been able to quite get over the hump. Low numbers at linebacker have been an issue stretching back to the early Diaco era (in a 3-4 system no less!), safety numbers were quite bad from 2013-15, and recent transfer woes led to striking out at defensive end for the 2015 cycle.
However, I get the sense Notre Dame will be okay on the defensive line moving forward. As many as two current commits could easily grow into tackles which would allow a more balanced approach (2 DE, 2 DT) for 2017. Plus, the Irish have generally done well developing players up front.
In the secondary there's a lot of versatility to move guys around and find the right fits. But safety has such a dearth of veteran players that there will be a lot of stress put on this 2016 class. Odds are, one of these safeties is going to be starting as a redshirt freshman (or true sophomore with non-starting minutes) in 2017.
Another position not in great shape is linebacker with zero current commits for 2016. Ideally, the Irish can pull in Jonathan Jones and Jeffrey McCulloch over the next month and wait for a NSD decision from Caleb Kelly. Then if someone like Spencer Perry is good enough to play linebacker it's a healthy competitive situation where there were enough bodies to take away from the safety spot. Only bringing in one linebacker and then having to rely on Perry is less than ideal.
If there's one truth that has held in the past and will continue to affect the future it's that the defensive side of the ball is a lot less stable than the offense. We'll see how recruiting finishes up in February and how the Irish go about attacking this issue for 2017.