Matthias Farley

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.

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)