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How we got here: Secondary

Oct 13, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

Jackson Russell

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.

  1. yaketyyacc - Oct 13, 2013 at 8:56 AM

    you don’t hear Nick Saban sputtering platitudes, or preaching patience. nor does he place the National Championship game on his regular schedule, or need rock music as the 12th ingredient for his teams. He wins because he instills fundamentals and excellent execution, over and over and over. in a response to an after the game interviewer, he said, “it isn’t the play calling that is important, it is the execution of the play called.” so for you “student” coaches out there, pay attention to the master.
    he also puts the very best team on the field. as coach Kelly pointed out the special team that faced us on the kickoff, was almost entirely first team players.
    now, you “student” coaches, do your homework right and one day you can say we won three National Championships in a row. take you eye off the money and keep it on the football, and maybe one day you too can be a Saban.

  2. ndcanuck - Oct 13, 2013 at 9:03 AM

    Off topic, but this weekend couldn’t have gone worse for the Irish – MU, Stanford and OU all losing. Whatever ND does the rest of the year those 2 loses aren’t going to look good, and now the Stanford game loses potential as a quality won too. Unfortunate :(

    • rdw71 - Oct 13, 2013 at 10:41 AM

      or you could look at it as making it easier for us to climb back into the top 14 to be eligible for a BCS game if we win out. None of the victors in those games (Penn State, Utah, and Texas) are going to be ranked above us if we keep winning. Big “If”, I know, but it will take both wins for us and losses for some of those other guys above us, and yesterday was a good day for that. Strength of schedule is not going to keep us out of the BCS if we win out; the only thing that will is 14 higher-ranked teams, so we still need some of those other guys to lose some (more) games.

    • wisner74 - Oct 13, 2013 at 11:59 AM

      On the other hand, that ugly win over Michigan State is starting to look prettier and prettier.

      • alsatiannd - Oct 13, 2013 at 2:32 PM

        Don’t count on it. MSU, 2-loss Wisconsin, and Utah all jumped us in the polls. Don’t count on logic or sympathy from a human poll.

  3. loadofwash - Oct 13, 2013 at 9:22 AM

    ND ranks 87 in pass yards allowed and 80th in 3rd dwn conversion %. The secondary stinks.

  4. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 9:53 AM

    Our secondary made Jeremy Gallon look like a legitimate Heisman contender. Jimmy Clausen himself couldn’t have saved us in this game with the way Gallon and Gardner toyed with our defense. LB’s and DE’s need to keep the pressure on the QB to help these DB’s out. Not sacks necessarily, but consistent pressure.

  5. nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    This thing about “looking for the ball” seems to keep coming up as if it’s exclusively an ND thing. I see DBs from other teams and in the NFL not looking for the ball all the time.

    I’ve never played DB but I do know that when you’re furiously trying to cover someone who’s fast, taking your eyes off him for even a split second will get you beat every time. Exhibit A is Bennett Jackson on that TD throw vs, OK. He peeked at the QB, then ran around in the endzone a good 4 steps away from his man. Looked absolutely terrible. THAT is what looking for the ball will do.

    I’d love to hear from someone here who actually understands DB coaching and technique. I’d bet they say DBs are coached to look for the ball only when they’re in a dominant position coverage-wise, or have help from the safety.

    • wisner74 - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:07 PM

      That’s for sure true. If the DB turns his head and loses track of his man, then he’s “been caught looking into the backfield (or at the QB, or whatever).”

      I’ve always thought DB, especially cornerback, is one of the most difficult positions to play. And not just physically. When the offense completes a big pass play, the DB is out there all alone for all of the world to see as the guy who just got beat. DBs have to be emotionally resilient.

      • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:45 PM

        I am pretty sure that DBs are coached NOT to look for the ball, unless as I said they have blanketed the WR or there is help.

        The way you see most of these guys play it when they’re in a downfield situation is they watch the receiver’s EYES and HANDS/ARMS, and try to time their breakup move by going after the hands and arms just as the ball arrives. Obviously it’s not 100% successful – nothing is – but that is far less dangerous than looking back for the ball when you’re already a half step behind.

        Looking for the ball as your primary move = Adam Archulatta when he was with the Bears.
        I can still see that #20 chasing guys across the goal line. Possibly the worst DB I’ve ever seen.

        Ever

        Any level

        Any continent

        Yes, I know he was a S, not CB, but I still am pissed off about him.
        Thank you Lovie.

