Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta were the only two scholarship safeties available to play on Saturday night in East Lansing, a gigantic handicap that reared its ugly head multiple times in Saturday’s overtime loss to Michigan State.
While injuries to starting safety Jamoris Slaughter and key reserve Dan McCarthy put the Irish in the inevitable position, the Irish are where they are in the secondary because of decisions made over the past five years. Notre Dame doesn’t have many safeties on the roster because Charlie Weis and the previous regime didn’t recruit and sign many safeties.
Let’s take a look at the defensive backs signed over the past five years:
Sergio Brown — Eligibility completed, on the practice squad on the New England Patriots
Jashaad Gaines — Transferred to Texas Southern
Leonard Gordon — Profiled as a cornerback, did not return for 5th year.
Raeshon McNeil — Cornerback, eligibility completed.
Darrin Walls — Starting cornerback.
Harrison Smith — Starting safety.
Gary Gray — Starting cornerback.
Robert Blanton — Reserve cornerback.
Dan McCarthy — Backup safety, currently battling injury.
Jamoris Slaughter — Cornerback/safety recruit, starting safety, battling ankle injury.
EJ Banks — Recruited as a cornerback, currently off scholarship on scout team.
Chris Badger — Safety. Currently on two-year religious mission.
Spencer Boyd — Transferred to South Florida.
Austin Collinsworth — Battling for playing time as a wide receiver.
Lo Wood — True freshman on the two-deep at cornerback.
As you can see above, the depth problems at safety have been five years in the making. One player the coaches really wanted to have back was Sergio Brown, a safety that has the speed and play-making ability to succeed in the zone system that Bob Diaco employs. Brown is a good example of a wasted year of eligibility, with Weis and company deciding to use Brown for only 56 seconds of playing time during 11 games of his freshman season.
The Irish are also struggling at safety because of the type of athletes they’ve recruited to play the position. The last true free safety to play for the Irish was David Bruton, and nearly every safety over the past five seasons lacks the ability to play centerfield in a zone scheme. Only Jamoris Slaughter can truly be considered a pass-first safety (we’ve haven’t see Dan McCarthy play yet) and Notre Dame has struggled when they’ve needed to rely on guys like Harrison Smith to be the last line of defense against teams that spread the field and commit to throwing the football.
The late push the coaching staff made at safeties Jeremy Ioane and Dietrich Riley during the last recruiting cycle showed that Kelly knew the roster was badly imbalanced in the secondary, and blue-chip prospects like Gerell Robinson, Major Wright, Taylor Mays and Anthony Barr give Irish fans reminders of the type of players that Notre Dame almost had in the backfield.
Taking a look at the 2011 class, a profile of the type of athlete that Kelly wants in his secondary is starting to take shape — there isn’t a defensive back that is less than six-feet tall, nor over 200 pounds. While all four commits profile as having cornerback ability, there’s no doubt that the lack of safeties on the Irish roster will necessitate two players — most likely Eilar Hardy and Matthias Farley — getting immediate reps at safety. With 19 commitments already in the fold, Chuck Martin and the rest of the Irish coaches can focus on recruiting elite defensive backs (see Wayne Lyons) and start selling the ability to play early. Convincing some of them to say yes will likely determine the Irish’s ability to play elite defense in their secondary.