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.

 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.