Fighting Irish quarterback Golson brings the first team offense together during a practice session in Davie, Florida

Pregame Six Pack: For all the marbles

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.  — We are finally inching closer. After forty days of waiting, Notre Dame and Alabama will go to bed tonight and wake up on game day. An eternity for football teams that thrive on the day-to-day process and structure a season provides, the layoff adds just another variable into an equation already riddled with uncertainty.

For Notre Dame, those unknowns are well established. Can the Irish move the football against the mighty Tide defense? Can they stop a power run game unlike any they’ve seen? Can somebody finally topple the SEC? The answers to all these questions will be apparent on Monday night. But until then, the waiting is the hardest part.

With head coach Brian Kelly running his team through their final prep work, let’s break out one final six pack. Here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Notre Dame and Alabama get ready to play for all the marbles.

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1. In a match-up of strength versus strength, Notre Dame’s size might be it’s biggest asset.

The last time Notre Dame had a team that harbored true national championship aspirations, Brady Quinn, Tommy Zbikowski, and Travis Thomas were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In Quinn and Zbikowski, the Irish had the skill players needed to make a run. But Thomas, a 212-pound running back turned outside linebacker, exemplified Notre Dame’s biggest issue: A glaring lack of size.

That 2006 team was exposed in their date with the SEC, when LSU overpowered the Irish on their way to a dominant Sugar Bowl victory. But in Brian Kelly’s three seasons, a lot has changed. And when Alabama’s stout offensive line takes the field on Monday night, they’ll be facing the biggest defense they’ve seen all season. And one of the biggest in all of college football.

From a sheer tonnage perspective, the Irish will trot out 1,928 pounds in the front seven when they take the field on defense in their base 3-4 alignment. Of the top ten rushing defenses in the country, no other front seven cracks 1,900 pounds. It is likely the biggest front seven in all of college football.

Size is only one part of the equation. But as Notre Dame’s defense has shown all season, their ability to play physically at the point of attack has been truly elite this season.

“This is as good of a front seven as we’ve seen,” Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said.

***

2. With a stacked trio in the Notre Dame backfield, the Irish coaching staff will need to successful juggle touches one last time.

In Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson, Notre Dame has a trio of running backs that defenses need to account for. It’s a challenge that Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart spoke candidly about, as the long layoff gave the Alabama coaching staff time to analysis the Irish running game.

“You try to find tendencies,” Smart said. “You try to say, what do they run with this guy, run with that guy?

“When you bring Notre Dame down, they run a lot of the same plays with the same backs, so there’s not a true tendency unless you get to bead on one during the game.”

That type of versatility is a headache for a defensive coach. But it also creates problems for the Irish coaching staff. Namely, how to find enough touches for everyone.

“Truth be told, they all could be a feature back,” offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. “But there’s only one football.”

Down the stretch, Kelly and Martin decided to ride Riddick, utilizing the senior back’s versatility to create mismatches. But on Monday night, giving all three backs a shot at catching fire will be important, with Wood and Atkinson true wildcards for the offense.

In a season where finding carries for all three guys was difficult, pulling the right strings one last time with be critical.

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3. Notre Dame’s most miraculous win of the season shocked an Alabama player, too.

During a week where every reporter was searching for a unique angle, credit CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz for finding a good one.

Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri thought his brother had pulled off the upset of the season when he turned off the Pitt-Notre Dame game. Prepping for a battle with LSU, the Tuscaloosa native didn’t know the Irish charged back to victory until that evening, making for a tough conversation with his brother, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri.

“I was like yeah, this one’s in the bag,” Alabama’s Sunseri told CSNChicago.com on Saturday.

Sunseri didn’t get to watch the rest of his brother’s game, seeing as Alabama was in the midst of its biggest game of the season to date at LSU. But when he got back in to the locker room at halftime, he noticed Notre Dame won in triple overtime. Later, he called Tino to talk about the game.

“He just said it was a perfect storm kind of thing,” Sunseri said. “It wasn’t just the missed field goal, he said, he said ‘I could’ve made more opportunities’ — he tried to put all the pressure on himself. The missed field goal was a big part of it, but he tried to put it all on himself saying he could’ve done more, he could’ve done certain things to put themselves in better situations.”

The Sunseri brothers are part of a big football family, with father Sal a former Tide linebacker and coach and now the current defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Vinnie, a sophomore that’s made 52 tackles this season and starts in the Tide’s nickel and dime formations, will look to get a modicum of revenge on behalf of his brother.

***

4. For the Irish to have a shot at victory, Everett Golson and the offense will need to continue their ascent.

Far from hard-hitting analysis, Notre Dame’s offense needs to play well to win. And that’s a fact that’s not lost on Chuck Martin, who spent some time over the layoff keeping his offense humble by popping on the Purdue game tape.

“It was almost mind-numbing pathetic how bad we were,” Martin said, when thinking back to the Irish’s ugly 20-17 victory.

And while Martin acknowledges that this will be the toughest defense they’ve faced all season, he’s confident that the work put in over the past 40 days has done a great deal to help keep the unit improving, and building up young quarterback Everett Golson. It’s been a process where the offense went back to the basics, brick by brick looking for ways to improve.

“We looked at our run game,” Martin said. “We looked at all parts of red zone, and particularly since they don’t give up many opportunities.”

“It’s execution, it’s playing physical, it’s in the run game, carving out some space for our running backs, and then obviously in the pass game, giving Everett some time and then him making sure he figures out that coverage and where to get the ball and put the ball in the right place.”

***

5. The similarities between Alabama and Notre Dame extend to the recruiting trail as well.

There are a ton of similarities in the recruiting philosophies of Nick Saban and Brian Kelly. And as Notre Dame fans have been finding out, that’s a really good thing.

With two programs that both subscribe to “the process,” and two head coaches that keep in-house details out of the media, hearing Kirby Smart open up about Alabama’s recruiting philosophy was surprising. And it also mirrored some of the things we’ve heard out of Notre Dame coaches, particularly as they seek a certain profile of players.

“We certainly have player descriptions, player profiles that we want. If guys don’t fit that certain description, they may be a five-star great player,  we’re just not interested because we recruit to a certain standard,” Smart said. “We say we want the guy to be this tall, this big. Does that mean there’s not exceptions? Sure, there’s exceptions to the rule, but we don’t want a team full of exceptions. So we’re trying to get six corners that are all 5-11 or bigger, we want D-linemen that are all 6-2. There’s criteria for those positions that we want to recruit to.”

Smart’s words might as well be clipped from those said by Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco back in August. When discussing recruiting philosophies, Diaco talked about the Irish recruiting profiles, specifically their search for height and size.

“We really don’t like small players, in general,” Diaco said this summer. “We believe that if we have a big defense, we’re going to have a chance to have a good defense. How good? We don’t know. But when we come off the bus, if we’re as big or bigger than our opponent, we believe we’ll have a good chance to have a good defense.”

Notre Dame fans might remember a few eyebrow raising recruits that the Irish didn’t chase. Specifically, Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden, who took offense to the Irish passing on him.

“Notre Dame told me they wanted a 6-foot-4 linebacker and that I am not their guy,” Bolden said. “I’m not upset if I don’t fit your profile, I was just surprised about height, because I have always believed that it’s not the size of the dog, but it’s the dog’s bite.”

Bolden contributed 31 tackles to the Wolverines defense as a true freshman, playing up to his recruiting ranking. But as Smart and Diaco both pointed out, these are two of the best defenses in the country because they bring a tremendous amount of specificity to the recruiting process.

***

6. While they might be mighty Alabama and the defending national champions, the Crimson Tide was a group of over-achievers as well.

It may be tough to call a team that started the year ranked No. 2 and is in the middle of what looks like a college football dynasty over-achievers, but Nick Saban all but did it today.