      • bearcatirishfan - Oct 13, 2013 at 3:23 PM

        I actually played safety in high school and the “coaching” we were given was watch the reciever until his “eyes get big” which implies he’s looking for the ball. Not sure if that still is the way it’s done. Although I think it was against MSU There were two DBs Farley and Jackson and the ball was under thrown. The reciever caught it neither db saw it. I think that looking for the ball takes some instinct not sure our guys have it. Gary grey definatley did not have it. let’s be realistic too, our entire starting backfield is converted wide receivers Jackson, Farley, Collindworth and Russell, are all converted receivers or running backs. This had to affect the way they play the game.

      • ndcanuck - Oct 14, 2013 at 12:02 PM

        I played the equivalent of “nickle back” in high school as well (Canadian football, so a bit different, always have that extra DB covering the slot guy as there are 12 on the field and almost all formations have a slot receiver), and the “watching the eyes” coaching bearcatirish mentioned holds true there too.

        If you’re running with a guy you can pretty easily tell when the ball is coming his way (frankly you usually can tell as soon as he lines up across from you if he’s expecting the ball on that play). For what it’s worth I was taught to turn and look for the ball while also putting my hands up (preferably between his hands) when the receiver shows you that the ball is coming with his eyes. Like nude described it has to be one movement with the hands and eyes at the same time; seems like there is little point in just looking if you’re not moving your hands to make a play on the ball.

        But hell, what do I know? Diaco and every member of the ND staff has probably forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know. Just frustrating to see this weakness in the secondary of a team with a lot of potential.

  6. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    Applying pressure on the QB helps the DB’s in coverage. When the opposing QB has all day to get the throw off or scramble out of the pocket, it’s just a matter of time before the coverage breaks down and WR’s downfield get open. Especially with our DB’s who seem to still be learning on the job. Our strength this year was supposed to be the DE’s and OLB’s getting to the QB.

  7. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 12:26 PM

    Even Darelle Revis doesn’t look quite like the Revis we know without the help of Rex Ryan’s aggressive pass rushing front seven.

  8. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    @ Nudeman,

    Here’s an article I found that explains Rex Ryan’s take on the front seven’s contributions to pass coverage. I personally hate the Jets but the guy is a genius when it comes to coaching defense.

    http://www.newsday.com/sports/football/jets/effective-pass-rush-by-jets-front-seven-benefits-whole-defense-1.6154277

  9. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 1:04 PM

    In fairness to Bob Diaco, he hasn’t had a Manti Te’o swarming the middle of the field to allow us to go all out blitz crazy with any confidence. Maybe with Jaylon emerging into that role, this will change in the second half.

  10. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 1:46 PM

    To counter the point below from the article, I would say against UM, the blitz did get there but flushed Gardner out of the pocket to buy himself more time.

    We’re didn’t have ILB’s and S’s shooting the gaps to finish plays like last year’s D. OU hurt us on quick WR screens and slants, which I put on the LB’s, which we expected would be a downgrade this year.

    “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.”

    • bearcatirishfan - Oct 13, 2013 at 3:25 PM

      Devin Gardner played the best game of his life that night and we lost. It reminds me of Pitt last year if GOLSON didn’t get his stuff together and take over that game no chance we win.

      • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 4:47 PM

        Funny how so many seem to have the game of their lives against ND.
        The Temple QB looked pretty damn good; Belldozer had his best ever game. Devon Gardner and Gallon. Purdue looked awfully damn good in spurts.

        Q: What’s the one common component?
        A: The ND defense and their complete lack of speed in the secondary.

      • bearcatirishfan - Oct 13, 2013 at 11:08 PM

        Is nd’s defense part od the problem yes. But don’t under estimate that playing nd is the Super Bowl for these teams. I read that Blake bell had like 16 family members come to ND for the game. They play better because it’s nd sorry it’s a fact

  11. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 4:51 PM

    @ Nudeman,

    Everybody brings something extra for Notre Dame . Even when we’ve been just ok, it’s the game circled on every opponent’s schedule. It’s the reality of being Notre Dame, although this x factory should be accounted for by the coaches and players as they prepare for these second tier opponents.

    • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 7:56 PM

      I think that’s firmly in the ecuse category.

      Do teams get up for ND? Sure.
      But teams also get up for USC, UM, OSU, Alabama and about 10 other high profile programs.

      This year, every team wants to clean Johnny Manziel’s clock. But he’s been brilliant and I don’t think I’ve read Sumlin saying “Damn, this is hard; everyone’s up for us”.

