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How we got here: A look at the Irish secondary

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What we know is that presumed starting field cornerback Lo Wood is out for the season after rupturing his achilles tendon in a non-contact drill. What we don’t know is who’ll replace him in the starting lineup.

But maybe Brian Kelly does.

“I’m absolutely sure who’s going to replace him,” Kelly said yesterday when he addressed the media. “It’s just a matter of where and when that decision is going to be made. We know we’ve got four corners outside of Bennett that are going to compete, and we know all of them can play that position.

“Now they’re on stage, they get an opportunity over the next 10 days to determine who that’s going to be.”

For those just getting up-to-speed on Notre Dame football this August, the candidates for the job are sophomores Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, and freshmen KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate. Combined, they’ve played a total of three defensive snaps. Three. All taken by Atkinson in mop-up time against Air Force.

The loss of Wood undoubtedly hurts the Irish and weakens a position that already had a magnifying glass on it. But before we clear the deck chairs, it bears mentioning that Wood only played 11 percent of the snaps last season and only saw more than 10 in comfortable wins against Purdue, Air Force, Navy and Maryland, before playing 19 snaps in the defensive slugfest against Boston College.

Still, Kerry Cooks‘ cornerbacks now have little margin for error. Even if Cam McDaniel stays full-time at cornerback, the Irish have little depth and none of it is tested.

How’d we get there? Glad you asked. Let’s turn back the clock and check out the defensive back recruiting classes:

2008 (fifth-year players): Three DBs recruited. 
Robert Blanton — Played four years. Drafted by the Minnesota Vikings to play safety.
Dan McCarthy —  Fifth-year reserve safety. Looked as if his career was finished until surprise 5th year.
Jamoris Slaughter — Hybrid player, multi-year starter for Irish at safety.

2009 (seniors): Two DBs recruited.
E.J. Banks — Left Notre Dame after one season. Now a walk-on DB at Pitt.
Zeke Motta — Starting safety for Irish.

2010 (juniors): Five DBs recruited
Chris Badger — Left on Mormon mission. Now a freshman safety.
Spencer Boyd — Academic and personal issues had Boyd depart before ever taking a snap.
Austin Collinsworth — Torn labrum will likely cost him 2012 season.
Lo Wood — Torn achilles tendon will cost him 2012 season.
Bennett Jackson — Former WR. First year starting cornerback.

2011 (sophomores): Four DBs recruited
Matthias Farley — Spent 2011 as WR. Fighting for time at safety.
Josh Atkinson — Spent 2011 on special teams. Fighting for starting CB job.
Jalen Brown — Redshirted freshman season. Fighting for CB job.
Eilar Hardy — Knee injury cost him freshman season.

2012 (freshman): Six DBs recruited 
Nicky Baratti — Getting strong reviews at safety.
KeiVarae Russell — Moved to CB first day of practice.
CJ Prosise — Playing safety and outside linebacker.
Tee Shepard — Left school in spring after early enrolling.
Elijah Shumate — Shifted from safety to cornerback.
John Turner — Developmental safety prospect.

How the Irish got to where they are is a product injuries, Brian Kelly’s recruiting choices, and the roster management of Charlie Weis. Holes in the 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes, where the Irish only signed five total defensive backs and zero true corners, have come back to bite Notre Dame, with the situation only exacerbated by Banks and Boyd leaving the program and a rash of injuries.

While missing out or losing key cornerback recruits like Ronald Darby, Tee Shepard, Yuri Wright, Bennett Okotcha (now transferring from Oklahoma after a redshirt season) and a handful of others, the shuffling of the roster — and recruitment of versatile players like Farley, Russell, and McDaniel (who will also spend more time in the defensive backfield) — has helped the Irish weather the storm as well as they can while they’ve put their focus on filling other noticeable roster holes (defensive end, outside linebacker, and wide receiver, to name a few.)

