Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson

Breaking down 4-0: The Secondary

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There was no bigger question mark on Notre Dame’s roster than the secondary. With first-round draft pick Harrison Smith gone and multi-year contributors Gary Gray and Robert Blanton exiting at cornerback, many believed that the Irish defense would only be as good as the replacements Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks could find.

OFF-SEASON PERSPECTIVE

Preparing for the season, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter could be counted on as constants. Both played more than 70 percent of the defensive snaps in 2011. But behind those two, there was next to nothing. Bennett Jackson, counted on to start at boundary corner, played in only 11 percent of snaps. Lo Wood, who many thought was going to be lapped by Josh Atkinson before the season, played one fewer snap than Jackson. Austin Collinsworth, who many hoped would be a huge contributor before a shoulder injury ended his 2012 season in the spring, played just 84 snaps, a shade less than 10 percent. Behind them, only Danny McCarthy (47 snaps) and Atkinson (3) saw the football field.

That it looked like the Irish completely whiffed in recruiting only made things look more daunting. Tee Shepard, who many thought would jump into the starting lineup as a true freshman, didn’t last until spring ball. The Irish were in on several other top flight cornerback recruits, but none ended up in South Bend. Entering fall camp, there was a precarious level of depth for a position group that was welcoming a lot of unknowns.

PERSONNEL CHANGES

Without much depth, here’s the secondary most expected the Irish to open with when Notre Dame played Navy.

Bennett Jackson, CB
Lo Wood, CB (season-ending Achilles tendon injury)
Zeke Motta, S
Jamoris Slaughter, S (season-ending Achilles tendon injury)
Austin Collinsworth, Nickel (season-ending shoulder injury)

The loss of Wood thrust freshman KeiVarae Russell into the starting lineup, a surprise choice considering the freshman originally intended to enter camp as a running back and Atkinson and Jalen Brown were already on the depth chart. Slaughter’s injury was perhaps even more back-breaking. Starting in his place is Matthias Farley, a redshirt freshman that spent last season as a wide receiver.

Danny McCarthy has been passed by young nickel back Elijah Shumate. Nicky Baratti has also forced his way into the rotation, making a huge interception against Michigan. Outside of Motta, the majority of times the Irish secondary is on the field, there are no returning starters, and most of the unit is playing significant minutes for the first time.

STATISTICAL BREAKDOWN

While some of the secondary’s success can certainly be credited to the stout Irish pass rush, the numbers that this unit has put up through four games is astounding. Across the board, the Irish secondary is playing better than last season.

Let’s run through a quick comparison of where the Irish passing defense sits now compared to the final 2011 stats.

Yards Per Game:
2011: 205 yards (38th)
2012: 178 yards (23rd)

Opponent QB Rating:
2011: 129.13 (58th)
2012: 96.81 (15th)

Completion Percentage:
2011: 59.7 (59th)
2012: 54.3 (25th)

Yards Per Attempt:
2011: 6.5 (24th)
2012: 5.6 (18th)

Interceptions:
2011: 8 (93rd)
2012: 8 (2nd)

OVERALL

There’s no question that the success of the Irish secondary has been one of the great surprises of the season. Beyond all expectations, this group hasn’t looked out of place and has thrived in the opening four games of the season, while breaking in almost an entirely new unit. Credit should go to Diaco and Cooks, but also new safeties coach Bob Elliott for the work that’s been done in the back end with a ton of inexperienced guys.

Of course, four games doesn’t make a season. Only Purdue’s aerial game is ranked in the top 50 of teams that the Irish have faced. While many expect USC (42nd) and Oklahoma (32nd) to wage the stiffest tests, Boston College (16th), Pitt (23rd) and Miami (37th) all ranked ahead of the Trojans right now.

