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Position switches help depth chart come into focus

Feb 28, 2014, 9:55 PM EDT

Matthias Farley

It was a slightly more newsworthy opening press conference than you might expect from Brian Kelly. While the usual introductory remarks were certainly there, Kelly also broke a fair amount of news as the 2014 Irish begin their work in earnest.

We’ve already talked about the tweaks to the coaching staff. But some significant roster moves also help set in motion what the depth chart will look like. Some moves are large, some are more subtle, but all are worth discussing.

First, there’s a move across the line of scrimmage for James Onwualu. After starting four games at wide receiver, Onwualu will spend the spring as a safety, a decision likely based on the production and aggression Onwualu showed on special teams.

Kelly talked about the decision-making process, a harder decision than you’d expect considering Onwualu made just two catches last season.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.  He’s a ferocious competitor and I wanted to take a look at him because he is such a physical player and he’s got an incredible volume to him in terms of his ability to play every play. So this was a time to take a look at him at safety.”

It’s hard not to think about the evolution of Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth when discussing Onwualu. At 6-foot-1, 215-pounds, Onwualu adds some size to the back line, and the chance to compete right away, even with some talent at the position.

While the safety depth chart added Onwualu, it subtracted two members. John Turner is listed as an outside linebacker, likely providing depth at a relatively thin drop position with Ben Councell out. Turner played in 13 games, logging mostly special teams minutes. But the surprise of the spring was Matthias Farley‘s transition from safety to cornerback.

Farley has essentially been a starter at the position the last two seasons, stepping into the lineup in 2012 after Jamoris Slaughter went down. He started the season as one of two regulars at safety, but an up-and-down season had Max Redfield starting opposite Austin Collinsworth in the bowl game.

Kelly talked about the rationale of the move for Farley, which turned out to be an interesting explanation.

“We’re going to give him an opportunity to play corner,” Kelly said. “As we’ve looked at the depth that we have back there, is that the one thing that we’re looking for and Coach VanGorder is looking for is ‘outside‑in’ players and ‘inside‑out’ players at that position.

“We think that he can be a very good player, especially a tackler from an ‘outside‑in’ position.  He’s been playing inside‑out right; he’s been running the alley ‘inside‑out.’

We think he can be a very good force player from an ‘outside-in’ position and he’s really a good athlete.  He can run and he’s got very good ball skills. So we are going to give him an opportunity out there to compete and take a look at him.  We are going to play more than two corners.  We are going to play as many as four.”

Farley had some high profile missed tackles last season, not necessarily a good thing for a player that’s the last line of defense. And as a safety that’s tasked with protecting the middle of the field, coming up the alleys to support isn’t a place where that’s acceptable.

With KeiVarae Russell comfortably locked onto the field (or wide) side of the formation, Farley is going to be given the chance to compete with Cole Luke for Bennett Jackson’s job. That might be a perfect place for his skill-set.

Farley’s a solid thumper and has solid wheels, but he might have a better chance to utilize those skills as a boundary cornerback, coming off the edge and playing as an attacker in Cover 2 sets.

With Cody Riggs entering the conversation this summer and Devin Butler returning this summer after shoulder surgery, there’ll be competition soon. But expect to see Farley getting plenty of reps in a somewhat new scheme.

Lastly, the running back depth chart thinned itself out. Even with George Atkinson leaving early, it was difficult to figure out how five backs were going to get a crack at the starting job. That’s certainly not the case anymore.

Will Mahone is listed as a slot receiver, quite an interesting spot for a 5-foot-11, 214-pounder, but a place where he got good reviews during 2013 camp. Amir Carlisle is listed as a RB/WR, giving him an opportunity to battle for snaps at the slot as well.

“We’ve got a good stable of backs there, and I’m just trying to get guys reps, and we don’t have as much depth at that position,” Kelly said about Carlisle’s added responsibilities. “I want to take a look at him at some slot receiver, too, so we’ll get a chance to get some reps with him, too.”