If you expected Brian Kelly to cry poor in preseason because of his untested depth chart, you don’t know anything about the third-year Irish coach. But if you listen carefully, you get the sense that Kelly knows what he has in his defensive backfield. After expressing how terrible he feels for Wood, who had an incredible offseason and put himself in a position to perform well this season, Kelly spoke of his confidence in the untested depth behind the injured junior.

“I feel really good about the other five corners that we have as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve got five scholarship corners that we believe can play the kind of football necessary for us to be successful. So we’ll move forward at that position. I think we have enough depth there to play very good football.”

In the past Kelly has talked about how he evaluates his roster. There’s a three-pronged rating system that he uses to evaluate players on his roster. If a player receives a three, he’s capable of playing championship football. If a player receives a two, he’s capable of playing winning football. If a player receives a one, he’s not ready to play.

Digging deeper into that quote, you get the feeling that the five cornerbacks might not garner many threes, but their ability to “play the kind of football necessary for us to be successful,” lets you behind the curtain on the internal evaluation process, and gives you a clue of what to expect out of the Irish defense as they protect their liabilities, something defensive coordinator Bob Diaco talked about on Media Day.

“The biggest thing that’s going to impact the style of defense that we play is the secondary and who’s in there,” Diaco told Jack Nolan at UND.com. “If particular guys are in there, we may need to manage the game which will create a different pattern of calls.”

Diaco made these comments before the loss of Wood, giving you an insight into the thought process even before the junior went down. But with one less hand on deck, it’ll be the defense’s ability to protect the secondary not just by coverage choices but by pressure in the front seven, that’ll determine whether the Irish defense can withstand its difficult 2012 schedule.

Until then, Diaco, Cooks and safeties coach Bob Elliott have some work to do.

 

Irish A-to-Z: D.J. Morgan

DJ Morgan
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Notre Dame looked to add size to the back end of its defense this recruiting cycle. A big piece of that is Southern California freshman D.J. Morgan. A big, tough, versatile defensive back, area recruiter Mike Denbrock said it best when he called Morgan, “the best football player off of the best team in California.”

Thrown into the mix at a safety position that still has some sorting to do, Morgan will be one to watch during fall camp as Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder look for answers on the back end.

 

D.J. MORGAN
6’2″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, DB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Multi-season starter and team captain of the nationally-ranked St. John Bosco team in Southern California. All-league selection, three-star recruit. Offers from Arizona State, Cal, Colorado and Utah.

Missing some of the elite offers that go to players of this profile, Morgan was an early target and take by the Irish coaching staff after being briefly committed to Arizona State.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Denbrock’s praise for Morgan certainly does more for me than any modest recruiting ranking. But the lack of high-end Pac-12 offers likely hangs on questions about Morgan’s position, specifically if he has the speed to hang in the secondary.

That’s probably not as important for the Irish as it is for others. Morgan sure looks like a prep version of Drue Tranquill, a guy who might not be at home playing half-field safety but looks like a million bucks coming downhill or running the alleys.

Intangibles will also probably factor into his success at the college level. Leading a prep program like Bosco is no small feat, and that type of high-character, high-Football IQ player could find a quick home in the secondary.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If the Irish need special teamers, Morgan is an immediate plug-and-play option. If they want to spend a year developing him as an understudy, a redshirt makes sense. If Morgan catches on to the position like Devin Studstill did, he can compete for time behind Drue Tranquill. If he doesn’t, saving the year makes sense.

Expecting a major impact by Morgan is setting the bar too high. But if he can be a part of Scott Booker’s special teams core and help provide depth behind Tranquill and sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, Morgan will join classmates Spencer Perry and Jalen Elliott as first-year lettermen right away.

Kelly gives positive updates on injuries and academics

C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders
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One of the major offseason hurdles that have tripped up Irish football teams in recent years seems to be in the rearview mirror: Academics.