The above stats are only a few broken coverages away from blowing up. But so far, the improved play of a completely untested Irish secondary is a big reason why Notre Dame is undefeated.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Tarean Folston

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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When Tarean Folston limped off the field after his third carry of the season, few knew what would happen next. The junior running back’s season was finished. But it spawned giant years for C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams, turning Prosise into a third-round draft pick and Adams into the most prolific freshman runner in school history.

That big year could’ve been Folston’s. Behind an elite offensive line, the Florida native was primed to be the leading man in the Irish backfield, with a breakout season all but guaranteed.

But injuries happen. And after working his way back into shape during spring practice and returning to a depth chart that all of a sudden has some young competition, 2016 is a chance to make up for lost time.

 

TAREAN FOLSTON
5’9.5″, 214 lbs.
Senior, No. 25, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Notre Dame beat out Auburn on Signing Day, waiting a few uncomfortable extra hours for a fax from Folston after he went on a late-January visit. Folston was Florida’s 4A first-team All-State running back, a do-everything high school player.

The Under-Armour All-American had offers from Oregon, Florida, Florida State and a few dozen other programs before picking Notre Dame in early January.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, starting two as a true freshman. Nearly set a single-game freshman rushing record when he ran for 140 yards against Navy, the most since 1999. Named Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

Sophomore Season (2014): Ran for 889 yards and caught 190 yards worth of passes as the team’s leading rusher. Averaged over 5.0 yards per carry for the second-straight season. Broke 100 yards in four out of five games, coming two yards shy against North Carolina of making it five out of six.

Junior Season (2015): His season was cut short after just three carries (for 19 yards) against Texas, lost for the year with a torn ACL. Earned a medical redshirt.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

There’s no doubt in my mind that Folston wouldn’t put up monster numbers last year if he stayed healthy.

I’m doubling down on Folston. I expect the biggest season from a running back in the Kelly era — and I’m pegging Folston for a 1,200 yard, double-digit touchdown 2015.

Part of this confidence comes from seeing what Mike Sanford did riding a running QB and top-shelf back at Boise State. The other part comes from seeing Notre Dame’s offensive line figure itself out this spring instead of mixing and matching into fall camp.

But mostly it comes from the natural talent I see with Folston, a back who’ll get better as he collects touches. There’s nobody to steal them from Folston to begin the season. And after he establishes himself, there’s nobody who should take them away from him, either.

So stay healthy and Notre Dame will have a running back to showcase.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

My biggest question for Folston has also been one of his biggest strengths—the space between his ears. For two seasons, Folston’s vision and Football IQ have been excellent. The natural ability he displayed—too often in flashes—made him the envy of a depth chart filled with talented runners.

But coming back from a knee injury is different. And Folston needs to be able to cut loose with absolute conviction and get up the field, because breakaway speed has never been the power of his game.

The depth chart Folston returns to is a different beast than the one he left. Adams has the heft to run between the tackles and the speed to hit a home run. Dexter Williams is greatly improved. Even Justin Brent is an envious No. 4 back.

But Folston is an NFL running back. His versatility, ability to catch the ball in space, and make defenders miss likely didn’t go anywhere.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

This is Notre Dame’s leading ball carrier in 2016. That may be a bold statement. Or it could turn out to be an obvious one after we see Folston ripping through Texas and Nevada.

Still, this is a leap of faith considering we only saw brief glimpses of Folston is spring football, donning a non-contact jersey in the Blue-Gold game. And because of the season Adams put together in 2015. But Brian Kelly believes too much in his veteran running back and knows his value to this offense. With a running game that’ll likely be the strength of the attack, putting the ball in Folston’s hands early and often can’t be a bad plan.

I’m still betting that Josh Adams ends up with a higher yard-per-carry average, but I think Folston’s senior season will be his best in South Bend.

 

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 Fertitta

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nicco Fertitta

Nicco Fertitta CASHORE
Property of Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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As Notre Dame searches for answers at safety, one under-discussed option is sophomore Nicco Fertitta. The Las Vegas native, best known through his recruitment as the high school teammate of Alizé Jones (and outside the football world for his father Lorenzo, the Chairman & CEO of the UFC), has been overlooked before. That comes with the territory when you’re built like a walk-on.

