Spring Solutions: Secondary

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Gone are Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth. Returning is a safety position that’s struggled, another transfer, a young cornerback on the rise, and (hopefully) an exiled potential star.

Welcome to the Notre Dame secondary. New coaching, same scheme, different players, and one of 2015’s great unknowns.

In year one of the Brian VanGorder era, we saw the best and worst from this group. Early in the year, the Irish were an aggressive, man coverage team that shutout Michigan for the first time in the rivalry.

Against USC, Notre Dame’s depleted secondary looked like burnt toast, with JuJu Smith, George Farmer and Nelson Agholor having their way with a group that looked lost and overmatched.

Kerry Cooks is gone to Oklahoma. Todd Lyght will be introduced shortly. And if we’re to believe reports, VanGorder himself will take aim at the safety position, fully intent on making Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate the playmakers this defense requires.

Before Avery Sebastian, Nicco Fertitta, Mykelti Williams (and hopefully KeiVarae Russell) and some young cornerbacks arrive on campus, let’s take a look at the remaining bodies in the secondary.

 

SECONDARY DEPTH CHART

CB: Cole Luke, Jr. 
S: Elijah Shumate, Sr.
S: Max Redfield, Jr.
CB: Devin Butler, Jr.*
Slot: Matthias Farley, Grad Student

CB: Nick Watkins, Soph.
S: Nicky Baratti, Sr.*
S: Drue Tranquill, Soph.

Gone are Eilar Hardy, Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson — all three essentially unusable last season as well. This is easily the thinnest position group on the roster, and a big part of why Notre Dame’s looking to bring in five more players in the secondary in next year’s recruiting cycle.

Even if Sebastian isn’t as readymade of a player as Riggs was, there’s no doubting Notre Dame’s need for a veteran who has played competitive football.

Because there’s just no knowing what the Irish can get out of Baratti or Tranquill coming off of injuries and after seeing Butler play late last season, his spot in the starting lineup is strictly a placeholder.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Cole Luke: For as big of strides as Luke made in 2014, the USC game showed there is still work to be done. That’s no knock on Luke, who Brian Kelly credited with one of the biggest jumps on the defense.

Luke has cover ability. He’s a good tackler. And he’s game for any challenge, his work on Louisville’s DeVante Parker was as good as there was.

But if KeiVarae Russell’s Michigan game in 2013 served as his motivation during last offseason, watching George Farmer, Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith light up the Coliseum should do that for Luke.

Notre Dame has a very good cornerback here. But Luke’s task this spring is to take the next step, something that looks very possible.

Elijah Shumate: Where to begin… Shumate’s a senior now, the final season of a career that started with Shumate excelling in a specific role, but struggling with more heaped onto his shoulders.

We saw bright spots — though his pick six to end the Michigan game was called back after a questionable flag. But Shumate has to mentally succeed this offseason, matching up his considerable physical skills with the Football IQ needed to be a great safety.

With Tranquill and Baratti not full go this spring, it’s Shumate or bust, especially before the reinforcements arrive this summer. So that’s likely why VanGorder will spend a ton of time with the safeties, knowing that Shumate and Redfield are the only guys capable of getting this thing done.

Max Redfield: When Redfield was benched after a disappointing performance against Arizona State, it was eye opening. Here’s a guy who was one of September’s heroes, a former 5-star prospect coming into his own… or so we thought.

From there, Redfield was stuck deep in the doghouse. Like special teams gunner deep, who was glued to the sideline as the Irish coaching staff committed to playing a one-armed Austin Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill. Nevermind that it was painfully evident that the freshman wasn’t ready or capable to be a full-field safety.

Redfield salvaged his season in the bowl game, recovering from a broken rib to play well against LSU, even with a potential mistake allowing a touchdown over his head.

Redfield’s freshman eligibility was put up in smoke during the Pinstripe Bowl, with Kelly forcing him into the lineup. His sophomore season was spent learning an entirely new system.

Now his junior year needs to be the one where his talent shows through. This spring is key from a mental perspective as well as from a leadership point of view. Your free safety needs to be the brain of the operation. Let’s see if Redfield can take that step.

Devin Butler: I’ll be the first to question if Devin Butler is a starting-caliber cornerback. What we saw late last season leads me to believe the answer is a resounding no.

So Butler has 15 practices to make sure the coaching staff believes he’s a player who can make an impact. Or he’s going to be passed by Nick Watkins (if he hasn’t been already), and likely a slew of freshmen who will enter this June with eyes on early playing time.

Butler has length and has shown a knack for making a big play. But he also turned way too many passes by Cody Kessler into big plays for the Trojans.

Butler’s positional flexibility makes him a useful piece. But right now, it’s Butler’s job to show that he can be a player capable of contributions come September, especially when asked to match up in man coverage against top programs.

Put harshly, there’s no weaker piece in the starting lineup than Butler, and his name is here simply because there’s nobody else to put in there.

Matthias Farley: If any of the players in the secondary want to take solace in their struggles and know that better days can be ahead, just look at Farley. After being put out to pasture and left for dead last spring by fans, Farley was one of the defense’s most productive players.

The position switch to slot corner looked like a demotion and likely burial on the depth chart. But Farley played critical snaps for the Irish defense, and will be asked to do so again — his versatility absolutely perfect for the job.

With the safety depth chart, he may end up there. And there are limitations to his game, Farley will still occasionally struggle matched up in man coverage.

But Farley showed a knack for making plays, a nose for the football, and the type of competitiveness you can only hope everybody on the defense has. If you’re looking for a below-the-radar captain candidate, put Farley near the top of the list.

Nick Watkins: We heard nothing but good things about Watkins coming out of high school, early in camp, and throughout the season. Now there’s a starting job (even if it’s temporary) there for the taking, and Watkins needs to go out and get it.

Even if Watkins is the third corner, that’s a job that’s going to be vital. And after playing only sporadically last year, we need to see a big jump from the sophomore out of Dallas.

Nicky Baratti: Another shoulder injury put Baratti’s future in question, his first snap against Purdue throwing a weakened shoulder out of socket and ruining another season for the Texas native. But Baratti is intent on coming back, will be working with the team this spring, and could be desperately needed come the fall.

What Notre Dame can get out of him? Who knows at this point. But Baratti was one of the first freshmen to see the field in 2012, and if he’s capable of staying healthy, he’s a football player who could help the weakest depth chart on the roster.

Drue Tranquill: After tearing his ACL in November, Brian Kelly mentioned that Tranquill is well ahead of schedule in his recovery. (Then again, Kelly says that about everyone.) So spring will be about getting healthy and recovering… before asserting himself back into the mix for playing time.

Tranquill showed himself to be very useful as a third down component in this defense. While he was exploited in space after stepping in for Max Redfield, he was also a freshman playing for the first time, hardly the last to have that happen.

At 220-plus pounds, Tranquill is a unique athlete. He’s also the type of ingredient who can be utilized in scheme specific game plans if he’s not ready to be the team’s starting strong safety. But all of that necessitates a healthy recovery from ACL surgery.

 

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?