Brian Kelly's youth movement at Notre Dame triggered by roster uncertainty

Cole Luke (right) holds tight to an interception during the 2014 season against Stanford. Luke is one of just three Notre Dame players from the 2013 recruiting class of 24 who remain on a conventional four-year path with the Irish.

NOTRE DAME — With Saturday's Senior Day football game against Virginia Tech pending, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was asked if he shared the same feelings former Irish skipper Lou Holtz often spoke of decades ago regarding whether an overflow of emotion would cloud his senior players' focus when they took the field for the final time at Notre Dame Stadium.

"Earlier, I had to," Kelly answered. " … Where my first couple of years you knew who those (seniors) were, now it's a lot grayer as to who is a senior and who's not a senior."

Kelly's answer may sound a bit convoluted but given the changing landscape of the Notre Dame program, it makes perfect sense.

During the Holtz era, rosters typically remained rhythmic and class sizes even. There were a few exceptions, but about 20 players each year would finish their four-year careers together, celebrate Senior Day during their last home game, graduate in the spring, and move on to future endeavors, be it in football or otherwise.

Everything has changed during the Kelly era, evidenced today when team captains Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu, along with steady veteran Cole Luke, will be recognized as the three lone true Irish seniors from the 24-man recruiting class of 2013 to exhaust all of their college football eligibility in the conventional four-year manner.

The remaining 21 players from that class either transferred, redshirted, left the program early or were lost through attrition.

Nine other seniors beyond the aforementioned trio of Irish players will also be recognized today. But those nine took a redshirt year and could return to Notre Dame for a fifth season and play in 2017, if they so choose, though it becomes less likely every year for fifth-year seniors to stick around and finish their careers at the school they started with.

Increasingly, graduating seniors on a five-year football plan — wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. and running back Tarean Folston come to mind this season — are forfeiting their final year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft in the same way former Irish players Ronnie Stanley, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise did after last season.

In addition to the annual exodus of NFL-caliber Irish seniors leaving eligibility behind, several other members of this senior class find themselves blocked on the depth chart by younger players, a situation that will likely lead to another wave of Irish grad transfers to other schools after this season — the same course that quarterback Everett Golson and many other Notre Dame players have taken in recent years.

Adding to Kelly's roster turbulence and coaching headaches is the growing number of true Irish juniors bolting Notre Dame early to enter the NFL Draft.

Since 1991 when NFL Draft rules first allowed players to leave school after their third season, Notre Dame has had 13 players exercise that option.

Eight of those 13 early draft entrees have occurred since Brian Kelly took the head coaching job here in December of 2009; five of those defections have come since 2014, including wide receiver Will Fuller and linebacker Jaylon Smith last year.

Quarterback DeShone Kizer and linebacker Nyles Morgan, both true juniors, are two potential three-and-out candidates for Notre Dame after this season.

And it's this early flight pattern that has caused Kelly to, perhaps begrudgingly, change his thinking, evolve and learn to accept the inevitable. Just a few years ago, Kelly shared the same disdain as his predecessor, Charlie Weis, when it came to players heading to the NFL before graduating.

But in recent years, Kelly has adopted a stance that Notre Dame players leaving early for the NFL serves more as a celebration of his program's success than an indictment of it.

"When you have really good football players that have the opportunity to go the NFL," Kelly said, "that's going to be the reality here at Notre Dame."

Kelly is right.

With a growing number of third-year players leaving Notre Dame before graduation and fifth-year eligible players leaving Notre Dame before that fifth year, Kelly is best off using his players now before he loses 'em later.

"We're going to have to play some of the younger players," said Kelly, who has used 14 true freshmen this season, the most in his seven years at Notre Dame. "And that's going to be the case here moving forward."

All of which sounds good in theory. But if this youth movement is going to pay off, Kelly better start having his rookie players ready in early September, instead of talking about learning curves and youthful mistakes in November, as he has so often this season.

Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.

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