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Filling holes: Safety

Mar 13, 2012, 8:36 PM EDT

Slaughter Utah

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.


  1. goldnd - Mar 13, 2012 at 9:43 PM

    What happened to the Inside the Irish link at the top of the screen? soccer? really?

  2. nudeman - Mar 13, 2012 at 9:47 PM

    OK, pretty fair and balanced – and good – article.
    No rose colored glasses, which I like.
    My comments:
    1) Surprised no mention of Shumate. Does that mean you think he’s out of the mix for 2012?
    2) Motta is just “OK”. There’s a reason he had no INTs, and it wasn’t “bad luck”.
    3) It also wasn’t that QBs were afraid to challenge him.
    4) Not surprised to hear that Collinsworth is considered to have “high football IQ”. His dad sounds very bright on TV and was known as a high IQ guy on the field himself.
    5) Laughed when I read this: “Chuck Martin mentioned last season that he wouldn’t hesitate putting Salvi in the game at safety”. Anybody believe that? What else could Chuck say? “God, I hope we don’t have to put the walk-on in”.
    6) Having said that, we all have immense respect for Salvi. Talk about paying your dues!! God bless you, loyal son. I wish I was you. Hope he has a couple serious big plays to round out his over achieving ND career.
    7) I still get night sweats when I think of the last 25 seconds of the Michigan game. PLEASE … fix this part of the team.
    8) Tee … protein and dead lifts.
    9) Sure wish Luther Bradley was on this team.
    10) Same as above for Tom Schoen.

  3. nudeman - Mar 13, 2012 at 9:50 PM

    “Tee … protein and dead lifts” was supposed to be #8 above.
    Don’t know where the smiley guy with the shades came from.

  4. ndfanwabashman - Mar 13, 2012 at 10:15 PM

    I was one of those fans who was not sad to see Harrison Smith go. I find Zeke Motta as Harrison Smith 2.0. More of the same problems. He is a guy who seems to be always looking for the knockout or the big play while his cover skills are sorely lacking. Missing a tackle is one thing but being out of position and leaving a man wide open is a problem we’ve seen too often at the safety position.
    I would like to see more of Collinsworth. He was always a “right place, right time” type guy on special teams which is exactly what the Irish need at the back of the defense.

    • turknd - Mar 13, 2012 at 10:37 PM

      I like Collinsworth too, however I don’t think Harrison was a weak safety. We’ll see in the draft. I still think lack of coverage on the corners was why his numbers dropped. i.e. Michigan game when balls under thrown we caught because the corner doesn’t look back. How many unde thrown balls were caught- safety is over the top, can’t defend that. Lack of coverage on the corners has to reduce the aggressiveness of the safetyas last line of defense.

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Mar 14, 2012 at 12:54 PM

        Excellent point Turk. We need studs at the corners and the result of that will be that safety play will radically improve as a consequence. Keep Shepard, Hardy, etc at corner. In fact, get Collinsworth at corner as well because he has some good speed. We need guys with speed, the ability to read receivers and then get their heads around to make a play on the ball. Safety should be there to clean up on the play and (hopefully) be the guy between any advancing player and the goal line.

      • nudeman - Mar 14, 2012 at 12:55 PM

        I disagree on H Smith.
        Hard hitter but an average cover guy, at best
        That translates to “poor cover guy” in the NFL

        Being talked about as a late 1st rounder, but I’ll believe that when I see it.

      • dbldmr - Mar 14, 2012 at 1:38 PM

        A great pass rush makes good corners better and safeties more aggressive. Our pass rush was sporadic last year. I was also frustrated with the corner play and there’s no question that improvement is needed there. Aaron Lynch showing consistently the kind of rush he generated from time to time last year (despite the inevitable holding calls that are missed…and he has to quit getting so overtly frustrated about those) would upgrade the pressure. Coupled with better corner play (not hard to imagine), this could be a pretty good defense.

      • nudeman - Mar 14, 2012 at 4:06 PM

        The pieces are there for the pass rush to be great. They have quality and depth. Lynch and Tuitt were ferocious at times last year and are a year more mature and stronger. Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day sound like they could add some value this year. And of course Louis, though he’s more of a run stopper (like Day).

        Barring injuries, their pass rush should not only NOT be a weakness, it should be a strength. I think we’re at least a year away from saying that about the DBs, and specifically the CBs.

  5. degosavage23 - Mar 14, 2012 at 1:17 AM

    the only name I see on here that I’m 100% comfortable with is Slaughter. Obviously, he is all but guaranteed the SS spot.

    Motta – I’m unimpressed with.
    Collinsworth – great on special teams, shows promise.
    McCarthy – his brother was good, and he might be too if he can stay healthy.
    Hardy – very intriguing to me, although correct me if I’m wrong but I think he was originally recruited at CB? Wouldn’t mind seeing him there with the lack of depth.
    Shepard – hear great things, good film, but unproven as we have never seen him on the field. Can he produce right away, possibly start?
    Salvi – stick to special teams and boxing

    I have to agree with nude though, I do think it is very much possible that Shumate could make an immediate impact. If you’re gonna consider Shepard, you might as well follow up with Shumate.