Brian Kelly caught up with the South Bend Tribune on Tuesday, and the major revelation coming out of the Irish head coach was that his team didn’t suffer any off-field casualties in the class room.

Speaking at a Kelly Cares charity event in South Bend, the seventh-year head coach said he expects everybody to return to South Bend when camp opens August 6, the type of “all-clear” that we haven’t always seen during the last lull of the offseason.

“Our grades came in. We’re all good,” Kelly told the Tribune. “We feel good about everybody coming back, and now it’s just a matter of getting guys in the right position and going and playing.”

That likely means reserve defensive end Grant Blankenship has worked his way out of the doghouse. It also means that the Irish staff doesn’t expect any surprises from incoming freshmen or outgoing veterans, as we’ve seen in the past with preseason losses like Bo Wallace, Kolin Hill or Jhonny Williams.

The injury front also seems to provide some optimism. Key piece of the puzzle CJ Sanders is ahead of schedule as he recovers from hip surgery, opening up the Irish offense with the sophomore ready to ascend into the slot receiver position. Kelly also gave a positive report on freshman Parker Boudreaux, who had a scary battle with viral meningitis during summer school.

The Irish players are home this week between summer school and fall camp, with Kelly quite okay with his team taking a week to relax before reporting to training camp.

“I told our trainer before they left, ‘Just reiterate: let’s not water ski and pull a hamstring or do something crazy.’ I’d be fine if they laid on the couch for a week and then we’ll get ‘em re-engaged when we get back,” Kelly said.

“They’ve been without any kind of coaching in a sense for the last five, six weeks. We’d like to get back to work. It’s getting to that point.”

 

Irish A-to-Z: John Montelus

John Montelus IICashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Looking for a way to impact the roster, John Montelus transitioned from the offensive line to the defensive front this spring. It’s a move that will hopefully breath some life into the senior’s time on the Irish roster, stuck behind promising talent in Harry Hiestand’s front and hoping to find his niche on a defense looking for answers.

Thinking that Montelus might be able to provide answers isn’t necessarily fair to the Everett, Massachusetts native. But as the Irish try to maximize every scholarship on their 85-man roster, Montelus—another bruising 300-plus pound interior player—certainly has something to offer.

 

JOHN MONTELUS
6’4″, 310 lbs.
Senior, No. 60, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Top 100 prospect, Montelus was a consensus 4-star recruit who picked Notre Dame over some elite offers, places like Florida, LSU, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and more. A U.S. Army All-American, Montelus injured his shoulder at the All-Star game, setting back his development in South Bend.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in one game, seeing time against Michigan. Served as a guard on Notre Dame’s offensive scout team.

Junior Season (2015): Saw action in three games, taking snaps against Texas, UMass and Pitt as a reserve guard.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The major weight loss didn’t result in playing time. But it certainly was a major step in the right direction.

The number I find most impressive with Montelus is 310. (Pounds.) That’s down 30 from when Montelus was an out-of-shape freshman, showing his commitment to fitness and reshaping his body after recovering from shoulder surgery.

Going from what we’ve heard is always dangerous, but Montelus has a reputation of being one of the team’s more physical interior offensive linemen. That should serve him well, especially as the Irish try to eliminate the finesse from their game plan. And he’s gotten the attention of his head coach, who talked about the additional reps he was taking this spring and how it’s only helped him improve and show the coaches what he’s capable of doing.

Ultimately, I think Montelus makes his move—but only onto the offensive line on special teams. Unless an injury hits on the interior, I expect regular action for him on the kick units, all while making sure he holds onto his place in the two-deep at guard.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Being dropped into a defensive line rotation as a player entering your fourth season in the program certainly doesn’t allow for any margin for error. So the ambitions for Montelus’ success at the position should be in line with honest expectations—filling a specific role might be the ceiling.