But Fertitta’s college career is on schedule—and maybe ahead of plans. A freshman season saw Fertitta make 11 appearances. A sophomore season will see more special teams duties, and if Fertitta can find a way, a battle to get into a very uncertain two-deep at both safety positions.

An overachiever who became a key piece of the foundation at one of the best high school football programs in the country, Fertitta faces long odds to do more than play special teams. But that’s business as usual for the pint-sized heavy-hitter, who’ll look to take a step forward in his second season in South Bend.

 

NICCO FERTITTA
5’8.5″, 185 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 28, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

U.S. Army All-American, First-team All-State per the Las Vegas Review Journal. State champion, with Bishop Gorman also being named a national champion (no championship game was played).

A three-star prospect, Fertitta chose Notre Dame over offers from Arizona, Hawaii, Houston, UNLV (where his prep coach Tony Sanchez took over the program) and Utah.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in 11 games, all in special teams appearances. He made one tackle on the season and forced a fumble against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Got the special teams contributions right. Got a little bit ahead of myself thinking he’d have a chance to play in sub-packages.

I tend to think Fertitta is going to be one of the freshmen taking the field against Texas come September 5th. He’ll likely be covering kicks and chasing down punts, but Fertitta’s freshman season will hinge on his ability to make big plays in the game’s third phase, something Scott Booker is still looking to establish.

As a safety, Fertitta could also be very helpful in sub-packages. As Notre Dame takes on a heavy dose of run-heavy (and option) offenses in Georgia Tech, Navy, Pitt and Boston College, there’s a place for a run-stuffer with the ability to play in space, and just as Kelly and the Irish used Jamoris Slaughter, Fertitta could be an option at a position that doesn’t have a ton of flexibility.

But any road onto the field as a freshman should be considered a strong debut season for Fertitta.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Fertitta’s high school highlight reel showcased an undersized safety who hit like a freight train. That physicality likely helped get him on the field in 2015, but the aforementioned size feels like a larger barrier—especially when you see the disparity between Fertitta and a strong safety like Drue Tranquil.

Notre Dame knew the player they offered. They also knew he’d play large roles in the locker room as well as on special teams. Fertitta will likely take a step forward in special teams and then have a chance to compete for a backup role, especially before the reloaded secondary gives guys like Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry a chance to get comfortable.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect Fertitta to play in all 13 games, but only take snaps on defense in mop-up duty. Unless injuries hit, Tranquill should be in the starting lineup with Avery Sebastian supplementing him. At free safety, Redfield will be competing with Devin Studstill, with a very large hole behind those two players.

If Fertitta looked and played the game like a center-fielder, that’s where I’d have him penciled in. But he’s a mini-Tranquil, with physical limitations also hindering his ability to be a single-high safety, making him a better fit at strong safety.

As long as there’s a hole in the depth chart at safety, you’ve got to give Fertitta a chance to see the field. And as long as there are multiple sub-packages and schemes being deployed by Brian VanGorder, there’s always a chance that a sure tackler like Fertitta can find a role. But it just feels like there are other options available that’ll better suit what VanGorder and Todd Lyght want from their secondary, leaving coverage teams the likely home for Fertitta in 2016 and beyond.

 

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

2018 twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola commit to Irish

Ademilola twins 247
247 Sports
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Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class just doubled up, adding twin brothers Jayson and Justin Ademilola. The New Jersey natives—both potential impact players on the defensive line—pledged their commitment to the Irish on Sunday, adding two more building blocks to a distant recruiting class that’s all of a sudden got some serious juice.

