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SOUTH BEND – The Notre Dame football program is venturing back to the days of former Fighting Irish coach Tyrone Willingham. However, before the entire Irish Nation clutches its chest, current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has prepared the 2013 roster to be at full force, meaning 85 scholarship players, for the first time since the Willingham era.
“That impacts your program, I'm telling you,” Kelly said. . It impacts the way you practice. You don't get a chance to tackle quite as much, and all those things begin to show themselves when you're below the scholarship numbers.”
Notre Dame initially added 22 recruits early Wednesday, but later in the day, Florida running back Tarean Folston and California defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes signed national letters of intent to bring the 2013 class to 24 total players.
“I think we all know,” Kelly explained, “and I've made it pretty clear, that after the last game you play, you want to begin taking that next step forward, and for us, taking that next step forward is to continue to build our football program within and developing football players, so when they get back on that field in 2013, we finish it. We finish it off.
And this class is that first step towards finishing off 2013 the right way.”
The Irish already had 56 players in their freshman, sophomore and junior classes, coupled with the 24 incoming recruits, and that brings the total number of players to 80 players. However, there are seven players (Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Zack Martin, Tyler Stockton, Nick Tausch, Chris Watt, and Jake Golic) that have spent four years on campus, but not exhausted their eligibility (fifth-year seniors), as well as a pair of injured players (offensive lineman Tate Nichols and safety Jamoris Slaughter) that could factor into the 2013 equation.
“We're going to sit down when we get back as we always have through recruiting,” Kelly said of discussing which fifth-year players will be asked to return. “Once we finish up our numbers in recruiting, then we start to talk about our fifth year guys. They're all, as we've had in the past, they'll continue to train because they're in school anyway. Then we'll let them know what our decision is as we talk to the University relative to granting that additional year.”
Four fifth-year players Calabrese, Fox, Martin and Watt) would appear to be virtual locks to return.
Inside linebackers Calabrese and Fox have been key components to the improved Notre Dame defense over the past three seasons and it would be hard to fathom one of these two not returning to lend a veteran presence to a young group of linebackers.
In the case of Fox, he should return in the fall, but won't be available for contact prior to then following shoulder surgery.
“We feel (Fox and cornerback Bennett Jackson, who also had surgery) are going to be back for us,” Kelly said. “They probably won't participate in the spring, but they'll be in a non-contact situation.”
Martin and Watt will be critical pieces of a line that is in flux after graduating Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr. Kelly explained that getting to 85 scholarships was significant due to the lack of offensive linemen available this past season at times.
“There were a number of times where we didn't I didn't feel comfortable going live against our defense,” Kelly said. “One time we had five offensive linemen from that period of the USC game until the Alabama game that could go out there and function with five offensive linemen.”
Following Calabrese, Fox, Martin and Watt the situation gets cloudy for that last opening.
Tausch hasn't been relied upon for any kicking duties since making 14 field goals in 2009. However, he would add depth to both the kicking and punting positions and Kelly is mulling that over.
“Well, those are conversations relative to fifth years and such that we would have here in the next couple of weeks,” Kelly said. “He's right now an option, but Kyle Brindza obviously is a strong option for us, as well, doing both, playing both positions.”
Defensive lineman Tyler Stockton would have eligibility to return, but more than likely won't after not seeing action since 2010.
Nichols participated in one game this season and was injured and never returned. His future – not only with the program, but even playing the sport – is uncertain according to Kelly.
“His medical situation, I don't know if it's been fully resolved,” Kelly said. “But he has injuries that may incapacitate him from playing.”
The other injured player that could possibly return is Slaughter. The senior played in three games this past season before getting injured, which was his fourth after sitting out his first year in South Bend. So 2013 would be his sixth season on campus and he has appealed to the NCAA to grant him a medical waiver to return.
“We're still in the process of an appeal for an additional season of competition,” Kelly explained. “We just don't have word right now. It's one of those things that everybody wants to know. I know I want to know. The media wants to know. Certainly Jamoris wants to know. But we just don't have an answer at this point.
Jamoris is in school. He has been doing and finishing up still a process of rehab. But he is around the team.”