That was Brian Kelly’s hope this spring when he talked briefly about his plans for Montelus. As one of the strongest bodies the Irish have in the trenches, you can see where that could work out.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

While I’m struggling to see where Montelus gets more than a handful of snaps, I’m also thinking about Kelly’s track record with position switches. Montelus could’ve just as easily been a reserve guard and moved on after graduating, playing a fifth year somewhere else if that’s what he wanted to do.

But the fact that the Irish staff wants him along the defensive line has to say something, and Montelus will be competing with guys like Pete Mokwuah for snaps, hopefully a piece of the puzzle as the Irish try to get tougher against the run. He’s big, strong and rugged, something that hasn’t necessarily been a part of Notre Dame’s defensive DNA since they said goodbye to Bob Diaco, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.

Is Montelus the next Nix? No. But if he can help shore up some short yardage deficiencies, we can call this another position switch success story.

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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
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah

Irish A-to-Z: Pete Mokwuah

Pete Mokwuah247
Tom Loy / Irish247
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It didn’t take long for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to identify, recruit and land defensive tackle Pete Mokwuah in his first days on staff at Notre Dame. But it has taken longer for Mokwuah to see the field.

The rising junior—an almost immediate offer and commitment once VanGorder took over the defense—has been mostly a background player for the Irish, spending a season as a redshirt before only appearing briefly in 2015.

But with uncertainty in the trenches with Sheldon Day gone and the work volume of Jarron Jones a question mark, perhaps 2016 is the year for Mokwuah to begin his move into a rotation that’s sure to grow as more defenders share jobs up front.

 

PETE MOKWUAH
6’3″, 317 lbs.
Junior, No. 96, DT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Committed to Rutgers until Notre Dame swooped in late, the three-star prospect had mostly regional offers (UConn, Pitt, Temple) before committing to the Irish in late January, before ever stepping foot on campus.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserving year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2015): Saw action in two games (Texas, UMass) in a reserve role at defensive tackle. Did not make a tackle in limited action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Jones couldn’t play and Mokwuah still didn’t see the field.

As I look at the depth chart, Mokwuah’s participation likely hinges on the health of Jarron Jones. The senior defensive lineman might be a step slow coming off of foot surgery, and that would force the entire tackle position to shift down a rung.

That bad news for Notre Dame would be good news for Mokwuah’s playing time, though. But even then, he’ll be fighting a capable group of young defensive linemen for playing time, with guys like Daniel Cage and Tillery likely having a head start.

Late attention on the recruiting trail isn’t much of an indicator in ability to contribute. We saw that with Cage, who quickly moved into the rotation at nose guard. So while Mokwuah’s road to the field looks backed up, he’s got four years of eligibility remaining. And even if his contributions are limited to special teams and garbage time, getting on the field this season should be the realistic goal.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Unless there’s a breakthrough this season, Mokwuah projects mostly to be a back-up or situational player. That’s not to say he’s doomed to the bench—especially considering the lack of depth the Irish put on the field last season up front. But this season will be telling.

Mokwuah’s main asset is size and strength. At 6-foot-3 and nearly 320 pounds, he’s a load in the trenches. With Jarron Jones in his final season in the program and Daniel Cage already well established, the snaps won’t be seeking out Mokwuah, rather he’ll have to prove himself worthy to even get into the rotation.

Physically, you can see how that happens, especially if Mokwuah enters camp in great shape and ready to compete. But there’s work to be done.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Finding a niche in 2016 would be a great step forward for Mokwuah. Ultimately, that could be five or ten snaps a game, allowing Jones and Cage to stay fresh. But it could be just being ready to be the “Next Man In,” knowing that the Irish defense desperately needs to establish some type of productive rotation to allow their young talent a chance to flourish at the point of attack.

Three seasons into his time in South Bend, Mokwuah should be ready to compete physically. It’s also his second year working with Keith Gilmore. But nose guard is a difficult depth chart to crack, and Mokwuah’s chances of seeing the field might hinge on the rotation established to take the load off of Jerry Tillery at three-technique.

 

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
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley