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No need to panic, Notre Dame fans ... yet

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For complete coverage of Notre Dame football, follow Justin Kenny via Twitter at www.Twitter.com/jkenny_ns and Sports Editor Tom Davis at www.Twitter.com/Tom101010

Series of recent personnel decisions just a part of the game

Friday, January 10, 2014 - 6:33 am

Apart from national signing day, the college football offseason that began just days ago is a trying time for fans fearful of negative news from their program. They hope and pray to get to the fall without mass player defections, coaches departing for other jobs and academic issues or arrests thinning out the depth chart.

Notre Dame fans know all about this, as they experienced the gamut of emotions a year ago that included the fake girlfriend of Manti Te’o, coach Brian Kelly’s flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles and the soap opera that was the recruitment of five-star defensive end (and Freshman All-American for UCLA) Eddie Vanderdoes.

That list doesn't even include arguably the biggest story in terms of on-field performance, the expulsion of starting quarterback Everett Golson for more than one academic transgression.

Just a few weeks into the offseason in 2014, Notre Dame fans are once again feeling the effects of some off-field drama.

On Thursday it was announced that tight end Troy Niklas is declaring for the NFL draft and redshirt junior DaVaris Daniels will miss the spring semester at Notre Dame due to an “academic issue.” These are just the latest in a series of personnel actions within the roster, some decided upon by the players themselves, others by the university.

Daniels has said he will re-enroll at Notre Dame for the summer, but nothing is for sure until it actually happens. For now, the 6-foot-1, 203-pound wideout who was set to be the Fighting Irish's leading returning receiver will be sidelined for spring practice at least.

The Daniels development is just the most recent among several personnel shakeups for Notre Dame. A pair of fifth-year seniors – quarterback Andrew Hendrix and tight end Alex Welch – are heading to Miami of Ohio with former Irish offensive coordinator and new RedHawks head coach Chuck Martin. Running back George Atkinson III made the puzzling decision to declare for the NFL draft after a season where he barely eclipsed 550 yards rushing with three scores.

The biggest piece of the potential 2014 defense departed when defensive end Stephon Tuitt declared for the NFL draft as well.

Adding to the drama, four-star defensive end Matt Dickerson decommitted from Notre Dame on Thursday, switching his verbal commitment to coach Jim Mora Jr. and the UCLA Bruins.

While all of this would give some the impression that things are spiraling out of control in South Bend, similar to the offseason of 2013, it definitely is not.

Daniels’ veteran presence will be missed in spring practice with the wealth of underclassmen at wide receiver. But in his absence, other guys will get an opportunity to shine, including redshirt freshman Torii Hunter Jr., who was sidelined the entire season after breaking his femur at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl last year.

Also factor in sophomore Corey Robinson and his tremendous wing span along with C.J. Prosise, Will Fuller and James Onwualu and Notre Dame has talented, but largely inexperienced, depth at wide receiver.

Atkinson’s suspension for the Pinstripe Bowl after texting during a team meal likely had something to do with his declaration for the draft. The options were perhaps transfer, sit out a year and then play, or give the NFL a shot now. Many people will be shocked if he is taken before the sixth round, if at all. However, his speed gives him a game-breaking ability even at the next level, provided he can learn to not run so upright, as that will lead to a short pro career.

The running back stable will be fine even without Atkinson, with no one graduating and the preservation of freshman Greg Bryant’s season after he suffered an early-season injury.

The losses of Hendrix and Welch are nearly inconsequential. Hendrix had likely used up all of Kelly’s patience this past season. Redshirt freshman Malik Zaire is set to back up Golson next year, with incoming freshman DeShone Kizer the third-string guy who Kelly hopes can preserve a fifth year of eligibility.

Welch was third on a loaded tight end depth chart before Niklas declared and may have moved up with the junior’s departure. But Kelly is high on freshman Durham Smythe, and the depth chart gets an influx of talent with committed four-star recruits Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar.

Put nicely, Welch and Hendrix both saw the writing on the wall.

At this point, the biggest loss is Tuitt. Notre Dame has landed plenty of big bodies along the defensive front in the past two recruiting cycles, but none are instant-impact guys. The return of Bishop Dwenger product Tony Springmann from injury will help as he could be in line to be starting at nose tackle come the fall. Expect Sheldon Day to break out as a stud at defensive end, with Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell a pair of youngsters who will need to step up.

The loss of so many players in such a short amount of time can be disconcerting for fans, but it is by no means limited to just Notre Dame. Good programs send players to the NFL early. Good programs force upperclassmen buried on depth charts by young elite talent to transfer. These things happen.

Mark it down: This offseason for the Fighting Irish will not be as headline-grabbing as 2013.

Then again, it is still only Jan. 10.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel.