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Kelly rolls the dice again with position switches

Mar 11, 2014, 2:52 PM EDT

Matthias Farley

Brian Kelly has never been afraid to move players. In his four seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly has filled his secondary with former wide receivers, turned a linebacker into a tight end, running backs into wide receivers, and bounced lineman across the line of scrimmage.

After beginning his career at Grand Valley, the Irish head coach learned quickly that his favorite players often played the position of “football player.” That meant finding a way to get his best athletes on the field, even if it meant keeping an open mind as a young player developed.

We saw early Kelly’s commitment to this principle. His first signing class wasn’t filled with position listings, but rather player types: Skill, Big Skill, Power. That meant that Troy Niklas could start his career at outside linebacker, spending part of his freshman season rushing the passer from the interior of the defensive line. It also allowed him to make the switch to tight end, where in two seasons he played well enough to have some believing he’s a potential first round draft pick in this May’s draft.

Sometimes those position switches don’t always work. Kelly tried turning Theo Riddick into the answer at slot receiver. After so-so results, Kelly pulled the plug on the experiment, transitioning Riddick back to running back in the final regular season game of a disappointing 2011 season. But he was rewarded in 2012, as Riddick became the most trusted back on a team that played for the national championship.

After playing a secondary that at times had four converted wide receivers starting at the same time, Kelly is once again rolling the dice on a few key position switches, with hopes of shoring up the back end of the defense. They include a minor move — pushing starting safety (and converted wide receiver) Matthias Farley outside to cornerback. They also include a major move — taking rising sophomore James Onwualu from offense to defense, even after he started four games as a freshman receiver.

Farley’s move comes after a somewhat disappointing season. After filling in admirably when Jamoris Slaughter went down, he struggled to anchor the secondary. Kelly talked candidly about Farley’s play, acknowledging that the shoes he was asked to fill might have been too big.

“He was put into a very difficult situation,” Kelly acknowledged. “We were trying to get him to replace Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith – two pretty good players, and two physical players.

“He’s not that kind of player… That’s not his best trait. He’s really smart. He’s got some tools that, if we play him in the right position, can really help our defense.”

A cerebral and eclectic student-athlete, Farley came to Notre Dame a raw prospect, new to football and projected as a wide receiver. After spending his first season in the program playing scout team receiver, Farley impressed during spring and fall camp at safety, playing well enough to beat out fifth year safety Dan McCarthy to take snaps against Navy. 

Given limited responsibilities, Farley’s athleticism and instincts quickly stood out. But tasked with running the secondary, Farley faced his first true adversity on the field.

“It was a big jump from playing your first year in 2012 to having all that on your plate in 2013,” Farley admitted last week after practice. “You had to know where everyone was supposed to line up. You had to know how everything fits, how you fit in it. Getting the calls to everybody. It was definitely a lot, going through some struggles, the ups and downs, and coming out better for it.”

Better might be at cornerback now. As offenses do more and more to spread the field, the Irish defense will adapt with sub-packages better suited to play a diverse set of opponents. Putting Farley in a quadrant of the field, or playing him “outside in” as Kelly alluded to when discussing the position switch, should allow him to play more instinctual football.

The biggest surprise of spring was the move of James Onwualu to safety. While he only made two catches during his freshman season, Onwualu was an immediate contributor for the Irish, filling Daniel Smith’s role as a physical receiver blocking down field.

Onwualu also made his presence felt on special teams, a key contributor on coverage teams. That presence is likely where the idea to play defense came from, following a similar script to the ones Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth parlayed into starting jobs.

“He’s got great contact skills,” Kelly said of Onwualu. “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.”

That Onwualu ends up on the defensive side of the ball shouldn’t be that surprising. Talking with Mike Scanlon, Onwualu’s high school coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, he thought the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder’s best position could be a hybrid safety, physically capable of running with receivers, but stout enough to make an impact in the box.

In the past, Kelly has talked about position switches to help get a player on the field. For Onwualu, going from a position where he contributed as a true freshman to a somewhat stacked safety position is a bit of a gamble, but one that the staff must feel confident about.

After watching last season, it shouldn’t be hard to feel good about the future of Eilar Hardy. Collinsworth likely will be another trusted cog as well. Throw in the healthy return of Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate rebounding after an injury plagued sophomore season and Max Redfield being groomed as a starter, and talented options don’t appear to be scarce. How Onwualu fits into this group will be fascinating to watch.

With question marks at a lot of positions as the front seven rebuilds and schematics are adjusted, these position changes are coming at the right time, with spring dedicated to learning not necessarily refining. For the defense to play up to his potential, both these position changes need to be more than mere depth chart support.

If history has shown anything, Kelly has moved contributors to roles that only enhance what they’re doing on the field. If Kelly can hit on the position switches of Farley and Onwualu, it’ll mean good things for the Irish defense.

  1. largebush - Mar 11, 2014 at 3:40 PM

    captain smith: first mate please move the deck chairs to the starboard side. we don’t want to lose any of our seating capacity to the iceberg just ahead. HA HA HA HA HA HA LOLLL LOFFFFLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL

    • papadec - Mar 11, 2014 at 4:52 PM

      Harv Updyke – is that you hiding in the bush?

      • notredameirish1980 - Mar 11, 2014 at 5:20 PM

        Another example of why I despair at the future of our country. His vote counts as much as mine.

      • bernhtp - Mar 11, 2014 at 5:54 PM

        It’s not Harv; it’s Jeb, the large bush.

      • largebush - Mar 11, 2014 at 9:54 PM

        i reported that comment

  2. goirishgo - Mar 11, 2014 at 6:19 PM

    Outstanding, Bern! Can’t stop laughing….

  3. onward2victory - Mar 11, 2014 at 7:01 PM

    I hope the corner switch works out for Farley. I know he looked bad in those practice videos but let’s not be too quick to judge since those are his first 2 practices at the position ever. But if I’m being honest, I don’t have high expectations for him going forward. Farley seemed to be one of Diaco’s favorites, and I suspected that Diaco’s departure was bad news for Farley. I hope I’m wrong tho, because he’s one of my favorite guys on the roster, and the tattoo video Keith linked is worth the watch.

  4. getsome99 - Mar 11, 2014 at 7:32 PM

    The influx of talent these past 2 recruiting cycles has been bad news for Farley. He’ll provide some much needed depth at the position. I like the idea of converting our surplus of WR’s to the defensive side. Too many DB’s out there can’t catch a football.

    • largebush - Mar 11, 2014 at 9:24 PM

      that is really some brillience there mr. getsome craphead. but i don’t agree about any talent. who are you talking about? i don’t think nd got any high rated defensive players, and if they did they will be on academic probation before the seasons tarts. you guys can’t get out of your own way and more importantly none of you have any good comebacks so i will have to go back to my other board. bye

  5. NotreDan - Mar 11, 2014 at 8:32 PM

    I say, let’s just kill all welfare recipients. I’m sick of those loafers.

    • largebush - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:54 PM

      while i think that is cold i can still get down with the sentiment, sir. too many loafers dragging us down. if we could elimiinate welfare imagine the new weapon systems we would have the dough to invest in. lasers all over the place, stealth everything, drones with little people as pilots. the possibilities are finiteless. just keep my ass out of the fight. go nd. beat northwestern

    • dickasman - Mar 12, 2014 at 12:06 AM

      Dan, I wish they’d transfer to Russia w that Snowden kid.

  6. largebush - Mar 11, 2014 at 9:53 PM

    im not going just yet. have any of you ever wondered why notre dame is located in such an odd place. northwetstern indiana. what? why would a catholic college not be in a major urban center. unless of course you’re including gary as a major area. this kills their recruiting more than anything else i think. worse than the lack of ass. imagine if it was in chicago boston or new york. no stopping them. go irish. beat asu.

    • mediocrebob - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:32 PM

      Kills their recruiting so much… Top 10 year in and year out is tough to deal with. I’m surprised they’re able to field a team every fall.

      • largebush - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:42 PM

        last nc?

      • mediocrebob - Mar 11, 2014 at 11:08 PM

        You just posted about recruiting and how nd can’t recruit talent. I replied with a fact that they are consistently top 10 in recruiting and you move to that as your comeback?

        Do better.

      • dickasman - Mar 12, 2014 at 12:22 AM

        Bob I think he might be on cocaine. That’s how I talk once I get geeked up!

    • dickasman - Mar 12, 2014 at 12:14 AM

      Large, stick around but plz make a better effort on the screen name. The key and hardest part is you gotta find the proper first name. And if you can’t, use a middle initial.

      Hugh G. Bush or Harry Bush/Balls would’ve been better. Now drop n gimme 20. Where’s that effort? Large bush is garbage! I went w dick asman in lieu of those two because I was huge fan of anal sex at that time, but at this old age, it’s kinda gross. The gay people ruined it for me.

      • papadec - Mar 12, 2014 at 3:12 AM

        dick – where ya been? I was wondering when you would get into that big bush. What do you think – shaped or natural?

  7. fnc111 - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:15 PM

    Where the hell is this plane? I say it landed in Iran after the pilot/hijacker turned off the transponder.

    • largebush - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:30 PM

      i would say iran or cleavland. lots of things go to cleavestown to disappear. when is the last time anyone heard from joe azcue? or max alvis. gone. once i went there with some college buds on a friday night and we were supposed to be back for a frat car wash on saturday morning. nope. didn’t ahppen. cleave swallowed us up and didn’t spit us oit until sunday night. thank god i had no monday morning classes.

      • largebush - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:41 PM

        walt frazer went to cleave to finish his career and no one has ever heard of him since, if i was going to try to ditch the fBi i would go into the old upper deck at cleave municiple stadium. no one ever went there.

      • largebush - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:56 PM

        sudden sam macdowell. haven’t hear d from him in decades

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Mar 11, 2014 at 11:07 PM

      When stuff like this happens I always wonder why the sat photos can’t tell us the story. You KNOW there’s a photo trail of this plane and every other inch of the earth.

      If big brother is screen the dookey photo text messages that my little brother sends his friends, you know he’s taking pictures of the world as it turns.

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

      Is it just me or Boeing is one sh!tty plane???

      • papadec - Mar 12, 2014 at 3:14 AM

        Nah – that’s a damn fine plane.

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Mar 12, 2014 at 2:02 PM

        Its just you.

  8. fnc111 - Mar 12, 2014 at 12:06 AM

    I hope largebush gets hit by a large bus soon. Give it a rest dude.

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

      Lololololololol. Eaaaaaassssyyyy, I like him. Hes trying. I think he’s one of those normal posters trying to be bad but he just doesn’t have it in him….like,,,, he’s like our Tommy Rees, per se.

    • dickasman - Mar 12, 2014 at 12:18 AM

      He’s trying, just can’t get the ball there

    • dickasman - Mar 12, 2014 at 12:19 AM

      I think he might be Bern.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 12, 2014 at 1:41 AM

        Or Andy warhol’s less cogent step cousin

      • papadec - Mar 12, 2014 at 3:16 AM

        ha ha ha ha ha ha ………… nooooooooooo, I don’t think so.

      • bernhtp - Mar 12, 2014 at 10:03 AM

        It is me. I’ve had a lifelong secret aspiration for a moronic alter ego to troll a board I frequent. Tranny escort: my next avocation. Good call Dick.

  9. largebush - Mar 12, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    well to all you who have wnted me to give it a rest today is your lucky day. resting and traveling. but a couple last thoughts. on that plane they will never find it i don’t think man. the whole thing is just too odd. how the hell does a plane just go pffffffttt and gone. on the screen name its because i love large bushes and the whole brazilian thing has just been a killer for me. just a killer. bring back the bush toe size of rhoad island. on nd i will tell you flat out they will win games this eyar against navy purdue, northwestern and air force and rice. the rest are toss ups. go irish beat navy.