  6. akirish - Mar 14, 2012 at 4:51 AM

    Why so quick to mention Shepard w/ the safeties? I think it is important to remember that Kelly has mentioned repeatedly that Shepard is the “ideal size” or “prototype player”–at cornerback. As fans we have become accustomed to our corners being undersized but slow; this staff seems determined to change that as evidenced by their target recruits (successful or not) at the position. Elite corners are recruited to play corner, and I think it would slow their development trying them out at safety. Perhaps if he grows too large or proves he is better suited for safety in the future he would move, but I can’t see it right away.

    I would think Shumate would be more likely to compete at safety, and I would mention Baratti as a possibility as well.
    Maybe Badger was too far removed from football and will need a year to “catch up”, but his highlight reel was awesome!

    Collinsworth is a stud. I think he will emerge as a premier player and leader.

  7. nudeman - Mar 14, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    I’m guessing at this point Shumate was an inadvertent omission.
    If so, can you say a few words about his outlook?

    • dmac4real - Mar 14, 2012 at 2:28 PM

      Im guessing he means the candidates for spring….Thus no Shumate or Baratti or Prosise

      • bernhtp - Mar 14, 2012 at 2:41 PM

        The article is about the fall. Among the freshmen, only Shephard is mentioned because he is the only top-rated guy with an anticipated shot at the two-deep. I think it is very unlikely that Shumate, Baratti or Prosise will see the field except for maybe special teams and some garbage time.

  8. rambler09 - Mar 14, 2012 at 12:14 PM

    I also think that Shumate and Badger are worth mentioning. Both seem to have a lot of promise at the safety position. Furthermore, I would be very surprised if Tee moved over to safety, especially given our troubling lack of depth at the corner position. He seems to me to be a true corner and I can’t imagine that we would transfer him from an area of need to an area of excess.

    I also think it’s interesting that people have been talking about Hardy moving over to corner. I haven’t seen his tape- not that I’d know what to look for- but we’re going to need some serious high-level competition at the corner position if we’re going to avoid getting destroyed through the air next year.

    All that to say that I’m not too concerned about the safety position for next year. We have a lot of talented guys- some with a good amount of experience. Corners I’m worried about. Bob Elliott is supposed to be a great secondary coach… but he’ll have his hands full.

  9. nudeman - Mar 14, 2012 at 9:16 PM

    Recruit #3
    Meet James Onwaulu

    From Pete Sampson:
    More on James Onwualu with some interesting quotes Reply
    Just talked with the venerable Pete Sampson, who caught up with James Onwualu before boarding a flight to Greensboro, N.C., to cover the basketball team in the NCAA tournament. Here are some salient points:

    Onwualu called the Notre Dame coaching staff Monday to let them know he wanted to visit as soon as possible. That trip happened Tuesday and Wednesday, with Onwualu giving head coach Brian Kelly a commitment in person before returning home.

    Kelly and assistant Tony Alford both changed their schedules to be on campus.

    “Coach Kelly changed his plans to come see me,” Onwualu said. “Coach Alford changed his plans to come see me. They were all on spring break, going on trips with their families. They took time to meet my brother and show how much they really cared.”

    Onwualu plans to return for the March 24 junior day and will bring his parents along as well. Potential trips to Michigan and Ohio State, which came in with an offer this week, have been canceled.

    There are a couple prospects not on the projected visitors list that Onwualu would like to add to this recruiting class, which is now three deep.

    “Ty Isaac is obviously one,” Onwualu said. “Notre Dame is definitely a place he needs to be. And then Matt Alviti, both of those guys, especially Alviti. We connected at the Under Armour Combine even before we knew who each other was, we were talking about where we wanted to play together and we’ve kept in touch since then. Both those guys would help boost the class, boost the depth of the team.”

    On another note, Onwualu has been in touch with some of the Cretin-Derham Hall alums that have matriculated through Notre Dame on their way to professional life. Onwualu talked to Michael Floyd, Marcus Freeman and Ryan Harris about his decision.

    All of the above were supportive.

    “It shows how powerful the alumni is at Notre Dame and also at Cretin-Derham Hall,” Onwualu said. “Floyd was very excited for me. He as certain nicknames for me and all those came out. He was screaming for me.”

  10. tersignind - Mar 15, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    per BGINews Tee is not longer enrolled at ND!?

    • borromini - Mar 15, 2012 at 1:23 PM

      Yeah…I just read the same thing over at ISD. He’s already returned to Fresno. Unbelievable…what an odyssey. Announced the same time by ND that Carlisle would be eligible to play in 2012. I hate good news/bad news press releases.

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