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Breaking down 4-0: The Secondary

Sep 26, 2012, 4:19 PM EDT

Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson

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.


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.


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.


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)

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


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.


  1. heisenbyrg - Sep 26, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    The solid play of the back four has indeed been a surprise, yet it is difficult to tell if their success is a function of a dominant pass rush, or solid play in their own right. Still, the solid play of underclassmen in the secondary has alleviated some of the need to land another 2-3 DBs in this recruiting class. Sign LJ Moore and “Irish Mob 13” looks like an A+ class.

  2. domer77blowsgoats - Sep 26, 2012 at 5:19 PM

    There are 2 distinct reasons the secondary has had so much success YTD

    1. Zeke Motta – absolutely beast and directing traffic brilliantly

    2. Overall talent upgrade/player development under BK – much more talent and actually developing said talent – something that hasn’t happened since early 90s. Yes there were some decent players, Tony Drive, Shane Walton, but for every one of those there were 3 Clifford Jeffersons and Brock Williams

    • andy44teg - Sep 26, 2012 at 5:42 PM

      Holy Crap! I completely forgot (blocked out) Clifford Jefferson. He might have been THEEE WORST DB i’ve ever seen in my entire life. How he made the field at ND just goes to show how completely devoid of talent they were back in the early 2000’s. Sheesh…he was just gawd awful.

      • andy44teg - Sep 26, 2012 at 5:51 PM

        He always reminded me of Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince. Maybe b/c that’s how I would have imagined Carlton would play football. Ugh…thank you, domerblows, for that blast from the ugly past.

      • nudeman - Sep 26, 2012 at 10:25 PM

        You never saw Adam Archuletta with the Bears, did you?
        Always looked great chasing guys across the goal line

      • andy44teg - Sep 27, 2012 at 10:21 AM

        Yeah..I remember Archuletta. He wasn’t terrible with the Rams was he? And, he played safety I thought. Clifford, if I remember correctly, was a corner, and routinely got picked on like a fat kid in dodgeball. Just bad, bad, bad

    • ndfanwabashman - Sep 26, 2012 at 9:47 PM

      I think sometimes we forget just how bad Clifford Jefferson really was. Watch that Oregon State game at the Fiesta Bowl. Maybe the worst performance by anyone at any position in any sport, ever.

      I agree about Zeke Motta. I will be the first to admit I was TOTALLY wrong about him coming into the year. I saw him only as a big hitter with some question marks in coverage. He has just been all over the field. It’s going to be great watching all this young talent mature together, especially when Collinsworth comes back.

      • Cindy - Sep 26, 2012 at 10:10 PM

        was living in Oregon then, how much crap did i take… they did have to NFL WR,s
        but that sucked…

      • nudeman - Sep 26, 2012 at 10:27 PM

        I was very down on Motta coming in to the year, I admit
        But the game he played against UM was outstanding
        And the one play that Mayock highlighted where he was covering one guy deep, saw the pass going to someone else and got there in time to break it up – very nice

  3. ndfaithful - Sep 26, 2012 at 5:33 PM

    Aside from the stats and 4-0 record, the Irish secondary has passed the eye-test on a lot more snaps this year. They’ve been near the ball on the deep throws. They’ve actually seen the ball on most plays. They have made big hits. They compete for balls in the air. They have been good tacklers for most snaps (with some ugly moments against Purdue.) The results are showing up in the stats, but it’s obvious to those of us that watch all the games that they are just better.

    • seadomer - Sep 26, 2012 at 5:54 PM

      Yes, yes, … yes … umm yes…. yes … and yes. Yup. Let’s run the ball a little more and we’ll be set. Can’t wait … slow week … hope Sparty beat the nuts.

  4. jimbasil - Sep 26, 2012 at 6:35 PM

    I suggest, ND better learn a running game and keep the ball longer (by far) than Miami. No need to find out the hard way whether or not the secondary can handle a barrage of speed and throws from a much better throwing QB than they’ve seen this year.

    Good thing the ND DLine is fast strong and aggressive. Morris will have a little less time choosing his open receivers. I don’t think the Miami OLine has seen this type of DLine this year.

    • bernhtp - Sep 26, 2012 at 7:30 PM

      I’m not terribly concerned about the running game. Teams have been loading up the box. Once we get the QB progressed, this will work far less well, especially if we also keep them honest with QB runs. Defenses know we’re keeping it conservative because we let our D win the game. With that said, our running game has repeatedly come alive at the end to close the game.

      • nudeman - Sep 26, 2012 at 11:09 PM

        Not concerned about the running game? It is probably the single biggest issue for this offense

        You dismiss it a little too easily.
        Teams will KEEP loading the box until the OL proves it can meet that challenge, and so far they have failed.

        Golic is a popular whipping boy, but I don’t break down tape and re-watch games so I don’t know how much of this is on his shoulders.

        Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that he IS in fact the weak link
        It might be time to mix things up, maybe give Stanley or one of the other guys a shot. Yes, I know Stanley is an OT and Golic is a OG. But OTs slide over and do this all the time.

        I’ve heard Golic on radio speaking with his dad and he seriously sounds like a great young man, so I don’t want to pile on here. But they just HAVE to get better run blocking or the reincarnation of Gayle Sayers in the backfield won’t mean squat. Better run game = more opportunities for Golson to throw the ball effectively

      • bernhtp - Sep 26, 2012 at 11:31 PM

        Golic had bad games against Purdue and MSU, but bounced back a bit against Michigan.

        Watch the press conference by Martin if you haven’t. He’s become my favorite interview; he actually answers all of the questions.

      • ndmsu2006 - Sep 27, 2012 at 11:27 AM

        More QB runs for Golson would be great. That’s what needs to happen for him to get comfortable and settle into these big time games. However, from the video you posted it doesn’t look like Martin wants to let EG run wild…

  5. bearcatirishfan - Sep 26, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    Wo was the last great db at ND. Vontez Duff?

  6. bearcatirishfan - Sep 26, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    Who was the last great db at ND. Vontez Duff?

    • ndfanwabashman - Sep 26, 2012 at 9:50 PM

      I would say Chinedum Ndukwe was solid. Ended up with your Cincinnati Bengals.

    • ndfanwabashman - Sep 26, 2012 at 9:51 PM

      Outside of the obvious Harrison Smith if you count him as a DB

    • phillyj - Sep 27, 2012 at 8:09 AM

      How about Bobby Taylor? That guy was a beast.!

    • c4evr - Sep 27, 2012 at 9:11 PM

      I vote Tommy Z for toughness…

  7. atlirish1013 - Sep 26, 2012 at 8:52 PM

    I am just as surprised as anyone at the development of these young secondary guys, especially since not a single one started their notre dame career as a db. But we only have to look as far back as Cincinnati to see that Brian Kelly knows what he is doing when it comes to player development. When he took over there, Connor Barwin was a pretty good tight end. After a year he switched him over to defensive end and he is now playing on Sundays (plays for Houston in case anyone is wondering). This guy is a hell of a coach and time, as well as +9 in the turnover department, is telling us that.

  8. seadomer - Sep 26, 2012 at 9:51 PM

    Flight ticket: $426
    Room: : $200 (ouch)
    Lei :$10
    Tommy TD: Priceless

  9. irish2011 - Sep 26, 2012 at 10:47 PM

    Ok people lets not crown the secondary yet. They have played good, not great. They will be challenged in the coming weeks, let’s hope for the best. GO IRISH!

    • nudeman - Sep 26, 2012 at 11:16 PM

      Absolutely correct. Do they look good? Yes. Better than we expected: Emphatically, yes

      But have we played a really good passing team? Emphatically, no.
      Navy: No; Purdue: Erratic; MSU: Same; UM: Awful

      I don’t have the stats handy, but Miami, Stanford, OK and USC have been known to complete a pass here and there. Let’s see how we perform against them.
      BTW, I don’t include BYU; saw them play Boise and was shocked at how average/below average they look offensively.
      Great passing tradition, but maybe not this year.

  10. North of Denver - Sep 27, 2012 at 12:05 AM

    I won’t crown the secondary or claim that that we’ll run the table in October, but would it be out if line to have BK run for President?

  11. alsatiannd - Sep 27, 2012 at 6:26 AM

    Our pass rush is a factor and our LBs dropping into coverage better is a factor. That said, besides soccer players becoming kickers, it’s always looked like to me that the secondary is the easiest unit to pick up. You put a pure athlete out there, with little or no experience, tell him to go play, and they’re up to speed pretty quickly.

  12. bearcatirishfan - Sep 27, 2012 at 9:01 AM

    Sorry I meant corner back specifically. But ndukwae and smith both good for sure. Not my bengals. I’m a giants fan only lived in cincy for 5 years while at the university of, but definitely a bearkittens fan. To think when went there it was a basketball school with guys like Kenyon Martin.

  13. runners00 - Sep 27, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    I think we have to keep perspective here. We’ve played three Big Ten schools and one Big East school. I am proud of the secondary and they’ve truly stood up to fairly decent teams. But there are some very big differences between Purdue and, say, Southern Cal.

    It’s not just the differences between quarterbacks. A lot of the strengths of the secondary relate to the pass rush of the front 3 or 4. These guys have been very persistent and have forced quarterbacks to make quick (and poor) decisions. So the secondary takes advantage of these poor decisions. We have to keep the pressure up front to enable the secondary to do its coverage work. But USC and Stanford and Oklahoma seem to offer quite a bit more up front than Navy, Purdue and Michigan. I could be wrong — everyone could be wrong — but from what I have read, these three opponents have a lot going for them. So let’s not get too proud or presumptuous.

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