  10. largebush - Mar 12, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    you know whats funny my friends is that this is a lousy board to troll because there isn’t a single one of you yet whose had a snappy comeback. i keep serving up softballs and the best you can do is a thumbs down. veryweak man. youre going to drive me out of here with your lack of humor. then how will you feel. all of you please have a lousy day.

    • mediocrebob - Mar 12, 2014 at 11:02 AM

      Lack of humor? Pot, meet kettle.

      I don’t think people responding to you are trying to be funny. Just throwing facts back that you seem to be having difficulty comprehending.

      And the only guaranteed wins in college football are the games where big schools play the Georgia Southerns…wait. Nevermind. Thanks Florida. There aren’t many guaranteed wins anywhere in college football. So once again, your comment shows your lack of intelligence on the subject at hand. In other words…you’re stupid. (Report!)

      Safe travels. I’m sure mom and dad are really glad that they get to have you tagging along on their trip.

    • papadec - Mar 12, 2014 at 1:57 PM

      bush – don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

    • domerboyirish - Mar 12, 2014 at 2:56 PM

      I’ve been giving you plenty of thumbs down because, as I’ve been skimming over most of your comments, they are:
      – immature,
      – non factual,
      – incoherent,
      – have a total lack of understanding of what Notre Dame truly aspires to be.

      There is no point in attempting a snappy comeback because it’s a total waste of time. Snappy comebacks are great for people that might actually understand them. You are the worst kind of troll; an uninformed, opinionated, ignorant hater. At least Paul Hargis can formulate an intelligent argument. (I can’t believe I just said something positive about Hargis…)

  11. 1historian - Mar 12, 2014 at 11:15 AM

    Keith, as usual wrote a really good column about another aspect of ND football and I was anxious to read what some of the more intelligent posters had to say about it.

    What do I (we) get?

    dickie & bushie going at it.

    Let’s take up a collection and get them a room (locked immediately) and then let’s talk about NOTRE DAME FOOTBBALL.

    Is that asking too much?

    • 1historian - Mar 12, 2014 at 11:16 AM

      spell much?


      My bad, as in ‘whoops’

    • mediocrebob - Mar 12, 2014 at 12:44 PM

      Everything’s going to be alright.

      • 1historian - Mar 13, 2014 at 8:34 AM

        Thanks – I needed that

    • papadec - Mar 12, 2014 at 2:03 PM

      hist – probably. There’s a break in Spring practice, we’re into March Madness & the Spring thaw has begun – but it’s still cabin fever for some people. You can probably throw me into the March Madness group.

      • 1historian - Mar 13, 2014 at 8:51 AM

        Maybe the spring thaw has begun where you are, but here in northern New England it’s not even a damn rumor yet. I love winter, as does my black lab, but enough is enough.

        We on this site seem to have our own particular type of troll visit us, which I would imagine is true with the others. I would venture that we seem to attract the type who, to quote a local saying – “Not only don’t KNOW nothin’ – they don’t even SUSPECT nothin’.”

        I recommend that we ignore them.

        March madness – can’t come soon enough. Then the Celts get in the lottery, they get a fairly high pick out of the best draft in years, they also get Brooklyn’s 1st round pick, we have the NFL draft (I think at least one of our big three will go to the Pats) and then summer NBA free agency and the Celts get a good one. This year I hope the Pacers win the title.

        I have to go outside and start shoveling snow.

        What fun.

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Mar 12, 2014 at 2:05 PM

      XXX rating……….Dickie and bushie going at it?

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 12, 2014 at 2:17 PM

        great, now I have that image in my head. thanks.

      • 1historian - Mar 13, 2014 at 8:37 AM

        precisely my point – I would throw a few more Xs in there. Lock door immediately surround with noise suppression devices (?) and IGNORE.

