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.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.