That puts the focus on three backs, with Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant taking center stage. That’s a manageable number, and one that certainly tells you how the coaches see things playing out. While Kelly wasn’t asked about running back, the changes to the depth chart likely say all we need to know.


  1. viktory2013 - Feb 28, 2014 at 10:41 PM

    Onwualu will probably make a pretty good safety. Size, speed, toughness. Not a bad move by Kelly, particularly in light of Farley’s ineptitude last season. I’ll be surprised if Farley isn’t replaced by Riggs by the time Rice kicks off

    His moves at running back are on target, too. Carlisle fell apart last season and putting him outside might just bring him back into the fray. Folston and Bryant will be the designated battering rams.

    • dickasman - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:17 AM

      I like all of the moves. O and Farley especially.

      I don’t like this move at all. Think nd dropped the ball on handling the situation. To me, shut up is automatic admission of guilt.

      But I do like all the moves and makes sense.

      • dickasman - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:21 AM

        Who’s going to fill the “rapist” position for us this year? Haven’t really had a good one since Abraham Elam.

      • bernhtp - Mar 1, 2014 at 4:11 PM

        Dick, your series of posts on the topic are examples A-Z of why it is often prudent to just STFU. Seriously.

  2. newmexicoirish - Feb 28, 2014 at 10:58 PM

    Viktory, I’m not sure I agree with or understand Onwualu’s move to defense. By all accounts playing safety in Notre Dame’s defensive scheme is very complicated. An intelligent and athletically gifted 5 star athlete like Max Redfield had to sit an entire year to learn the complexities and nuances of the position and this was after excelling at safety in high school.
    I hope this move doesn’t cost Onwualu’s a year of playing time in order to learn to play safety.

    • dsharp86 - Feb 28, 2014 at 11:22 PM

      I’m sure the numbers we have at receiver played a big role in the decision also. If we didn’t have so many promising young receivers, this move probably would not have happened.

    • shaunodame - Mar 1, 2014 at 2:21 AM

      Keep in mind that playing the Safety position for Van Gorder is not the same as playing safety for Diaco. Van Gorder might expect/give different responsibilities. While safety for Diaco might have been an extremely heady position, Van Gorder’s scheme may not expect the same nuances.

    • mtflsmitty - Mar 1, 2014 at 9:26 AM

      5-Stars or not Max was rather slight coming into the season. I don’t have any insight into how smart the kid is or isn’t. But do do know he was pretty skinny back there. I suspect it was his physical readiness that held him back in 2013.

  3. gtizzo - Feb 28, 2014 at 11:18 PM

    We are all waiting BK one more position change right…Redfield to offense…maybe next presser.

  4. getsome99 - Feb 28, 2014 at 11:19 PM

    Redfield is more of a “free safety” so there probably is a bigger learning curve compared to what Onwualu will be used for, which is most likely a hard hitting “strong safety” type. It would be a huge bonus if Kyle McCarthy can replicate himself in Austin Collinsworth though as a late emerging playmaker in the backfield.

    Jackson, Russell, and Farley all successfully transitioned from WR to DB and two of those players will probably end up getting drafted. Look at what Kelly has done with other players who have switched positions like Riddick, Eifert, and Niklas. All will be on NFL rosters next year and probably wouldn’t have had they not switched positions. Mahone and Onwualu I think have a good chance to follow in their footsteps. Jarron Jones too.

    • dickasman - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:20 AM

      Yeah. I like the Farley move. He couldn’t hit worth a dam, didn’t have any pop in him. Few times I’ve seen O on special teams, he popped

    • shaunodame - Mar 1, 2014 at 2:23 AM

      What other position did Eifert play?

      • mediocrebob - Mar 1, 2014 at 7:50 AM

        He was TE from the time he stepped on campus I’m pretty sure. Although he display safety in HS which is a a scary thought

      • dudeacow - Mar 1, 2014 at 2:23 PM


  5. fnc111 - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:32 AM

    I hope Carlisle can get it going this season. Great athlete but I guess we’ll see. Maybe KR?

