The recruiting cycle for 2020 is here and it still feels weird to type out that year. It’s amazing to witness this being Brian Kelly’s 11th recruiting class at Notre Dame, or really his 10th full recruiting class after being hired late in the 2010 cycle. In the Roster Management Era™ the Fighting Irish also completed their 7th straight class of at least 20 signings and would surely like to keep that streak alive in 2020. But can they?

Here’s an early look at the scholarship numbers as we barrel toward the crazy future of a new decade.

Out of Eligibility Following 2019

WR Chris Finke
WR Chase Claypool
OL Trevor Ruhland
DE Julian Okwara
DE Khalid Kareem
DE Jamir Jones
DE Daelin Hayes
LB Asmar Bilal
CB Donte Vaughn
CB Troy Pride
S Devin Studstill
S Jalen Elliott

The 2020 season is going to be a major change for Notre Dame on defense. The only possible defensive starter left over from this past season’s 2018 campaign would be safety Alohi Gilman and as we’ll discuss below it’s far from certain he’ll remain on the team beyond 2019. Either way, 2020 is going to be a massive transition year for Clark Lea so this upcoming fall will be super important for new starters and younger defensive players gaining experience.

The core of the offense should remain pretty stable. We’re not even sure Ruhland will step into and/or maintain a starting role as a graduate senior (with rumblings he could leave after spring if it’s not in the cards for him) and even if Claypool and Finke will be technically starters on their way out the youth movement at that position is going to begin swiftly in 2019.

2020-21 Academic Classes

5 Verbal Commits
22 Sophomores*
27 Juniors
18 Seniors
10 Graduates^
82 Total Scholarships

*Includes Bertrand and Liufau.

^Includes Shawn Crawford

SCHOLARSHIP NUMBERS ARE TIGHT

Although we always have to mention the caveat that it’s early the numbers continue to be extremely tight and 2020 looks like it’s trending towards a class smaller than 20 players.

On February 8th of last year for this very article the program was sitting at 77 projected scholarships for 2019-20 with 3 verbal commits and a max of 8 graduate seniors returning for 2019. This was helped out by 11 players leaving the program in early-to-mid January 2018 through transfers, dismissals, and early entry into the NFL which allowed us to project a class of 22 players, ultimately exactly where the Irish landed.

Right now, at roughly the same point on the calendar there are 5 additional scholarships on the books compared to last year, 2 more verbals, and a possibility of 2 more grad students eligible to return.

The year placement of Bertrand and Liufau doesn’t matter in the short-term–although the fact that a grayshirt for the latter was part of the plan surely signals 2020’s scholarships may not be all that copious. As it is, we’re projecting both to pick up a scholarship before the summer anyway. As things currently stand, without counting either Bertrand or Liufau, the Irish are at 87 scholarships and we’ll see if there are 4 more transfers before summer. Either way, how that ultimately shakes out has more of an affect on the 2023-24 scholarship numbers rather than 2020.

List of Eligible 2020 Grad Students

Tier I

QB Ian Book
S Alohi Gilman
OL Liam Eichenberg
OL Tommy Kraemer
DE Ade Ogundeji
RB Tony Jones
LS John Shannon

Tier II

CB Shawn Crawford
LB Jon Jones

Tier III

WR Javon McKinley

10 possible graduate seniors for 2020 seems like a lot at the moment but as often happens this list will get cut down eventually. For the record, 4 of the 8 eligible from this past season are on track to return to Notre Dame for their final year.

I think Kraemer, Eichenberg, Ogundeji, and Shannon are absolute locks to come back. Everyone else, I have questions that need to be asked.

There may have been a few grumbles about projecting Wimbush not to be back at this point last year but he didn’t in the end. Even at his smaller size, Book is either coming off a good enough 2019 to test the pro waters or he struggles enough where like many before him he’s seeking a final year elsewhere.

Here’s the thing about Gilman–not only did he have to sit out a year while transferring from Navy to Notre Dame–but like many recruited Midshipmen he attended the Naval Academy Prep School for the 2015-16 season. That means if he’s a normal age for his grade Gilman is currently nearly 22 years old and will be turning 23 sometime next year. If he has another really good season it’s doubtful he sticks around South Bend as a 24-year old.

