Spring Solutions: Secondary

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After years where numbers dwindled, spring in the secondary will be a different picture. With a depth chart that rolls almost three deep, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott have their hands full as they continue to develop a position group that was the most surprising on the roster last season.

But even with their solid play, there’s plenty of work to do for the Irish secondary. At safety, there’ll be plenty of open competition, as Zeke Motta’s departure leaves no clear-cut leader at safety. With Bennett Jackson out for the spring healing from shoulder surgery, it also gives important snaps to a handful of cornerbacks that need to push their way into the playing rotation before three talented youngsters join them in the fall.

Let’s take a look at the Irish secondary, first the depth chart and then some spring objectives.

SECONDARY DEPTH CHART

Bennett Jackson, Sr. (recovering from surgery)
KeiVarae Russell, Soph.
Lo Wood, Sr.
Elijah Shumate, Soph.
Jalen Brown, Jr.
Josh Atkinson, Jr.

Matthias Farley, Jr.
Austin Collinsworth, Sr.
Eilar Hardy, Jr.
Nicky Baratti, Soph.
CJ Prosise, Soph.
John Turner, Soph.
Chris Badger, Soph.

SPRING OBJECTIVES:

Bennett Jackson: Get healthy. Jackson played much of last season with his shoulder in a harness. Taking the spring to get healthy is a luxury the senior cornerback can afford, especially after an impressive 2012 campaign.

KeiVarae Russell: Speaking of impressive 2012s, there might not have been one more impressive than Russell’s. The true freshman converted from running back and stepped immediately into the starting lineup. Outside of being beat long in the season opener, Russell played nicely throughout the season, showing the type of competitor he is as he gained confidence throughout the season.

Building off 2012 will be important for Russell, who needs to add some heft to his frame and continue to work on his speed and quickness out of breaks. Taking Russell’s game from impressive freshman season to just plain impressive should be the objective.

Lo Wood: After a heart-breaking Achilles tear took Wood off the field for 2012, coming back and feeling comfortable this spring should be enough of a reward. The injury couldn’t have come at a less advantageous time, with Wood garnering almost universal praise from the coaching staff for his hard work, which had all but locked him into the starting field-cornerback job.

Wood’s healthy return would mean a lot to the Irish secondary, adding another cover man to two proven entities. There’s every reason to believe Wood will be given the opportunity to fight Russell for the starting job, and at the very least will add some nice depth at the nickel, giving the unit some versatility.

Elijah Shumate: After sliding down to cornerback early in the season, Shumate showed a nose for the football, making more than a few big plays breaking up passes while covering slot receivers. Physically, Shumate has all the tools to be a boundary cornerback, with an impressive physicality to go along with speed that played well enough in his debut season.

It’s worth watching what the staff does with Shumate, who has some positional versatility. If the cornerback jobs are locked up, expect him to get a chance to fight for time at safety as well.

Jalen Brown: It’s not now or never time for Brown, as the junior needs to have a sense of urgency this spring. With three young corners coming in and a younger starter already in front of him, the 6-foot-1 Texan has the size and length the Irish are looking for in cornerbacks, but he’ll need to have that translate onto the field.

John Atkinson: Brown’s write-up could basically be echoed for Atkinson. Heading into his junior season, Atkinson is in danger of getting buried on the depth chart if he doesn’t have a good spring. To his credit, the speedster is taking off the track season to focus on football. But he’ll need to continue to hone his technique this spring as he builds confidence in coverage.

Matthias Farley: After filling in more than admirably last season, Farley heads into spring practice likely in the starting lineup, but still in need of mental and physical reps. The converted wide receiver made a more than impressive debut in the secondary, playing tough and physical near the line of scrimmage (even with a broken hand) while also holding up fine in coverage.

Austin Collinsworth: After an impressive spring, Collinsworth was injured during the Blue-Gold game, a tough break for a versatile defensive back that had stated his case for a lot of playing time. With a shoulder surgery keeping him out for most of the season, Collinsworth also had a back procedure, one similar to the surgery that Tyler Eifert had early in his career.

If there’s a guy that feels ready to step into the starting lineup, it’s Collinsworth. He’s a heady player and while it might take him some time to get up to speed physically, he’s a veteran that the defensive staff can trust in center field.

Eilar Hardy: These are 15 important practices for Hardy, who suffered a knee injury early in his career and spent most of last season buried on the depth chart. Entering his junior season, Hardy needs to show that he’s no longer suffering any ill effects from the knee, and also flash some of the ability that had many believing he was one of the elite recruits in his class.

Nicky Baratti: After an impressive freshman season, Baratti has to feel like he’s in the mix for a starting job. The youngster had a key interception and played significant minutes in crunch time, showing his worth in a unit that was in desperate need of bodies. This spring, Baratti will build on his debut, hoping to be the type of heavy hitter that roams the back-end of the secondary, capable of playing in the box or over the top.

CJ Prosise: If there’s an intriguing wildcard in the secondary this spring it’s Prosise, who spent time moonlighting at outside linebacker before officially saving a year of eligibility. At 6-foot-2, Prosise has great size for the position, and he’s got plenty of speed to spare as well. (I’m curious to see where Prosise weighs in when the updated roster is released.) He’s the type of player that should provide some positional flexibility as well.

John Turner: The Indianapolis native will take his redshirt off as well, bringing another big body to the back end of the defense. Questions about Turner’s speed have been around forever – even the Irish coaching staff waited to watch him run at their clinic before offering him a scholarship. But Turner will likely make an impact on special teams quickly, with the perfect physique needed for cover teams.

Chris Badger: After re-acclimating himself to football after a two year mission, Badger now jumps into a positional battle that many see him as an underdog in. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to watch Badger play, but the guy we saw on tape, and the one that Charlie Weis offered a scholarship, was a physical safety that wasn’t afraid to play down in the box. At 6-foot, 193-pounds, Badger doesn’t have elite speed, but we’ll see if the football instincts he showed in his prep career can thrust him into the positional race.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)