Stepping up… The Secondary

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If you missed our first two installments of “Stepping Up,” where we talked about the offensive line and the wide receivers, be sure to check them out.

It wasn’t hard to identify the secondary as a massive problem area last season. A perceived area of strength going into the season, the Irish defensive backs were a massive disappointment, failing to make many big plays, and far too often getting beat for one instead. The veteran cornerbacks that many had high hopes for disappointed almost to a man, as veterans like Rasheon McNeil, Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton all had major lapses in coverage, and played well below expectations last season. Meanwhile, the transition of Harrison Smith back to safety was a disaster, and the combination of run-support heavy Kyle McCarthy and the enigmatic play of Sergio Brown left the Irish defense without a capable centerfielder, something that spells disaster for a team trying to play a Cover 2 scheme.

The returning secondary is truly a mixed bag. On the edges, the Irish only lose Rasheon McNeil from the cornerback rotation, returning Walls, Blanton, and Gray, the three corners that played the most minutes in the defensive backfield. At safety, the Irish lose their top two contributors in McCarthy and Brown, in addition to backup Ray Herring, though they do get Harrison Smith back after a lost season spent transitioning between safety and outside linebacker.

While poor pass defense can hardly be blamed solely on defensive backs, corners and safeties are the last line of defense and will always be the ones on the hook when a pass play goes for big yardage. Regardless of the ineptitude of the pass rush, there was still no excuse for a secondary that gave up way too many explosive plays and made a habit of giving up career days to opposing quarterbacks. 

While new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and new defensive backs coach Chuck Martin have their hands full, they’ve got a group of players that come with a lot of talent. Every cornerback on the roster was a well-regarded recruiting prospect, and they’ve all got plenty of experience to lean on. And while Harrison Smith’s maligned minutes are the only ones that truly return at safety, a clean slate might be the best thing for everyone involved.

The Irish not only have to replace minutes, they need to replace the bad memories of a defensive season gone awry. Here are the key losses, important returning players, and the defensive backs that need to step it up.

KEY LOSSES:

If there was a highlight for the Irish secondary, it was Kyle McCarthy. McCarthy was the epitome of a program player, a guy that paid his dues on the way up and played two stand-out seasons as a starter. While I wasn’t as high on his tackling prowess as my colleagues in the broadcast booth, McCarthy’s obscene two-season stat-line made him the only Notre Dame defensive back to eclipse 100 tackles in a season, and he achieved that feat twice. McCarthy also chipped in a team-high five interceptions.

RETURNING STARTERS:

The time is now for cornerback Darrin Walls. There is no more waiting for the former blue-chip cornerback. He’s back for a fifth-year at Notre Dame and hopefully will blossom under the regime change. Robert Blanton also returns, likely humbled from a sophomore season that had to be disappointing after such a strong freshman campaign. Gary Gray will likely be fighting for a starting job as well after wrestling one away during the second half of last season. Gray made a few big plays, but Irish fans hope he’ll bring a new confidence to the field as a senior. At safety, Brian Kelly already mentioned that Harrison Smith has been impressive during offseason workouts and will return to safety after being flip-flopped around the past two seasons.

STEPPING UP:

While every position is a clean slate for the Irish, no group needed it more than the secondary. Last year, the problems seemed to be between the ears more so than athletically. The secondary never seemed to master the new principles of the blitzing Cover 2 scheme that Jon Tenuta employed, and too often the defense was just plain beat on coverage that was fundamentally puzzling. For the Irish defense to play up to their skill level, here are a few guys that’ll need to play big:

Harrison Smith: Nobody needed a regime change like Smith did. The Tennessee native had a rocky season that saw him become the ire of many Irish fans, but enters the season with two years of eligibility remaining. Moving Smith from undersized linebacker to safety expected to play deep coverage is a lot to ask of a young player, especially one that likely relied on a lot of gambling to compete against players that sometimes outweighed him by 100 pounds.

Jamoris Slaughter: Slaughter is the type of guy better classified as a football player than either a cornerback or safety. Slaughter was given a shot late in the year to win a job in the secondary after others played their way out of contention, but he never truly seized the moment. That said, the previous coaching staff believed he was a sound tackler with good speed and ball skills, and has to think that a job in either nickel or as a starting safety is a very real possibility.

Zeke Motta: Motta is a guy that made an immediate impact on special teams. He’s also a jumbo-sized safety that has great football instincts and his eyes on a starting safety position. While I’ve got no idea if Motta can be a guy that plays great in space, if his play on special teams is any indication, he’ll be flying around the field looking to make tackles if he’s given his chance.

Dark Horses: Expect another McCarthy to start working his way onto the field, as Danny is reportedly the better athletes of the two brothers. Fifth-year senior Leonard Gordon should contribute as a safety or corner (Thanks, Zach.). From a physical standpoint, early enrollee Chris Badger looks ready to go on special teams at the very least. E.J. Banks redshirted last year, but might be ready to take a shot at a job in the secondary as well. 

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”