“To be honest, I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations,” Saban said. “If you look at all the players that we lost last year, the leadership that we lost, the injuries that we’ve had, the scheudule that we played, the adversity that had to be overcome, the new roles that so many people had on this team, the young players who had opportunities to really kind of show what they could do and how quickly they would mature to be able to do their job in a way that would give us a chance to be successful as a team, I’m really proud of what this team actually was able to accomplish together as a group.”

All of those factors weigh into why Notre Dame could spring the upset Monday night. While this Alabama team is a great one, they aren’t the 2011 squad, a team that had five of the top 35 picks in the NFL draft. They’re also a team that’s seen its depth chart hit with injuries, including ones to several key contributors that still may be lingering.

After building a juggernaut that can simply reload instead of rebuild, Saban has done so, relying on a new crop of veteran leaders as well as dynamic young players.

It’s been a strong enough team to get to the biggest stage in the sport for the second consecutive season. We’ll find out if it’s good enough to win it Monday night.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nick Watkins

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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With the Fiesta Bowl serving as a springboard, junior cornerback Nick Watkins looked primed to make a move into the starting lineup as he entered his third season in the program. But a spring injury that’s been slow to heal has put his season into purgatory, another uncertainty for the Irish secondary.

A talented coverman who took some time to come into his own, Watkins now waits on bone growth in an injured arm, a second surgery initiated to jump start things. But with the regular season bearing down on the Irish and Watkins’ availability unknown, his contributions are a huge unknown for Notre Dame’s secondary.

 

NICK WATKINS
6’0.5″, 200 lbs.
Junior, No. 7, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star, Top 150 recruit, Watkins stayed off the summer camp circuit and still wowed recruiting analysts. The Dallas native had one of the most impressive offer sheets of his recruiting cycle, picking Notre Dame over Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC and UCLA.

Brian Kelly compared landing Watkins to “getting a No. 1 draft pick” on Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making most of his appearances on special teams. Didn’t register any statistics.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, making one start against Ohio State and making eight tackles. Had one pass breakup.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Watkins fell out of the No. 3 job when Devin Butler beat him out for it, though took over before the Fiesta Bowl when Butler injured his foot in preparations.

Right now, Watkins is the third cornerback in a defense with a high-ceiling starting pair. I can’t think of a Notre Dame defense that hasn’t relied on their third cornerback, and think back to when we all worried how the Irish were going to get Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton onto the field. It’ll work itself out.

So Watkins will get the reps this season. Or at least the first shot at the reps, with Devin Butler and a trio of freshmen all right behind him. And if he’s going to stay on the field, he’ll need to fully embrace the mental side of the game. I expect Watkins to make major progress here, especially after the harsh realization that elite physical tools may make it easy to lock down receivers in high school, but in VanGorder’s system, knowledge is almost more important.

Watkins is still every bit the prospect he was when he signed with the Irish. After a freshman season spent on special teams, he’ll be asked to take on more as a sophomore.

While he’s a key piece of the Irish future, Watkins can help Notre Dame win this year as well.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There aren’t many questions about Watkins’ physical abilities, other than the fact that he hasn’t found a way to make an impact yet. That’s understandable considering he was stuck behind KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, though a breakout season seems on the verge of being stuck in neutral as he tries to recover from a slow-healing broken arm.

With plenty of tools in the toolbox, Watkins feels like the type of player who can ascend quickly once he’s given the chance. But then again that ascent is predicated on earning that opportunity—no small feat when you look at the athletes the Irish have recruited.

Entering his third season of eligibility, the clock is ticking. His ceiling will be determined by how quickly he’s back on the field, or if the Irish staff ultimately decides to save a year of eligibility if that’s what’s needed.

 

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins—who Kelly said will be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

I’m no doctor—but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

While losing Watkins is a blow—especially with the length of these suspensions unknown—any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.

