Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson

Offseason cheat sheet: Defensive backs


When Brian Kelly took over the Notre Dame program, he was tasked with not just rebuilding the secondary, but reloading it. While he was lucky to inherit a front line of talented players, he was left with a depth chart that was frighteningly thin. No position better illustrated that than safety. When Jamoris Slaughter was injured in Kelly’s opening game, the depth chart didn’t go two deep with scholarship players.

My how things have changed. First Kelly reloaded at safety, filling the depth chart with quality prospects. Last cycle he took dead aim at cornerback, adding three talented youngsters. After making it through last season with three first-year starters, all converted offensive players, the secondary should be an equal to the front seven.


Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott had their hands full last season, forced to get KeiVarae Russell up to speed after spending all summer as a running back-in-training and Bennett Jackson through the season with a bum shoulder. They also had to make the safety position work after losing key reserve Austin Collinsworth before the season started and top shelf starter Jamoris Slaughter in the season’s first month by plugging in Matthias Farley.

The growing pains that we never even saw will pay dividends this season, with Russell, Jackson and Farley all expected to be high level contributors. Fighting for time are returning players expected to play big roles in ’12, like Lo Wood, now back from an achilles injury, and Collinsworth, healthy after back and shoulder ailments.

Youth will immediately challenge to get on the field, namely elite recruits Cole Luke and Max Redfield. Both have already passed veterans on the depth chart, which contributed to the transfer of safety Chris Badger and Josh Atkinson’s move to wide receiver. But even with the attrition, and a season ending injury to Nicky Baratti, depth should be the strength of this group.


Here’s an breakdown of the cornerback and safety personnel:

Bennett Jackson, Sr. #2
KeiVarae Russell, Soph. #6
Lo Wood, Sr. #23
Cole Luke, Fr. #3 (or #36)
Jalen Brown, Jr. #21
Devin Butler, Fr. #12
Josh Atkinson, Jr. #24
Rashad Kinlaw, Fr. #26
Connor Cavalaris, Jr. #47
Joe Romano, Sr. #35
Jesse Bongiovi, Fr. #34

Matthias Farley, Jr. #41
Austin Collinsworth, Sr. #28
Elijah Shumate, Soph. #22
Eilar Hardy, Jr. #4
Max Redfield, Fr. #10
Nicky Baratti, Soph. #29
John Turner, Soph. #31
Eamon McOsker, Soph. #46
Drew Recker, Fr. #39
Ernie Soto, Jr. #43


The two deep in the secondary was probably one of the big surprises of week one. That Cole Luke worked his way into the rotation this early in the season shows you what type of talent the Arizona native brings to South Bend. Kelly plans on using Luke in nickel and dime packages, and likely special teams, as he’ll be wearing No. 36 this Saturday so as not to run into eligibility issues when he and Amir Carlisle are on the field together.

Perhaps also surprising is Eilar Hardy’s ascension into the two-deep at safety. Hardy is listed, not five-star recruit Max Redfield, as a key back-up, perhaps a surprise nearly bigger than Austin Collinsworth beating out Elijah Shumate for the starting safety job opposite Matthias Farley.

Kelly expects Collinsworth and Shumate to both play, calling them 1A and 1B. And while Redfield isn’t in the two deep, that might not be for long, as the Southern California native is too dynamic of a football player to stay off the field for long, but needs to know all the responsibilities heaped on the last line of defense.

With a front seven that’s as dynamic as Notre Dame’s, it’ll be interesting to see what Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks have in store for the secondary. After last year’s mostly vanilla offerings, there’s every reason to believe that the Irish can mix coverages and feel confident putting their cornerbacks on an island, adding more to an already potent pass rush.

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.