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While playoff fever will be at the forefront at Notre Dame this December, the Fighting Irish coaching staff also will engage more earnestly in roster management for the 2019 campaign.
Topics such as who will or won’t return for a fifth season of eligibility, juniors who will submit his application for feedback on his NFL draft status, and how to get the scholarship number to the NCAA limit of 85 by next season will be on the back burner.
Currently, the roster number for 2019, when including verbal commits for next season, is at 94, with the breakdown as follows:
• Eight seniors who have a fifth year of eligibility remaining in 2019: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, receivers Miles Boykin and Chris Finke, tight end Alize Mack, offensive guard/center Trevor Ruhland, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway, rover/linebacker Asmar Bilal and cornerback/nickel Shaun Crawford.
• 20 juniors — the top overall class on the team in talent/impact.
All the starters in the secondary, led by Jim Thorpe finalist Julian Love, are from this class, as is the dynamic defensive end trio of Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes. On offense, quarterback Ian Book, running back Tony Jones Jr., receiver Chase Claypool and linemen Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have improved throughout the year.
• 18 sophomores, with right tackle Robert Hainsey the mainstay , and tight end Cole Kmet and running back Jafar Armstrong making initial inroads to major future roles.
• 27 freshmen, although few were needed during the 12-0 regular season to play a significant amount of time. Nickel Houston Griffith played the most snaps on either side of the ball with 183.
• 21 verbal commitments, with the early signing date on Wednesday, Dec. 19 and the wrap up on Feb. 6, 2019. There is a desire to add at least two more players to the final list.
Thus, including the 21 current verbals, the number stands at 94, meaning there will be a subtraction of at least nine by the time the 2019 season commences on Sept. 2 (Labor Day) at Louisville next season.
Fifth-Year Players Most Likely To Return (4)
Among the eight fifth-year senior candidates, the four that appear most likely to return are Finke, Ruhland, Bilal and Crawford.
Head coach Brian Kelly already has stated that Crawford will return in 2019 after having missed three of his first seasons with a litany of injury setbacks (which actually makes him eligible for a sixth season as well in 2020).
Finke and Bilal started throughout the 2018 campaign, with Finke’s 47 catches (two for touchdowns) for 547 yards both ranking third on the team. He also is 18th nationally in punt return average at 10.3.
Bilal quietly ranked sixth on the team this season in tackles (46), and there is a chance he could move to Buck linebacker just as predecessor Drue Tranquill did after playing rover in 2017.
Neither Finke nor Bilal would be considered a prime NFL prospect now, but with another year of growth in the college game, their chances could increase appreciably.
Ruhland started five games this season at guard and likely would be considered the front-runner to succeed three-year starter Sam Mustipher at center in 2019. He is the lone remaining member of the Irish offensive line class from the 2015 recruiting haul, and his versatility and experience would be a valued asset.
Fifth-Year Players On The Bubble (4)
Recent history suggests that quarterbacks don’t return for a fifth season to be backups. During the Kelly era, Dayne Crist (Kansas), Andrew Hendrix (Miami (Ohio)), Everett Golson (Florida State) and Malik Zaire (Florida) all used their fifth season elsewhere. Wimbush, who reportedly is on schedule to receive his accounting degree this December, would logically seem to be on that path because of the emergence this season of Book and the future promise of current freshman Phil Jurkovec.
The natural reply is maybe Wimbush’s rushing talents can lead to a position switch to running back (a la current sophomore Avery Davis, who also enrolled as a QB) or receiver (a la Arnaz Battle and Carlyle Holiday at the turn of this century), but it’s not that easy with only one year left. The nuances as a ground gainer at quarterback and running back are completely different, and Battle had a full one season of apprenticeship at receiver before he played regularly.
Dew-Treadway also would have a back-up role along the defensive line, but the combination of the current numbers crunch and the return of an interior rotation that likely will feature current sophomores Kurt Hinish, and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, plus current freshman Jayson Ademilola and, hopefully, a recovered freshman Ja’Mion Franklin, might make it difficult, unless the staff believes it needs an insurance policy there.
Tight end Mack, who had a career high 34 catches for 349 yards and three touchdowns this year, has long eyed the pros, and taking advantage of the opportunity now would be in the cards.
Boykin might have the toughest decision among everyone. He has flourished with a wonderful senior season that saw him lead the Irish in receptions (54), receiving yards (803) and touchdown catches (8) … but could his stock rise even more with another season in coordinator Chip Long’s attack? At the same time, older brother George III had his promising athletic career derailed by a concussion. Will that help prompt a decision to make a run for the NFL with a chance still available?
Either way, quite a bit of attrition is going to have to be inevitable to get to 85 scholarships by the start of next season.