Fresh off a visit to South Bend, the brothers committed to Notre Dame, picking the Irish over Michigan, Auburn, Georgia, Penn State and more than a dozen other offers. They hail from St. Peter’s Prep, the same high school that produced current Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Both Jayson and Justin took to Twitter to announce, simultaneously making the news official:

While rankings for the 2018 class (entering their junior season) aren’t formalized, 247 Sports views both brothers as 4-star prospects. Justin is more of an edge player—currently an outside linebacker or rush end—while Jayson profiles as a three-technique defensive tackle.

Steve Wiltfong, 247 Sports’ director of recruiting, caught up with Rich Hansen, the high school coach at St. Peter’s Prep. Hansen had this to say about the two brothers.

“They’re getting two guys, what they’re doing now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hansen told 247 Sports said. “The potential, Justin is a really good athlete that can play a multiple of positions. It will be interesting how he develops and what role he fills for them and Jayson I think is going to be a monster inside for them.”

“They’re young, a lot of development is going to take place over the next two years and Notre Dame is going to get two potentially dominant football players at that level.”

The Ademilola brothers make four early commitments to the 2018 class, a sign that Notre Dame’s recruiting—and evaluation process—is humming under Mike Elston’s direction. They join blue-chip quarterback Phil Jurkovec and Indiana running back Markese Stepp.

***

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jalen Elliott

Jalen Elliott Irish 247
Photo courtesy of Irish 247 / Tom Loy
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Don’t know Jalen Elliott yet? You will soon enough.

While the 3-star prospect didn’t land on any national lists of recruiting victories, Notre Dame’s coaching staff believes that they might have their next great strong safety on campus in the Virginia native.

While there are other prospects who are bigger, stronger and faster—and had better recruiting rankings and scholarship offers—Elliott stood out to the Irish staff when they got him on campus, turning Brian Kelly and company into major believers. Now it’s up to the young player to make his way up a depth chart that’s been restocked, finding a way into the mix with assumed starters Drue Tranquill and Max Redfield.

 

JALEN ELLIOTT
6′, 190 lbs.
Freshman, Safety

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A consensus 3-star prospect with offers from Auburn, Georgia, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Two-time captain and state champion. Two-way starter as quarterback, cornerback and safety.

A 2015 first-team All-State 5A player. On the 2015 Richmond Times-Dispatch All-Region first team, MVP of 2015 Virginia High School All-Star game.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Kelly may have tipped his hand when he glowed about Elliott in his Signing Day comments.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting, and that’s over 25 years. His competitive spirit was unmatched,” Kelly said. “It was unparalleled in terms of I can’t remember a guy — maybe there was one guy that competed on the offensive line for me at Cincinnati in a camp that was similar, but this kid competed at every position at such a level that he was a can’t-miss guy for us in the recruiting process.”

There could be concerns about Elliott’s size—he doesn’t have prototype strong safety size or heft. But great safeties come in all shapes and sizes (Eric Weddle certainly doesn’t look like an All-Pro). That’s not to say that Elliott will have an All-American college career like Weddle did at Utah, but if he’s able to match his intellect with his competitive spirit, he’s playing the right position for a guy to make an immediate impact in South Bend.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m buying the hype on Elliott. I think he’s my leading snap-earner on the defensive side of the ball for the freshman class, out-pacing position-mate Devin Studstill, who had spring practice to work his way into first-team reps with Max Redfield.

Versatility is a big reason I’m so high on Elliott. He’s a guy who can stay at safety if the Irish need to move Tranquill around—a preference of Brian VanGorder’s. He’s a potential nickel or dime entry if the Irish want to put more defensive backs on the field. He’s also good enough to get a look as a cornerback. And he’ll certainly be someone who can be counted on as a special teamer.

Opportunity is the other obvious reason to target Elliott as true freshman contributor. Notre Dame’s safety play needs improvement, and new blood might be the best option.

I’m hesitant to match stats with snaps, especially knowing that sometimes productive safety play means you failed in the front seven. But I’ve got no hesitation grabbing the reins and kick-starting the Elliott bandwagon.

Giddy up.

 

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