With the majority of Notre Dame’s starting lineup returning for 2015, the Irish spent spring practice knowing what their team would look like. But for Brian VanGorder and new secondary coach Todd Lyght, getting improvement out of the returning depth chart was critical.
At safety, there is no legitimate option behind Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate, as Nicky Baratti and Drue Tranquill return from surgery. Redfield and Shumate were highly-touted recruits, and both have spent multiple years in the program. While the system change made things tough on the back end of the defense, one full year in, both players are expected to take a big jump forward.
At cornerback, the Irish await KeiVarae Russell‘s return. Paired with Cole Luke, Notre Dame has two front-line covermen who will be asked to do more than drop and play zone. Once again, behind the starters is where the concern begins.
Sophomore Nick Watkins pulled even with Devin Butler, who struggled mightily down the stretch in place of Cody Riggs. Graduate transfer Avery Sebastian joins the program this June, hoping to infusing some athleticism and earn a role like Riggs did in 2014.
While some promising freshmen get to campus this summer, let’s take a look at the secondary with spring practice in the rearview mirror.
POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART
CB: Cole Luke, Jr. (5-11, 190)
S: Max Redfield, Jr. (6-1, 198)
S: Elijah Shumate, Sr. (6-0, 213)
CB: Nick Watkins, Soph. (6-0, 200)
CB: Devin Butler, Jr. (6-.5, 195)
CB: Matthias Farley, GS (5-11, 205)
S: Nicky Baratti, Sr.* (6-1, 205)
S: Drue Tranquill, Soph. (6-1.5, 225)
S: John Turner, Sr.* (6-.5, 225)
*Denotes fifth year available
Max Redfield: That Redfield took last season’s demotion and struggles and came out the other side is a big victory. The Irish absolutely need one of their best athletes to play like one of their best defenders, and in many ways, Todd Lyght’s arrival was the perfect thing to happen to Redfield and Shumate.
A new voice will give each safety a fresh start, and early reports are that Redfield is thriving. There’s nothing stopping Redfield from being a standout player. With a year of knowledge and last season’s experience behind him, a big jump looks probable—or at least what many hope. Redfield could be the Irish’s best safety since Harrison Smith.
Nick Watkins: While he saw the field and played a role on special teams in 2014, Watkins didn’t find much playing time in the secondary. After Brian VanGorder acknowledged Watkins’ struggles fitting into the defense, Watkins took a step forward this spring when he began taking first-team reps across from Luke, continuing in that spot through the Blue-Gold game.
Sure, Watkins got beat long by Will Fuller for a 70-yard touchdown. But outside of that mistake (and Fuller can do it to anyone), he looked competitive and challenged opponents on every rep.
KeiVarae Russell will be back in the starting lineup soon enough. But a third corner is a key role, and Watkins proved himself capable for the job before a freshman like Shaun Crawford comes on campus to battle for it.
Drue Tranquill: After tearing his ACL against Louisville, that Tranquill was participating in spring practice and running and cutting on his surgically repaired knee was miraculous. Even more impressive? If the Blue-Gold game was against Texas, Brian Kelly said Tranquill would’ve been on the field and playing.
As a key piece of Notre Dame’s sub-packages, Tranquill fits into the defense perfectly. While he struggled as a half-field safety after Redfield and Shumate were relegated to the dog house, Tranquill’s speedy recovery is critical to the Irish defense, allowing VanGorder to mix and match on the back end.
Elijah Shumate: It was a quiet spring for the rising senior, who all of a sudden is out of eligibility after 2015. After serving as a key nickel cornerback during 2012 and struggling through injuries in 2013, Shumate needs to step forward as the Irish’s strong safety in 2015.
A physical freak and one of the team’s hardest hitters, Shumate has potential to play at the next level. But his game tape needs to match up with his skill set, and we’ll see if that happens come September.
Matthias Farley: The Irish’s best playmaker on the backend last year, Farley enters next season with no job carved out for him. And while he cross-trained at safety to help with depth issues, we’d be foolish to think that just because the lineup doesn’t have a spot for him that Farley won’t make one.
Farley’s best served in the slot, playing close to the line of scrimmage and using his physicality. And as we watch the Irish offense work to get the best 11 players on the field, at this point, Farley’s made a convincing argument that he fits in that group on defense.
Devin Butler: Late last season, Butler struggled with what golfers call a two-way miss. Only instead of missing the fairway both left and right, Butler was letting receivers beat him short and also over the top. (That ain’t good.)
While Butler has shown some playmaking ability in limited action, finding a role in this secondary after sliding behind Watkins could be tough, provided everybody stays healthy.
Entering his junior season, Butler has played in 25 of 26 games the past two seasons. So thinking he’ll be relegated to the bench is rather stupid. But if this spring was an opportunity for Butler to shine, it appears that Watkins pulled even and past him, putting Butler’s place in the two-deep in trouble, as he’ll likely be behind Russell this fall—who won’t be coming off the field.
John Turner: What a difference a spring makes. After pushing his way into the starting lineup at outside linebacker last spring, Turner shifted back to safety to provide depth. While the veteran will likely play a key role on special teams, Turner doesn’t look like he’ll be in the mix for playing time in the secondary, as long as everybody stays healthy.