Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson

Offseason cheat sheet: Defensive backs

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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.

POSITIONAL OVERVIEW

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.

ROSTER READING

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

CRYSTAL BALL

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.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.