 

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
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn

Walk-on WR Chris Finke awarded scholarship

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Amidst the chaos of a weekend where Notre Dame football players made headlines for the wrong reasons, a good story comes from the ashes. Walk-on wide receiver Chris Finke was awarded a scholarship. The diminutive slot receiver, currently running No. 2 behind CJ Sanders and also a potential returner for the Irish, earned the scholarship on Monday.

News came via social media, where a group of teammates—and the Walk-on Players Union—gave their congratulations.

The 5-foot-9.5, 180-pounder from Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio, has quick become a fan favorite. He’s also made himself a Brian Kelly favorite, earning mention last year for his steady hands and moves as a punt returner and this season for his work in the slot.

“He’s Robby Toma with more speed,” Kelly said during fall camp.

(Never mind his inauspicious introduction to BK, as described by the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel.)

Finke took to social media after the news spread on Monday night with the following comment:

“Grateful. Can’t thank the coaches, staff, my teammates, family, friends, and the Good Lord enough!”

Here’s more instant reaction from teammates past and present.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Donte Vaughn

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It didn’t take long after Donte Vaughn arrived on campus to know that the Irish landed a special prospect in the Memphis native. A long-limbed, athlete with the body of a safety and the cover skills of a cornerback, Vaughn’s freshman season might have pivoted with the dismissal of Max Redfield.

With the Irish short bodies at free safety, it’s reasonable to think the staff will cross-train Vaughn to fill a hole. But even if they don’t, Vaughn is too good to keep off the field as a freshman, a skill-set and attitude that’ll allow Brian VanGorder and Todd Lyght to lean on Vaughn if the situation calls for it.

 

DONTE VAUGHN
6’2″, 200 lbs.
Freshman, No. 35, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, All-USA Tennessee, 6A All-State, Liberty Bowl All-Star game MVP. Offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. Long, learn and recruited as a corner, Vaughn is a huge get out of a big program in Memphis.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

One look at Notre Dame’s roster and you begin to realize that the Irish don’t have another cornerback that looks like Vaughn. It’s the reason linebacker James Onwualu said this about him:

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That type of athleticism and physical profile gives Brian VanGorder a unique weapon and one that’ll likely be utilized far more when Cole Luke is gone and the Irish need someone to play on the wide side of the field in coverage. Until then, Vaughn’s going to be a wild card—with the potential to sub in when the Irish go nickel or dime, and maybe even help replace Redfield as the Irish look to a very young secondary to replace him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Even without the boneheaded arrests from the weekend, Vaughn was going to play. But with uncertainty surrounding Ashton White and Redfield’s dismissal, this likely moves Vaughn into the plans against Texas—a jump that not many saw coming, even with his impressive skill-set.

Someone is going to come out of the woodwork and step into an important role in the secondary. We’re already counting on that from Devin Studstill. Put Vaughn in that category for me, a player I expect to finish the season as a key building block for 2017.

 

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
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti

 

Life after Max: Notre Dame’s options at safety

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In the days after Notre Dame returned from Culver Academy to kick off training camp, head coach Brian Kelly went out on the ledge and praised Max Redfield.

“He’s been that guy that everybody was hoping for out of high school,” Kelly said.

A little more than a week later, Redfield’s career at Notre Dame is over.

Done in by the same maddening decision-making that kept Redfield from reaching his potential on the field—Friday night’s antics, with Redfield the lone senior with four underclassmen, puts an end not just to his career at Notre Dame, it puts Redfield’s life at a crossroads.

There is no amount of talent that allowed Kelly to keep Redfield on the roster. And as the Irish move on with no proven depth at a safety position that’s relied upon to be the last line of defense, the Irish now look to some unusual spots to find a dependable player that the former five-star recruit could never become.