  12. loadofwash - Oct 13, 2013 at 5:26 PM

    Sounds like a lack of leadership. What, what??? And seriously, who cares about ND’s bowl position. The overall bowl record is damn near as laughable as that game last year. The 80’s are but a distant memory……

  13. loadofwash - Oct 13, 2013 at 5:34 PM

    Getsomemore, everyone circles OSU, FSU and the top half of the SEC. I don’t hear them making 30 yrs of pitiful excuses, excuses, excuses. #NOTALENT.

  14. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 5:47 PM

    @ loadswallow,

    You obviously have not been to a ND road game.

  15. loadofwash - Oct 13, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    Why would I want to do that, ha ha, that’s a good one. I almost pee myself laughing. Thanks wise 1, #WTF

  16. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 8:36 PM

    Nude. Dude. Manziel has already won a Heisman. Perspective please.

    • nudeman - Oct 13, 2013 at 9:29 PM

      Huh? That is exactly the point I’m making.
      He’s got a target on his back because of the Heisman and all his off season shenanigans.

      Teams get for T A&M too, but I’ve never heard Sumlin use that as an excuse

      Seriously, are you trying to say ND is the only game that other teams get up for?

  17. getsome99 - Oct 13, 2013 at 9:50 PM

    Nope. Just validating your point about other teams bringing their “A” game every week against. I also stated that coaches and players SHOULD prepare for this. We are many of our lesser opponents bowl game or equivalent to their Super Bowl.

  18. loadofwash - Oct 14, 2013 at 8:04 AM

    Fact: ND does not rank in the top 20 in ANY statistical category. They rank 87 in pass yards allowed; secondary sucks.

  19. irishwilliamsport - Oct 14, 2013 at 1:00 PM

    The secondary just gives up too many big plays, and it’s not the same scheme as last year. Hat’s off to Penn State for the Michigan win. A FRESHNAN quarterback made a few mistakes buy hung in there. Fans were phenominal, coach in scheme etc. I could never see Bill O’Brien or Brady Hoke for that matter say “these aren’t my guys” or flirt with the NFL behind everyone’s back the day after the NC game.

  20. rationalnd - Oct 14, 2013 at 4:23 PM

    After watching every game as intently as a half drunk guy can, I’d like to offer my perspective….

    First it drives me nuts how the DB’s play off coverage on darn near every play. 3rd and short? Here let me give your best WR a ten yard cushion. I don’t mind trying to keep the play in front of you but there has got to be a discussion about situational play-calling.

    Speaking of keeping the play in front of you…… For whatever reason our DB’s are constantly chasing WR’s. A confounding paradox in itself that I can’t begin to breakdown. However, as a result of said chasing, our DB’s often find themselves in poor position which leads to them not being able to take their eyes off the WR’s and look for the ball. I do not see this on other teams nearly as often. Whether it be scheme or personnel I feel our DB’s are constantly getting beat in their 1 on 1 match-ups vs the WR they are covering.

    Finally, I maintain that a lot of these problems come from 2 main sources. First the loss of Motta and Second “thinking” more than just playing.

  21. rationalnd - Oct 14, 2013 at 5:07 PM

    @Nudeman

    I agree that the ND defense is the common denominator when it comes to opposing teams playing their best offensive game of the year (Frustratingly compounded by watching Michigan struggle against the likes of Uconn) . I don’t believe that this comes from lack of speed though. I mean these are the same guys from last year.

    Furthermore, 40 times from Rivals:
    Jackson: 4.44
    Russell: 4.6
    Shumate: 4.5
    Farley:4.5
    Collinsworth: 4.7

    I couldn’t find a 40 time for Gallon but the secondary is not much slower than the top WR’s in the country who run on average 4.5’s. After a little more digging only 25 players in the 2013 combine ran faster than a 4.4.

    I agree with KA that the secondary this year is lacking technique

  22. 700levelvet - Oct 14, 2013 at 7:50 PM

    I keep waiting for the.. “How we got here”.. Meineke Car Care Bowl story…

    • rationalnd - Oct 14, 2013 at 8:22 PM

      I would rather play in the car care bowl than watch this ND team get smoked by LSU or other legit top ten team. I also think that a postseason win is most important for recruiting and momentum

  23. getsome99 - Oct 14, 2013 at 10:14 PM

    I’m thinking Sugar Bowl.

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