Where did all the safeties go?


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. 

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”