With Texas just two weeks away, here are a few options worth considering:

 

1. Start Devin Studstill. 

The true freshman pushed his way into the mix during spring practice, far from any type of motivational ploy by the Irish coaching staff. He’s a smooth athlete, a capable tackler and intelligent defender who understands the concepts Brian VanGorder is asking for from his back end defenders.

Studstill has battled a nagging hamstring injury during camp but is back in action. He’s also the only true positional fit that’s close to capable of stepping in for Redfield without some major schematic adjustments.

He’s still a freshman—and that means the Irish will have to live with some of the mistakes that come when you’re seeing and doing things for the first time. But Studstill’s been the free safety of the future since he stepped onto campus. So the timeline is accelerated, but it’s long been the plan.

 

2. Find a way to play Drue Tranquill next to Avery Sebastian. 

Sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian was kept in the program for a reason. And if this isn’t the perfect opportunity to lean on a mature player who could bail the Irish out of problems, I’m not sure what is.

No, he’s not the perfect fit for the position. Nor is Tranquill. But if Notre Dame needs two low-mistake defenders in the secondary along side their talented cornerbacks, they could do a lot worse than playing Tranquill and Sebastian on first and second down before bringing in a nickel or dime package depending on the situation.

Multiple reporters came out of last week’s open practice praising Sebastian’s toughness and capable play at safety. While he’s yet to be able to stay healthy for any of his college career, he’d do the ordinary things well—something this team desperately needs.

Putting Tranquill, a 230-pound safety, next to Sebastian, a 5-foot-10 (on a good day) hammerhead, limits a team that wants to play a lot of man coverage. But if you’re looking to find dependability, you could do worse.

 

3. Give Donte Vaughn a look at safety. 

Notre Dame thinks they have a future cover corner in Vaughn, whose length and athleticism has people thinking big things about the Memphis native. But with the cornerback depth chart well stocked and the safeties raw and thin, there’s no harm in repping Vaughn at free safety.

The only thing harder than throwing a freshman in at free safety is doing it to a freshman who switched positions less than two weeks before the opener. But Vaughn isn’t your ordinary freshman, as senior James Onwualu attested to last week.

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That work ethic will serve him well. So will cross-training this week at safety with Studstill.

 

4. Keep cross-training and developing. 

Just because a player isn’t ready week one doesn’t mean they won’t be able to contribute. And the Irish coaching staff recruited a variety of shapes and sizes when they restocked the secondary in the last recruiting class, and we’ll now see how quickly they can find a way into the mix.

Expect Jalen Elliott to get an early look. While the staff thinks he’s a future strong safety, Elliott is talented enough to compete at both safety positions—and the door is open for him to do that. He’ll be one of the first guys taking back-up reps now that Redfield is gone.

D.J. Morgan, another talented safety out of a Southern California powerhouse program, will need to show he can physically hold up as a safety in the open field, but he’s got the length and size to play. That high level experience in high school should certainly make the transition to the college game easier.

Football players might be your best bet, too. While Julian Love has been taking two-deep reps at nickel corner, there’s an opening at safety and Love’s high school tape showed an athlete that could do any job. Nobody will confuse him with a prototype at the position, but if he can think his way through the job, he’ll have a shot.

 

5. Don’t panic. 

Notre Dame’s secondary has taken blows like this with Kelly at the helm. And even if you’d argue that Redfield was the one of the least-replaceable starters on the defense, there’s no reason to be throwing the towel in after one of the worst evenings in recent off-field history at Notre Dame.

But remember this: An August injury to a presumed starter and the dismissal of a blue-chip recruit before he ever took the field, forced a freshman running back to convert to cornerback. Then KeiVarae Russell started all 13 games on a team that played for a national title.

At safety that season a redshirt freshman converted wide receiver started 11 games after spending spring outside of the two-deep, with Matthias Farley stepping in at safety and picking up the slack after Jamoris Slaughter went down.

The Irish have recruited better than most programs in the country and have kept the emphasis on finding defensive backs who can play in this system. Even if the timetable has accelerated, there’s a plan in place.