    I noticed Mahone warming up with the wideouts the entire pre-game of the ASU game last year and he looked smooth. I figured that was the long term move anyways.

  6. fnc111 - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:39 AM

    dick, your last question would be more suited for the University of Meatchicken blogs.

    • dickasman - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:57 AM

      Y I guess it’s part of every good football program. FSU included. You know when you have a rapist on the team, you’ve made it.

  7. 25kgold - Mar 1, 2014 at 12:42 AM!/videos/oxaTh4azoLz0rUjNFgm6-BgBQYqksa0P

    • mtflsmitty - Mar 1, 2014 at 9:33 AM

      Great video. The tug o war with the tire looks intense. Would have to be so fun to be there.

    • upthera44 - Mar 1, 2014 at 10:00 AM

      Awesome. Gotta love seeing:

      Greg Bryant vs. Max Redfield in the tire contest
      Jarron Jones beating Ronney Stanley with tire
      Michael Deeb tackling a dummy like an absolute beast
      IShaq looking pretty intense in workouts
      Matt Hegarty holding his own against Sheldon Day

  8. onward2victory - Mar 1, 2014 at 2:08 AM

    I asked the following question in the ASU mailbag, but I guess it was too prophetic to deserve an answer from Keith at the time. I had to wait for CBK himself to give me this answer.

    “One of the few bright spots last week was a monster special teams tackle by James Onwualu. With the WR position deep and more top talent coming in next year, could you see JO switching to defense? What position(s) could he play??”

    And yes, by posting this I am fishing for affirmation and a pat on the back. :)

    • shaunodame - Mar 1, 2014 at 2:25 AM

      I’d probably freak you out pretty badly if I showed up at your house to pat you on the back, so I hope a thumbs up will suffice :)

    • mtflsmitty - Mar 1, 2014 at 9:36 AM

      The fact that the first three letters of your screen name are the same as the first three in JO’s last name…Hmmm. Coincidence? I think not.

    • papadec - Mar 1, 2014 at 11:06 AM

      pat pat

  9. shaunodame - Mar 1, 2014 at 2:32 AM

    “We are going to play more than two corners. We are going to play as many as four.”

    Sounds like the good ol’ fashioned “Dime Package” to me. Last year we never ventured beyond a Nickel package. If any one had any doubts about us utilizing more 4 man Dline looks, you can now put those ideas to bed. All these new schemes are exciting! This feels like my first year as a coach all over again

  10. rocket1988 - Mar 1, 2014 at 9:11 AM

    Actually Eifert played corner in high school in Ft. Wayne, now that’s downright scary!

  11. rocket1988 - Mar 1, 2014 at 9:14 AM

    Don’t listen it anything Haugh the hack had to say. That guy has a boner to get ND.

  12. yaketyyacc - Mar 1, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    the shifting around bears the stamp of Van Gorder more then Kelly. he is creating a defense in his own image, and these young Notre Dame players will learn a new cadence, and march to the baton of a master, who firmly believes that practice means to improve and not repeat. the drumbeat will be: attack, always attack! Notre Dame will be the better for it.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 1, 2014 at 3:18 PM

      I am so dang excited to see micHael deeb and onwaulu hit. These two guys were made to knock guys down. Moving onwaulu over to defense makes so much sense I wonder why it took them so long to make the switch

  13. getsome99 - Mar 2, 2014 at 1:11 AM

    Honestly, I don’t know why I listed Eifert. Brain fart I guess. Harrison Smith was the other player who changed positions and turned into a high draft pick.

  14. yllibnosredna - Mar 2, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    I like the idea of moving Farley from the defensive secondary to the midfield of the soccer squad. Sorry, but the guy (despite good athleticism) just doesn’t appear to be a football player.

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