    • wisner74 - Mar 12, 2014 at 5:42 PM

      I just thought you were stuttering, 1hist.

      • 1historian - Mar 13, 2014 at 8:56 AM

        Thanks for that. I occasionally make a PITA (figure it out) out of myself when I get fussy about other people’s spelling so that means I should practice what i preach.

  12. irishdog80 - Mar 12, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    I do not understand why so many of the trolls on here spend half of their comments talking about how great they are and patting themselves on the back for their cleverness. It’s funny in a sad kind of way.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 12, 2014 at 3:51 PM

      in the good old days, before the interwebs and interweb trolls, we just called these people “sociopaths” and stayed away from them and everyone knew what they were. the weirdos talking to the birds in the park, the sketchy neighbor down the street that scared all the kids, and the like.

      now we are in the era of digital anonymity, where anyone with an ISP address is a legend in their own minds, or at least in their own mother’s basement. and so it goes.

      • irishdog80 - Mar 12, 2014 at 4:08 PM

        I agree. I have also found that truly arrogant people are quick to find other people arrogant.

  13. irishdog80 - Mar 12, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    On a more relevant football note, it looks like Van Gorder wants to get as many big, fast athletes on the field at the same time. Speed makes up for mistakes and prevents the big plays. It is all about putting your players in the best possible position for success. Farley does not have the speed, size or aggressiveness to take over for a Smith and Motta. He is a fine athlete and seems like a great kid. He will find success on the field in 2014…somewhere.

    • bernhtp - Mar 12, 2014 at 5:23 PM

      Farley has decent speed, but not nearly the size or strength of Smith or Motta.

      • irishdog80 - Mar 12, 2014 at 5:30 PM

        I have walked past Farley on campus and he is not very big at all. He has made some big plays over the past couple of years and my prediction is that he will find a home as a Dime defender and on special teams in 2014. He is way down the list as a starting Safety on a Van Gorder defense.

    • mediocrebob - Mar 12, 2014 at 7:06 PM

      When you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing and thinking too much, you don’t play nearly as fast. I think in ’12 he didn’t have to think as much and was put in the right spots. He just had to be an athlete. Last year, I think he played slow bc he had so much going on in his head.

      Regardless, I think he’ll play a little and could be a special teams star. And I use star loosely.

    • mtflsmitty - Mar 12, 2014 at 11:47 PM

      Couple thoughts on Kieth’s article:

      – Farley must be an amazing athlete, and a very bright kid. To think he came to ND primarily as a soccer player, and found his way into the starting line-up on the gridiron in his sophomore year is a huge credit to him.
      – Farley MIGHT see the two-deep on the dime package. The quality of recruiting the last 2-3 years, plus the addition of Riggs, will make 2012 the centerpiece of Farley’s stories told in 2029.
      – I’m a big Nicky Barratti fan. He played on our pee wee football team years ago, and he was an all-state TE, despite playing QB, RB, and MLB most of his time in HS. That said, the fact Onwualu is being moved to a position group that was already jam-packed doesn’t look good for my boy, NB.

  14. fnc111 - Mar 12, 2014 at 4:57 PM

    Haha I like it dick. The Tommy Rees reference. My hair isn’t falling out anymore knowing TR’s eligibility is done.

  15. Keith Arnold - Mar 13, 2014 at 2:26 AM

    You guys are making me miss Nude.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 13, 2014 at 9:40 AM

      it’s 2:26 a.m. and you’re missing nude…i’m sure he’d be touched to hear that. did you just get home after last call?

      I know I’ve been the broken record about onwualu, but i’d really like to see him add 15-20 lbs and play some MLB. though he’d be a bit on the short side and a bit light, he has that nose for the ball and comfort with making the pads pop that are always the hallmarks of a good MLB, and because there already seems to be too much talent at safety to go around. and as irishdog pointed out, you have to have the best athletes on the field. it would be a shame to have onwualu buried behind 4-5 others at safety for the next 2 years.

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