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. 

Irish A-to-Z: Jalen Elliott

Jalen Elliott Irish 247
Photo courtesy of Irish 247 / Tom Loy
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Don’t know Jalen Elliott yet? You will soon enough.

While the 3-star prospect didn’t land on any national lists of recruiting victories, Notre Dame’s coaching staff believes that they might have their next great strong safety on campus in the Virginia native.

While there are other prospects who are bigger, stronger and faster—and had better recruiting rankings and scholarship offers—Elliott stood out to the Irish staff when they got him on campus, turning Brian Kelly and company into major believers. Now it’s up to the young player to make his way up a depth chart that’s been restocked, finding a way into the mix with assumed starters Drue Tranquill and Max Redfield.

 

JALEN ELLIOTT
6′, 190 lbs.
Freshman, Safety

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A consensus 3-star prospect with offers from Auburn, Georgia, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Two-time captain and state champion. Two-way starter as quarterback, cornerback and safety.

A 2015 first-team All-State 5A player. On the 2015 Richmond Times-Dispatch All-Region first team, MVP of 2015 Virginia High School All-Star game.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Kelly may have tipped his hand when he glowed about Elliott in his Signing Day comments.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting, and that’s over 25 years. His competitive spirit was unmatched,” Kelly said. “It was unparalleled in terms of I can’t remember a guy — maybe there was one guy that competed on the offensive line for me at Cincinnati in a camp that was similar, but this kid competed at every position at such a level that he was a can’t-miss guy for us in the recruiting process.”

There could be concerns about Elliott’s size—he doesn’t have prototype strong safety size or heft. But great safeties come in all shapes and sizes (Eric Weddle certainly doesn’t look like an All-Pro). That’s not to say that Elliott will have an All-American college career like Weddle did at Utah, but if he’s able to match his intellect with his competitive spirit, he’s playing the right position for a guy to make an immediate impact in South Bend.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m buying the hype on Elliott. I think he’s my leading snap-earner on the defensive side of the ball for the freshman class, out-pacing position-mate Devin Studstill, who had spring practice to work his way into first-team reps with Max Redfield.

Versatility is a big reason I’m so high on Elliott. He’s a guy who can stay at safety if the Irish need to move Tranquill around—a preference of Brian VanGorder’s. He’s a potential nickel or dime entry if the Irish want to put more defensive backs on the field. He’s also good enough to get a look as a cornerback. And he’ll certainly be someone who can be counted on as a special teamer.

Opportunity is the other obvious reason to target Elliott as true freshman contributor. Notre Dame’s safety play needs improvement, and new blood might be the best option.

I’m hesitant to match stats with snaps, especially knowing that sometimes productive safety play means you failed in the front seven. But I’ve got no hesitation grabbing the reins and kick-starting the Elliott bandwagon.

Giddy up.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg

 

Irish A-to-Z: Micah Dew-Treadway

M Dew Treadway 247
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When Micah Dew-Treadway arrived at Notre Dame, it was unclear what position he’d play on the defensive line. A redshirt fall and spring season under his belt, where Dew-Treadway will end up is still cloudy, but it does appear that he’s a contender to make an impact.

On a defensive line without Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara—and a line a year away from losing Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell—opportunity awaits. And as Keith Gilmore still sorts through his options at defensive end and tries his best to find his best four defensive linemen, Dew-Treadway’s sophomore season should be spent trying to make a pitch for some playing time in a rotation that’ll have to be deeper than last year’s.

An early-entry into college certainly helped Dew-Treadway. But with an eligibility clock that begins ticking come the fall, there’ll be an urgency to get on the field that maybe wasn’t felt before now for the Chicagoland prospect.

 

MICAH DEW-TREADWAY
6’4″, 300 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 97, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Semper-Fi All-American, Dew-Treadway picked Notre Dame the summer before his senior season. He was a three-star prospect, with eight sacks and 12 TFLs as a senior, earning All-State first-team by the Champaign News-Gazette and All-Area by the Chicago Sun Times.

Had offers from Mississippi State, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin and others.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Sometimes getting the obvious ones right is a good thing.

Barring a nightmare scenario, I don’t see Dew-Treadway on the field this season. And that’s not a bad thing. Watching highlights from his senior season of high school, you saw Dew-Treadway do some very good things, displaying the type of player who could very easily turn into a Jarron Jones type performer. But there are also the habits of a high schooler on display, things that will need to be drilled out of him.

Fifteen practices this spring won’t necessarily do that. Nor will a fall playing behind veterans Sheldon Day and Jones. But as the Irish rollover their interior depth, newcomers will need to step to the forefront. So throw Dew-Treadway into a promising group that’ll include Jay Hayes and Jon Bonner, developmental players who could be key to providing the next level of reinforcements.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s still hard to figure out what Dew-Treadway’s ceiling could be. He projected as a developmental prospect as a recruit and did nothing to change that during his redshirt season. We saw glimpses of athleticism and potential productivity during spring drills, though that’s hardly a data point worth chasing.

