Jackson Russell

How we got here: Secondary

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With three starters returning on the back end of the defense, many expected the Notre Dame secondary to thrive this season. Bennett Jackson had the makings of an All-American caliber player. KeiVarae Russell was finally able to spend an offseason training to play cornerback after an impressive true freshman campaign. And Matthias Farley was back after stepping capably into the starting lineup.

With veterans like Lo Wood returning from injury and young talent pressing veteran cornerbacks Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, cornerback depth was as strong as its been in years. Add to that the fleet of safeties the Irish brought in the past few years, and a great battle happening between Farley, Elijah Shumate, Austin Collinsworth, with Max Redfield and Eilar Hardy right on their tails, and the back-end was as stable as it had been in almost a decade.

Of course all of those assumptions changed when the Irish started playing. Michigan lit up the Irish, with Jeremy Gallon beating just about every Irish defensive back for a big gain. Jackson and Russell both looked worst than just susceptible in man coverage, they looked downright lost sometimes. And a season after playing well, both Farley and Shumate seemed to regress as well.

Brian Kelly has preached patience and that seems to be paying off. The Irish defense played their best game against Arizona State, with the Sun Devils passing game kept in check by a group that struggled to do that in crunch time multiple times.

Let’s take stock of where we are at the halfway point of the season.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

Bennett Jackson — 35 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 INT (TD), 2 BU, 3 PD, 1 QBH, 1 FF
Matthias Farley — 25 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INTs, 2 BU, 4 PD
KeiVarae Russell — 23 tackles, 4 BU, 4 PD
Elijah Shumate — 21 tackles, 1 TFL
Austin Collinsworth — 13 tackles, 2 QBH,
Cole Luke — 6 tackles, 1BU, 1 PD
Devin Butler — 2 tackles
Lo Wood — 2 tackles
Max Redfield — 2 tackles
Eilar Hardy — 1 tackle

THREE KEYS

No big plays. After learning on the job last year, it’d help to take a cue from last year’s playbook. Keep things in front of you and force an opponent to beat you with a sustained drive, not a big play downfield.

Too ofter the Irish have been burned this season after being one of the most stingy pass defenses in the country. But as the Irish sent blitzers and relied on man-to-man coverage, the rush too often didn’t get there and the defense got beat for a big play.

That’ll be tested next Saturday when a USC offense that looks to have awaken from its slumber comes to South Bend.

Get better safety play. The Irish have really missed that veteran hand in the secondary, somewhere the Irish really thrived with Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta playing centerfield. Both Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley have struggled this year and Max Redfield still feels a few games away from being ready.

Elijah Shumate looks like he should be a guy that’s a front line contributor but he’s still finding his way. And while Collinsworth has been in the system for three seasons this group is missing that anchor that puts the team in the right place and that’s obviously hurt in some very big situations.

Force turnovers… and look for the football. After doing a better job of it last season, the Irish secondary has been beaten a few too many times this season by simply not turning back and looking for the football.

Being in position to make a play and making the play are often separated by technique and poise. The Irish secondary needs to refine its technique and also trust that it’s in the right place. The football has been there for the taking, Notre Dame just needs to play the ball better.

Irish A-to-Z: Nic Weishar

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 3: Nic Weishar #82 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish juggles a pass during the game against the Clemson Tigers at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)
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A year after earning major practice reps when the position group couldn’t stay healthy, Nic Weishar gets another chance to step forward with the loss of Alizé Jones. While the Chicagoland product won’t be an option at the boundary receiver position, he’s a catch-first player who’ll help the Irish passing game if given a chance.

With weapons on the outside still coming into focus after Torii Hunter, Weishar has slowly earned the trust of a coaching staff—and two quarterbacks—who appreciate his catch radius and ball skills. While his evolution into a true tight end is still ongoing, there’s opportunities to carve out a niche in the Irish offense as Weishar enters his third season in the program.

 

NIC WEISHAR
6’4″, 240 lbs.
Junior, No. 82, TE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A first-team All-State player in Illinois, Weishar was a U.S. Army All-American and a four-star prospect. He had offers from Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma though picked Notre Dame early in the process.

Kelly called him “the finest pass catching tight end we saw” on Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, starting two (Clemson, Stanford). Made three catches for 18 yards.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I got caught up in the preseason hype, because even as Durham Smythe went down, the offense didn’t use the tight end enough.

This might not sound like high praise, but I think we need to set modest expectations for Weishar this season. To that point, I think 10 to 15 catches sounds about right, though the sophomore can feel free to blow right past that number if he feels like it.

Weishar’s been a handful during camp, reportedly dominating the second-team defense and linebackers in coverage. As Durham Smythe and Alize Jones have been limited in camp, it’s allowed Weishar to take some first-team reps as well.

The red zone could be the X factor for Weishar, and will obviously be one of the keys to the Irish offense. While you’d expect the Irish to lean heavily on the running game near the goal line, Weishar is one of many great pass options to consider, as long as the staff has faith in the decision-making skills of Malik Zaire.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There are crafty tight ends who use their wily nature and Football IQ to create opportunities and then freaks who physically take what they want. Nobody will confuse Weishar for the latter, and we’ll see if he keeps discovering ways to become the former. At a position group that’s been the envy of most colleges, that Weishar could cap-out as a solid supporting cast member is no slight—there’s still plenty of work for him in that role in this system.

Ultimately, we’ll see if there’s an ascent possible. Can Weishar do both the in-line and detached jobs well? Can he find a way to wreak havoc down the field, another Irish tight end who finds room running the seam?

I’m not looking for a game-breaker in Weishar. But taking advantage of your opportunities in man coverage shouldn’t be too much to ask, especially if the run game is rolling and the Irish quarterbacks can find a few reliable receivers.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m setting the ceiling at 10 catches this season, though I’d be happy to be wrong. While Weishar is again the No. 2 tight end, and there’s a better argument to be made for sharing the ball with tight ends this season than last, it’s still an offense with a handful of playmakers to incorporate before working our way down to TE2.

I could be underrating Weishar, who has earned more than his share of raves for his hands and reliability as a red zone target. But if you’re picking favorites behind Hunter and trying to find a place in the pecking order for Weishar, I have him below guys like Equanimeous St. Brown and even Miles Boykin before figuring out what Durham Smythe’s production will be.

The staff will find a way to use Weishar to best accentuate his skills. As of right now, I just think that’s going to be as a guy who gets one or two targets a game, though some of those should come in the red zone.

 

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
Nick Watkins

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

Donte Vaughn 247
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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