Tony Jones I think you can lean strongly towards returning but at the same time he would’ve been a distant 3rd in carries last year if Jafar Armstrong stayed healthy and I’m not sure that situation necessarily gets better for someone averaging 4.91 per rush in his career. The decisions of running backs to leave for a variety of reasons also tend to be more aggressive than other positions, as well.

Crawford is potentially a starter for 2019, and maybe even one of the better starters on the defense. His injury history isn’t a red flag it’s a collection of red flags, though. And even if he’s approved for a 6th year of eligibility that’s a really long time to be living in South Bend.

The case of Jon Jones is a fascinating one. To some, he’s clearly the starting middle linebacker for spring if by default only. It feels like he’s been on campus since 2012 and yet only has about 70 career snaps with the staff seemingly continuing to find ways to get others on the field ahead of him. A rarely used backup situation followed up by a grad transfer shouldn’t be shocking.

Javon McKinley was one of the most highly touted receivers of the Kelly era and through 3 seasons has a grand total of 0 receptions and played 5 snaps last year in his third year with the program. Some are expecting him to transfer (if he’s graduating in May) after spring football either way he’s very unlikely to stick around beyond the 2019 season. His recent arrest definitely clouds his future for someone who wasn’t making an impact on the field.

***Scholarship Chart CLICK HERE***

2020 Recruiting Cycle Needs

High Need

Running Back

Corner

Medium Need

Wide Receiver

Defensive End

Defensive Tackle

Safety

Low Need

Quarterback

Tight End

Offensive Line

Linebacker

Let’s say ultimately 6 grad students come back for 2020 (Eichenberg, Kraemer, Ogundeji, Shannon, and both Jones’) we can project, at minimum, 7 more scholarships available in the future. That would bring the 2020 class to 12 players. In order, to get to 20 players you’ll need 8 players gone from the 2017-19 recruiting classes. That could prove quite difficult especially as there isn’t a great crop of rising juniors (2017) who look like they are capable of leaving early for the NFL.

Figuring out roster losses right now is a crap shoot, you might as well throw darts at the board. The program was helped in numbers for 2019 by the transfers of C.J. Holmes, Kevin Stepherson, Deon McIntosh, Jonathan MacCollister, plus the retirement of David Adams. That was a combined 16 years of eligibility that left campus. If we don’t see 3 or 4 really young players transfer by this summer it could lock up a smaller 2020 class.

Quarterback and tight end are obviously wrapped up in a neat bow for 2020. It will be hard to improve upon the talent already committed at those positions.

Linebacker (with 11 projected players for 2020) and the offensive line (with 14 projected players for 2020) are really experiencing a numbers crunch. The line especially with 8 players all on freshmen eligibility would have a difficult time justifying signing more than 3 players for 2020 and could easily manage just 2 players.

All three of safety, defensive end, and wide receiver are going to be experiencing significant personnel losses after 2019 and remain firmly in the medium need bucket. Defensive tackle isn’t in that same boat purely with numbers although there are injury concerns with Franklin and Spears that warrant a thorough look at additional bodies beyond the recent addition of Aidan Keanaaina.

In terms of numbers running back is arguably more bloated than any other position on the roster. As such, it’s probably a position ripe for some personnel losses in the future but is still on the prowl for high-end recruited talent which is a tremendous need.

Without a doubt, cornerback should be 2020’s biggest need. Irish Sports Daily recently reported that rising redshirt freshman D.J. Brown might be a better fit at nickel or free safety which would leave the following corners on the roster beyond 2019: Tariq Bracy, Noah Boykin, K.J. Wallace, and Isaiah Rutherford. It’ll be an important cycle for Todd Lyght and company.

My prediction is this class will be 19 players in total. Tyler’s 2020 class prediction from last week featured 21 players and if it’s a couple fewer that could mean 3 instead of 4 offensive linemen and maybe only one linebacker or 2 receivers.