With good size and ability, Dew-Treadway could be an effective player in the trenches, showcasing the type of athleticism Kelly talked about on Signing Day. Until then, we’ll have to see how the 2016 season plays out—and if Keith Gilmore trusts him to be more than just a guy behind a guy.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Brian Kelly’s mid-June comments about Jarron Jones might actually help Dew-Treadway see the field. Because if the optimum amount of snaps for Jones is 35, that means there’s about 20 more for some lineman not named Daniel Cage or Jerry Tillery, and it’s anybody’s guess who will fill those snaps.

I tend to think those snaps could go to Jon Bonner first. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Dew-Treadway finds his way into those second-team developmental snaps this year, moving ahead of a veteran like Peter Mokwuah or converted offensive lineman John Montelus, with athleticism a key factor in all of this.

 

*First 5-yard penalty for falling out of order. 

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg

Irish A-to-Z: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg 247
Irish 247 / Tom Loy
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In freshman tackle Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame has what looks like a future cornerstone on the offensive line. Now he’ll need to develop into the front-line player many hope he’ll become.

The good news? Harry Hiestand is on the case. Few offensive line coaches in college football do a better job of sculpting linemen, and in Eichenberg, the veteran Irish assistant has quite a piece of clay.

With Mike McGlinchey and Alex Bars slotted into the starting lineup heading into camp, Eichenberg will likely spend 2016 watching, learning, eating and lifting weights. But with the NFL beckoning for McGlinchey and the depth chart at tackle thin, there’s not much time to waste.

 

LIAM EICHENBERG
6’6″, 285 lbs.
Freshman, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Four-star, Top 100 recruit. Under Armour All-American. Max Preps first-team All-American. All-State Ohio first-team.

Eichenberg was one of the most sought after offensive tackle prospects in the country and he chose Notre Dame over Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State, Miami and a few dozen others.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

While Tommy Kraemer might be a better near-term prospect, there’s a “sky-is-the-limit” feel to Eichenberg after talking to people around the program. So while it’ll likely be Kraemer earning training camp praise from Kelly as the battle at right guard adds a new contender, giving Eichenberg the year to develop behind Mike McGlinchey and Alex Bars will be ideal.

That being said, there should be some urgency to this season for Eichenberg. Because it’ll take minutes for the college football world to notice how good of an NFL prospect McGlinchey is and a fifth-year might not be necessary for the Philadelphia native. And with little depth on the outside, an injury could change Eichenberg’s playing trajectory before a spring practice where he could be in the middle of a battle for playing time.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

A redshirt for Eichenberg.

Then a spring where he could be in a battle to replace Notre Dame’s next first-round left tackle. (It’s too early to predict if McGlinchey is heading to the NFL, but he certainly will have all eyes on him.)

Regardless, it’s a critically important season for Eichenberg on the practice field and in the weight room. Because there’s every reason to believe that the Irish will be reloading on the offensive line this recruiting cycle, and there’s be competition in the ranks from the moment he steps on campus.

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly

Texas CB Paulson Adebo commits to Notre Dame

Paulson Adebo Rivals
Rivals / Yahoo Sports
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Notre Dame’s recruiting momentum continued through the weekend, with cornerback Paulson Adebo committing to Notre Dame. The Texas speedster, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound cornerback, made the decision official via social media on Monday afternoon.

Adebo had offers from Texas, USC, Oklahoma, Baylor, Oregon, Georgia and many others.

Winning another recruiting battle in the state of Texas is key, with Adebo getting onto campus in May for a Junior Day. That the Irish also landed a commitment from Adebo with an offer from Oklahoma also out there should help calm worries that the Lone Star State would be off limits without Kerry Cooks on staff, who was likely involved in Adebo’s recruitment for the Sooners. That’s two Texas prospects in this recruiting cycle, with quarterback Avery Davis very excited about the news of Adebo’s commitment.

Some schools see Adebo as a wide receiver, though Notre Dame has him penciled as an outside cornerback. His length and speed (Adebo has run the 200m in 21.4, according to a report from IrishSportsDaily) make him perfect for Brian VanGorder’s aggressive cover scheme.

Adebo makes 13 commitments in the 2017 cycle after a weekend flurry added pass rusher Jonathon MacCollister and receiver Jordan Pouncey. (Underclassman Markese Stepp also committed.) The run of four commitments in four days nearly matches the five recruits the Irish added in March, when David Adams, Avery Davis, Kurt Hinish, Drew White and Pete Werner all joined the 2017 class.

Adebo caught 41 passes for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on offense while intercepting five passes during his junior season. Per MaxPreps, Mansfield went 12-3 in 2015, including a 6-0 record in Texas’s 6A level.

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