Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame players
Later this month, head coach Brian Kelly is expected to meet with 14 fourth-year seniors, and reportedly fifth-year senior tight end Mike Ragone, about a final year of eligibility in 2012.

Currently, Notre Dame has 59 players on football scholarship (including safety Chris Badger, who is away on a Mormon mission in Ecuador until the summer of 2012), so there is a vacancy for 26 more spots for the NCAA maximum of 85.

Fifteen are on reserve as verbal commitments expected to sign in the 2012 freshman class this February, thus upping the number to 74. The wild cards in the equation are: 1) will juniors Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert skip their senior years for the NFL Draft, and 2) will there be any transfers among non-seniors?

Here is how we see the breakdown for potential fifth-year seniors in 2012:

Absolutes For 2012

Braxston Cave — The Irish coaching staff already has stated it’s looking forward to his return for spring practice after undergoing foot surgery for an injury suffered at Wake Forest on Nov. 5. His advanced strength at the point of attack was conspicuously absent in the final three games when the Irish gave up eight sacks (after yielding only five in the first nine) and scored just two touchdowns in the final eight quarters before some last second window dressing at Stanford.

Kapron Lewis-Moore — Notre Dame’s most consistent defensive lineman the first half of 2011 before suffering a season ending knee injury late in the loss at USC. His 29 starts have produced 140 tackles.

Jamoris Slaughter — What Robert Blanton was in 2010, Slaughter was in 2011 with his versatility at safety and nickel. He has to be the anchor of the 2012 secondary (likely at safety, according to the staff) that will be rebuilding minus Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Blanton.

Insurance Policies
This duo would lend some experienced depth to the 2012 trenches:

Sean Cwynar — He served as an effective nose guard tag team with Ian Williams in 2010 (33 tackles) and Louis Nix III in 2011 (21 tackles), even though a hand injury limited him in the first half of this season. An excellent individual to have in the locker room.

Mike Golic Jr. — Although the drop-off from Cave at center was noticeable, he provides Andrew Nuss-like versatility in that he can help at guard or center in a pinch. The Irish are grooming sophomore Bruce Heggie and freshman Matt Hegarty for the future at center, but for 2012, after a fifth season in the weight room, Golic could still be the best option behind Cave.

Dark Horses
Lane Clelland — A long shot after coming off 2011 ACL surgery and no career starts, but has always possessed a stout frame, and either he or Golic could compete for the right guard slot that will be vacated by Trevor Robinson.

John Goodman — The first three wideouts for 2012 are Theo Riddick, TJ Jones and Robby Toma. After that, it’s a plethora of untested, green players, led by sophomore Daniel Smith and freshmen DaVaris Daniels and Matthias Farley. Goodman had a role as the man to catch punts, and he has 28 career catches (although only seven for 65 yards this year). Will the staff move forward with a youth movement?

Dan McCarthy — Injured much of his first three years, he played 11 games on special teams this year and recorded nine tackles. Although Slaughter, junior Zeke Motta and sophomore Austin Collinsworth return at safety, there are huge question marks afterwards with 1) Badger not having played football in two years and 2) freshman Eilar Hardy coming off knee surgery. It’s similar to Goodman’s situation.

Next Stage Of Life
Many players who don’t come back for a fifth season will use that year of eligibility at another school. Last year’s examples include defensive lineman Emeka Nwankwo (Western Illinois) or Steve Paskorz (West Virginia). Many of these players could do the same:

Dayne Crist — The former five-star quarterback recruit and esteemed citizen still has realistic NFL aspirations, but it won’t happen at Notre Dame. Rumors have had him following Russell Wilson’s footsteps at Wisconsin.

Anthony McDonald — Former high school teammate of Crist and two-time monogram winner at Notre Dame, the inside linebacker is behind Te’o and sophomore Kendall Moore. He has expressed an interest at pursuing a career in the FBI.

Brandon Newman — Way too congested at nose guard for the former U.S. Army All-American participant who is a film, TV and theatre major and has put together the “Trick Shot Mondays” video for YouTube.

David Posluszny — Special teams performer the past several years, the reserve inside linebacker recorded four tackles in the nine games he appeared in this season.

Deion Walker — The wideout’s lone career reception came in 2009. He already has a job offer with a bank awaiting him, but is still thinking about playing some football.

Hafis Williams — A valuable contributor at nose guard during Notre Dame’s 4-0 finish in 2010, his role diminished with the influx of this year’s freshman class, but he would still be plenty capable of starting at other schools.

Contributions & thanks to Lou Somogyi of Blue &