Matthias Farley

Spring Solutions: Secondary


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.



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.



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.


Mailbag: Now open

New Mailbox

As we get a few extra weeks to prep for spring practice, let’s open the mailbag.

Things I’d be interested in discussing:

  • The new (still unofficial) coaching staff
  • How should the Irish utilize their offensive weapons?
  • The quarterback battle
  • Everything else (football and non-football related)

Drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. Extra credit for those who can fit their questions inside 140 characters.

Spring solutions: Wide receivers

William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge

A position that looked like a huge question mark entering the 2014 season ended the year with an embarrassment of riches. After watching Will Fuller emerge with a record-setting sophomore season, the loss of DaVaris Daniels and departure of TJ Jones didn’t do anything to slow the Irish passing game down.

Entering spring practice, Notre Dame’s wide receivers are no longer the emerging kids. They’re a position group that needs to take its place among the most talented in college football.

In Fuller, the Irish have an All-American candidate. In Corey Robinson, a matchup problem set to break loose after a trying season. CJ Prosise proved dangerous in the slot. Chris Brown stepped forward as well.

With Mike Denbrock doing a great job developing young talent, the next step is a competitive spring where the depth chart returns intact.

For all the focus on the running game heading out of the Music City Bowl victory, consider this your reminder that the Irish receiving corps is stacked.



1. Will Fuller, Jr.
2. Corey Robinson, Jr.
3. Chris Brown, Sr.
4. C.J. Prosise, Sr.*
5. Amir Carlisle, Grad Student
6. Torii Hunter, Jr., Jr.*
7. Corey Holmes, Soph.*
8. Justin Brent, Soph.

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available.



Will Fuller: For as impressive as Fuller’s season was, imagine if he just did a better job of making the ordinary play. Fuller had the most impressive sophomore season in school history, tying Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate’s single-season touchdown record while also setting marks for catches, yards and scores for a sophomore.

But Fuller still played with a level of inconsistency befitting of a young player coming off an nearly anonymous freshman campaign, not one of college football’s top playmakers.

Expect spring to mark the start of Fuller’s commitment to every-down excellence. You got the feeling Brian Kelly was demanding that from his rising star in 2014 (go listen to some of his postgame comments after the sophomore disappeared at times), and you know he’ll do the same next year.

The stakes are raised: No longer will Fuller catch opponents by surprise. So his game will need to elevate, and spring and offseason workouts is when that process begins in earnest.

Corey Robinson: Considering Robinson played the entire season with a fracture in his thumb, his sophomore campaign was plenty good. And while it’s hard to say an Academic All-American season with 40 catch and five touchdowns is off the radar, the attention paid to Fuller could open things up for Robinson.

Robinson made his share of clutch catches—even considering the game-winner that was taken away—converting a few heroic fourth downs while rising to the occasion. And as he’s continues learning how to become a complete receiver, expect Robinson’s junior year to be a breakout.

Chris Brown: After being highly touted after an impressive spring, Brown was invisible early last season. But after working with the coaching staff and utilizing some fancy GPS gizmos to diagnose part of the problem, Brown nearly matched Robinson’s production in every category but touchdowns.

Entering his final season in South Bend, Brown is still the type of freaky athlete who will run past defensive backs and make a play that’ll have you saying, “Wow.” But he’ll need to play 2015 with a sense of urgency that hasn’t existed in the past, as it’s a competitive depth chart and his professional future likely depends on a big season.

C.J. Prosise: That Notre Dame’s 220-pound converted safety was also the team’s leader in yards-per-catch tells you something about the unique athlete Notre Dame has in Prosise.

Also the team’s special teams player of the year as a gunner, Prosise could be unveiled in a number of different ways when Mike Sanford realizes the weapon he has in Prosise.

If there were more footballs to go around, Prosise would be my pick to click in 2015. For all the message board chatter thinking Prosise could help the safety depth chart, go back and look what he’s doing for the offense.

Nobody but Fuller made more big-chunk plays than Prosise. The best is yet to come.

Amir Carlisle: Considering he made the transition from running back, Carlisle’s season was a success, looking natural as a receiver and making some big plays throughout the year.

At his best (against Michigan and Arizona State), Carlisle was a handful in space, utilizing his speed and quickness to make big plays from the slot. But entering his final season of eligibility, Carlisle looks best suited for a complementary role, and could be a candidate for showing some positional flexibility with depth numbers low at running back heading into 2015.

Carlisle’s more than a useful player, and that versatility could pay off. And after battling hard-luck injuries for the better part of two years, it was good to see Carlisle make it through a season and contribute.

Torii Hunter Jr.: The fact that Hunter is spending time with the baseball team this spring shouldn’t surprise anybody. But it would be a surprise if it got in the way of his contributions to the football team.

Kelly needs to award players who excel in the class room and do what’s asked of them. Hunter has done that off the field. Expect that transition to begin to excelling on the field in 2015.

There’s nobody who needs to do more this spring to establish himself in the depth chart than Hunter, a versatile receiver who showed glimpses of being all the way back after a really difficult injury.

What the Irish have in Hunter remains to be seen. He’s capable of playing in the slot and outside. He’s showed nice speed and quickness. But a career-game of two catches and 24 yards means he’s got work to do, especially with the athletes both in front and behind him.

Corey Holmes: After serving as the opponent’s No. 1 receiver on the scout team, Holmes now enters a depth chart stacked with competition. After seeing the field twice early, Holmes saved eligibility, though found out what it takes to play.

Now we’ll see how that early lesson worked. Built like Fuller, Holmes has what we think is a perfect skill-set to take on a role in the Irish offense, but he’ll fight uphill to get his opportunity.

With a quarterbacking duel expected in the starting lineup, Holmes’ chemistry with DeShone Kizer might be the best thing he has going for him. If he can make plays against Brian VanGorder’s defense in practice, he’ll get the eyes of everybody needed, finding his way into the mix from there.

Justin Brent: It’s a critical time in Brent’s development. After making headlines for all of the wrong reasons, Brent has the opportunity to reboot his career this spring, or he’ll continue to find himself veering into territory that usually ends with a transfer.

A position shift also feels like something that deserves at the very least a tire kick. After playing in nine games last season on special teams, Brent’s physicality and ability to mix it up could have him getting a look on defense. With a safety depth chart still waiting for Avery Sebastian, Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams, there’s a need for bodies and Brent might be the latest player under Kelly’s watch to switch sides of the ball.

(Brent should feel lucky if that’s to happen. It’s worked out well for everybody who has done it so far.)