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Spring Solutions: Secondary

Mar 18, 2013, 12:20 PM EDT

Notre Dame at USC AP

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.

  1. fnc111 - Mar 18, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    Where is the talk about the ND bball team?

    • heisenbyrg - Mar 18, 2013 at 2:18 PM

      On other websites.

    • papadec - Mar 19, 2013 at 12:34 AM

      fnc – try und.com – the ND website.

  2. mtflsmitty - Mar 18, 2013 at 3:59 PM

    I know only what I read here and at other sites. So that makes me a guy looking over the shoulder of the guy who’s on the outside looking in.

    That said, this group seems like the strength of the team (behind the defensive front). Jackson and Russell (what an amazing story this kid was in 2012) were good, not great, but good in 2012. If any of the other guys can make a challenge for the CB spots that will be very good news. Either way, I expect Russell to make serious improvements YOY, so he’ll be very tough to beat.

    At safety, I’d love to see Baratti of Prosise win the strong safety spot. Baratti is a local product from our school district. Really nice kid, smart, won first team all state TE here in TX, played QB and RB, and hits like a guy who gets off on it. I gather Prosise has all the same tools, plus even better speed.

    Will be fun to watch it play out

  3. gtizzo - Mar 18, 2013 at 4:03 PM

    Yeah lots of depth Keith,

    You wrote an entire article and didn’t need to mention Redfield and Cole Luke. Two talented kids who could sit a year…not a bad position to be in.

  4. irish13pa - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:25 PM

    I personally do not think Redfield will sit at all. Still think he will be a starting safety this year. Also think they need to find a spot for Shumate. I would not be surprised if those 2 boys end up as our starting safeties. Now that is a talented tandam at safety.

    • mtflsmitty - Mar 18, 2013 at 11:43 PM

      I gather Redfield is an amazing talent. But I also heard consistently that he’s rather slight of build right now. I don’t expect him to see much time on the field this season.

      • irish13pa - Mar 20, 2013 at 9:46 AM

        Redfield slight of build? He is 6-2 -195lbs. That is one impressive freshman safety. I really think he starts right off the bat.

  5. bernhtp - Mar 18, 2013 at 10:28 PM

    The depth at safety and linebacker should help us out tremendously on special teams.

    • dillonbigred - Mar 18, 2013 at 10:59 PM

      What are these special teams of which you speak?

      • bernhtp - Mar 18, 2013 at 11:01 PM

        Last year they came to the stadium in a short yellow bus. I am expecting a new group this year that performs considerably better.

  6. frankb51 - Mar 18, 2013 at 11:29 PM

    With all these players on board; if one would have to be concerned about benett jackson returning in order to make things “right” then we are in deep trouble. Jackson is awful and that;’s putting it nicely. He hasnt got a clue on defense.

    FYI BK, get devonte neal in the game, somehow, someway; handled the right way he could be a game changer.

    GKiel made a big mistake. He could have challenged EG with no problem. EG played admirably but still has a long way to go. Besides all of this could change in just one play, ask dane crist; he is a guy that could put it all in proper perspective.

    Would you want Rees or Hendrix as your back-up if EG gets hurt or the offense stalls? and I am one of the few who think Hendrix is a helluva of an athlete, nervous because he was not nurtured the right way! A fast runner and a strong arm, he was never given a real chance.

  7. charlie617 - Mar 19, 2013 at 6:54 AM

    This is just foolish.

    Jackson “awful?” Hardly. Nobody’s calling him an All-American, but he played solid in coverage, had pleny of tackles, and a couple picks (including a clutch one in the Purdue game). Can’t really expect more from a first-time starter who was recruited as a receiver.

    Neal is very athletic to be sure. Definitely could be a game changer. But if he was the best person to be playing in the slot, he would have been. BK has never favored veterans over more talented younger players — seeJohn Goodman, who rarely got on the field unless Daniels was hurt. Granted, he wasn’t let loose very often on punt returns, but when he was, he did not make the best decisions. I know many have criticized the decision to burn a year of Neal’s eligibility to just have him fair catch every ball. But it may be worth it if the year got Neal acclimated to the bright lights and big stage so that he can get the jitters out and get two or three explosive and exciting years from him in the future.

    Agreed that Kiel might not have made the best decision, and that Golson has a long way to go to be an “elite” quarterback (whatever that means). But Golson’s a tough kid and his improvement was steady all season. I don’t see any cause for concern that he would regress or not put us in the best position to win games. And if Rees had to come in as the backup, well, how’s that worked out so far? I won’t rehash all of Tommy’s shortcomings, which we all acknowledge, but he came in and performed more than adequately in clutch situations last year.

    Hendrix strikes me as a good kid and it is a shame he never got more playing time. But his only real strength is his running ability and toughness. He’s got a cannon for an arm but has never shown any touch on his passes. I don’t put that on lack of nurturing or coaching or whatever; some guys just don’t develop that talent. If he chooses to finish out his eligibility elsewhere next year, best of luck to him, I hope he succeeds. If he decides to go straight on to medical school, then best of luck with that too.

  8. dillonbigred - Mar 19, 2013 at 9:41 AM

    You referenced Neal and the burned year. I was as frustrated as most by the lack of punt returns. I was at the BYU game where Kelly protected against a fake punt on something like 4th and 26. I think how the season unfolded, however, helped dictate Kelly’s decisions. He said they were shorthanded on special teams, but I think that if the season played out like 2011 for example, Kelly would have loosened the reins on Neal as he gained experience. Who anticipated 2012? As the wins piled up with an undefeated season, a somewhat fragile offense, and a topshelf defense, Kelly stayed extremely cautious on punt returns. He probably envisioned utilizing a talent like Neal more when he burned the year.

  9. goirishgo - Mar 19, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    I like Shumate a lot. If his post-season development has continued at the same rate as his in-season growth he will be a force to be reckoned with.

  10. 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 19, 2013 at 11:58 AM

    I just want CJ Prosise to play his way onto the field this year. He reminds me of Antonio Cromartie; long legs, long arms but not giving up much speed or quickness given his length.

    QB(s) must absolutely hate to play against defensive backs with this kind of size/quickness/speed, because they make it so much tougher to fit the ball into those small windows, and unless you have one on your own scout team (unlikely), how do you prepare for facing a defense that has a guy like this?

  11. fnc111 - Mar 19, 2013 at 12:55 PM

    Who cares about spring football it’s march madness time.

  12. frankbjr - Mar 21, 2013 at 12:17 AM

    charlie 617

    foolish? the only fool out there is jackson, runs around like a chicken with no head. impressive against purdue?, how about BC, how about Pitt,; there was better competition during the blue and gold game, he belongs on the offensive side of the ball much more of an explosive player there.

    never used the word “elite” when referring to EG. Hopefully consistency will appear next season, no one should have had to sweat (especially the team) through those three games; but I agree he played through some very tough situations and can only gain valuable experience and knowledge by doing so.

    tommy rees, the luckiest qb alive; lets just leave it at that….

    hendrix never showed any touch on his passes? he has to play in order to do just that. I would have invested a little more time and energy in a kid with “medical school level intelligence”, even if it was as a role player in another position? (just speculating)

    and finally, to repeat my earlier portion of the post Davonte Neal needs to be on the field, never mentioned in what capacity slot receiver, returner, whatever; he just needs to touch the ball; How would you like to stand back there as a freshman and realize no return was being set up for you, for the entire season! I am sure an experienced coaching staff of this caliber could find a way to give him touches. (Wake Forest, Navy, games?) I agree with no red shirting, I still would be suprise and I think bk would be also if the kid stays at ND for the next three years.

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