Slaughter Utah

Filling holes: Safety

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Just a year after Harrison Smith played the role of ball hawk, the senior safety was snake-bit. Seven interceptions in 2010 had Irish fans thinking Notre Dame’s defense had a gold-glove center-fielder. But in 2011, while the defense had a more mature and comfortable Smith roaming the secondary, the interceptions just didn’t come. Smith had 10 pass break-ups (up from seven during 2010), but his interceptions dropped from seven to zero, a staggering decline for a guy that put together game tape and athleticism that has him climbing closer to a first-round grade by the day.

NFL personnel men wouldn’t be swooning over Smith if they didn’t like the way he played his senior year. But if there’s ever proof that football is a game of inches, 2011 gave it to us. Whether it was quarterbacks identifying where Smith was at all times, or a change in scheme or playmaking, the Irish didn’t get the the turnovers in the passing game they needed, with Smith coming up just a hair-late or inches from a game-changing turnover. Just another small piece of why the 2011 season was ultimately a disappointment.

With the Irish defense needing to replace it’s defensive captain and starting free safety, let’s take a look at the battle coming together this fall.

2011 Starters
Harrison Smith, Sr.
Jamoris Slaughter, Jr.

Quick Positional Recap

While his interceptions plummeted, Smith still played great football. He was on the field for a staggering 95% of all defensive snaps, an amazing number considering the lopsided victories the Irish had against teams like Purdue, Navy, Air Force and Maryland. That shows Smith’s impact wasn’t just from whistle to whistle, but before the snap, making sure the Irish were in proper alignment and calls. Smith also had the second-highest productivity as a tackler, trailing only Manti Te’o among major contributors, a pretty impressive feat for a guy that spent a lot of time in coverage.

The second safety position was mostly manned by the platoon of Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta. As discussed earlier, Motta was more impressive than you may remember, and Slaughter’s play down in the box against Air Force, and his subsequent use as the “star” linebacker showed some versatility that will give the Irish defense some additional options in 2012. Both Austin Collinsworth and Dan McCarthy saw playing time, each clocking in around seven percent of snaps in reserve work.

The Candidates

Zeke Motta, 6-2, 215, Sr. — If Motta has the ability to be a great safety in space, we haven’t seen it yet. The knock on Motta’s game so far has been the occasional out-of-control play that’s made him look bad out in space against running backs or wide receivers. (That was also the knock on Smith until his tackling radically improved when Brian Kelly came to town.) Motta, who took almost 70 percent of the defense’s snaps as a nickel back, will play a lot. Where remains the question.

Austin Collinsworth, 6-1, 200, Jr. – It was Collinsworth that worked his way past Dan McCarthy in the safety depth chart after spending his freshman season as a wide receiver. Now it’ll likely be those two battling for the primary nickel job that Motta owned last season, with Collinsworth hopefully making the leap now that he’s entering his junior campaign. Brian Kelly and the defensive staff are high on Collinsworth’s football IQ and playmaking ability, and we’ve seen flashes of both in special teams. Having that translate into defensive success with be key in 2012.

Danny McCarthy, 6-2, 205, Sr.  — McCarthy was the primary beneficiary when the Irish recruiting class came up a bit short in February. That’s not to say he’s some leftover body that fills an empty hole on the roster. When McCarthy chose the Irish over offers from Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, and Michigan after being Ohio’s player of the year, many expected a more athletic version of his older brother, current NFL’er and former Irish captain Kyle. But McCarthy hasn’t been able to crack the safety rotation yet, with various injuries the main culprit. Still, he’s a great athlete that has a chance for a “light-bulb on” final season in South Bend, just like Jonas Gray.

Eliar Hardy, 6-0, 185, Soph. — Just as word was coming around that Hardy was impressing during fall camp last year, a knee injury robbed Hardy of his freshman season. It might be a blessing in disguise as the undersized safety was allowed to save a year of eligibility while also developing in the weight room. We won’t know what to expect from Hardy until spring practice gets underway, but he’s a great wild-card in a position battle that seems pretty straight-forward.

Tee Shepard, 6-1, 186, Fr. — Shepard is also a leading candidate to push for time at cornerback, but at six-foot-one, and good natural size even before spending six months with Paul Longo, he’s the type of big-bodied athlete that could find his way to the nickel back spot early. Early enrollment was critical for Shepard, who lost a season of development when his senior year on the football field was forfeited because of a transfer rule. Shepard is one of the more intriguing athletes to watch during spring practice.

Chris Salvi, 5-10, 190, Sr. — Let’s not forget the former walk-on special teams dynamo. Chuck Martin mentioned last season that he wouldn’t hesitate putting Salvi in the game at safety. (He almost had to during the injury plagued 2010 season.) That likely won’t change when new safeties coach Bobby Elliott gets his hands on the Bengal Bouts champ, who knows the system and has plenty of speed and athleticism.

 

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.”