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Recruiting -- The final countdown

Gary Gray Robert Blanton

Rarely can Irish fans almost sigh in relief when an elite, four-star recruit at a position of need leaves Notre Dame a bridesmaid in a recruiting battle. But when Portland defensive end Brennan Scarlett picked Cal this afternoon instead of the Irish, he helped clear up a complicated scholarship picture for the Notre Dame coaching staff.

For the first time in a long time, Notre Dame has a numbers crunch on their roster, and they’ll be forced to make some difficult decisions at both the front and back-end of the roster. With scholarships limited to 85, Notre Dame has themselves in a situation that’s actually enviable -- more roster options than they can actually accommodate.

With Scarlett off the board, Notre Dame is still in the running for four defensive prospects: Aaron Lynch, Ishaq Williams, Troy Niklas, and (two-way player) Chase Hounshell. Offensively, the Irish are looking at running backs Amir Carlisle and Savon Huggins, along with holding out hope for offensive lineman Antonio Richardson, even less likely to come to Notre Dame after the Irish scooped up Nick Martin this week.

Lynch is set to visit Notre Dame this weekend, and if all goes according to plan, he could be enrolled in classes on Monday. The same could be said for Williams, who has gone into a holding pattern with his three finalists Penn State, ND, and Syracuse. Both guys are assured a scholarship if they want one, and you’ve got to think that the coaching staff is going to say yes to either Carlisle or Huggins, and probably only one of them.

The venerable Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold succinctly broke down the scholarship options for 2011:

Here is a review of the current scholarship breakdown, with each class referring to the 2011 football season. There are 85 scholarships allowed, per NCAA rules:

• 22 seniors — This includes quarterback Nate Montana, who originally enrolled as a walk-on, and the return of Michael Floyd, who was contemplating turning pro.
• 15 juniors — Three players from the original group are no longer with the program: E.J. Banks, Bullard and Shaquelle Evans (UCLA).
• 19 sophomores — There were originally 23 signed last February, but offensive tackle Matt James died in a spring break accident, cornerback Spencer Boyd transferred to South Florida, safety Derek Roback transferred to Ohio U. and safety Chris Badger, who is on a Mormon mission in Ecuador, has a scholarship awaiting him in 2012.

That’s 56 scholarship players from those three classes, which leaves Notre Dame 29 for the 85 maximum

As mentioned, Kelly and Company would be ecstatic if they added two new early-enrollees to the class on Monday. But after the 20 committed recruits, every additional recruit Notre Dame welcomes in means that a fifth-year candidate isn’t likely to return.

Those candidates include:

Andrew Nuss, OL
Taylor Dever, OL
Matt Romine, OL
Mike Ragone, TE
Gary Gray, CB
Harrison Smith, FS
Emeka Nwankwo, DE
Steve Paskorz, LB
David Ruffer, K
Dan Wenger, OL* (Sixth-year candidate)

Let’s just assume we welcome back all the starters -- Dever, Smith, Gray, and Ruffer. (Some aren’t assuming Ruffer is for sure back, but I’d be absolutely shocked if ND *didn’t* give him a scholarship.) Then you start weighing your options with guys like Nuss and Romine -- solid offensive line depth and Ragone, a key back-up at tight end. With Chris Watt on the inside track at filling the guard spot Chris Stewart is vacating, maybe ND can afford not to bring back any fifth-year linemen, but the choice certainly isn’t clear cut.

Fifth-year candidates won’t be announced until likely after signing day, and the assumption that just because Nate Montana was on scholarship last season (likely a necessity, as he was the primary back-up quarterback for much of the year) means he’ll be back on scholarship this year shouldn’t be taken as fact.

But as recruiting comes down the home stretch, Notre Dame will finally be utilizing all 85 scholarships allotted to them. While it makes for some difficult decisions, it’s the first sign that the football program is almost back to full strength.