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)
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.