Nicky Baratti

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

As injuries mount, Kelly acknowledges depth chart has breaking point

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Next Man In has been a bedrock philosophy for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. But even he understands that the Irish are approaching a breaking point.

The loss of Drue Tranquill is the latest season-ending injury for the Irish, pushing the Irish coaching staff into a sticky spot at safety, the latest position group to see its depth chart tested. And as the Irish move forward this week as their focus turns to UMass, Kelly acknowledged that the Irish need to weather the storm, especially at a few key positions.

“Certainly we can’t afford to lose any more players at key positions,” Kelly said. “Quarterback, running back, you start to get into true freshmen, and that will be obviously a significant change in what we look like.”

At quarterback, true freshman Brandon Wimbush was warming up on the sidelines when Georgia Tech recovered an onside kick and held onto the football. Expect to see Wimbush this weekend, with Kelly knowing full well that he needs to get his young quarterback experience before he heads to Death Valley.

Behind C.J. Prosise, freshman Josh Adams received just three carries on Saturday. But both he and Dexter Williams will likely get a chance to wet their feet against a UMass defensive front that gave up 390 rushing yards to the Colorado Buffaloes.

With Tranquill the latest hard-luck Domer to go down, the safety position gets interesting. Avery Sebastian is still a few weeks away from returning, likely after the off week. Max Redfield stayed off the field on Saturday, both scheme and a broken hand limiting him.

That could lead to utilityman Matthias Farley stepping into the lineup, at a position that’s not exactly his natural spot. Or it could means freshman Nicco Fertitta is activated. Kelly was candid when he said he and Brian VanGorder hadn’t decided what to do yet.

“Matthias has the ability to play a couple of different positions,” Kelly explained. “Brian (VanGorder) and I have not had that personnel conversation yet relative to what will be the next move that we make there. Whether we bring somebody up into that role, or whether it’s Nicco Fertitta, or do we have (Nicky) Baratti move. We’ve got to make that decision here in the next 24 hours. I’m not really sure yet.”

The loss of Tranquill takes away an important piece of Notre Dame’s option puzzle, with Navy still to come. And with the defense already short Jarron Jones and nickel back Shaun Crawford, how this team keeps things together remains to be seen.

“There is a break point. You know, we are still at a point where we have guys that can come in and step in,” Kelly said. “But there’s no question that we have to be able to stem the tide here with these injuries.”

Irish A-to-Z: Nicky Baratti

Baratti
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It feels like forever ago, but in one of the crucial moments of Notre Dame’s 2012 undefeated regular season, freshman safety Nicky Baratti made an interception that kept Michigan out of the end zone. That a young player at a depth-starved position was able to step up served as a promising start to the Texan’s time in South Bend, though it’s also been the high-point of an injury-derailed career.

Baratti missed the entire 2013 season with a shoulder injury. He stepped onto the field against Purdue in 2014 and ended his season a play later, injuring the same shoulder.

With depth behind Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate slim, getting anything from Baratti would be a great lift to Todd Lyght’s secondary. But after missing the majority of two seasons after a promising freshman campaign where Baratti played in all 13 games, the future is unclear.

Let’s take a closer look at senior safety.

 

NICKY BARATTI
6’1, 205
Senior, No. 29, S

RECRUITING PROFILE

A custom-made RKG, a high-school jack-of-all-trades came to Notre Dame as a projected safety. First-team 5A All-State in Texas.

Offers from Arizona State, Arkansas, Baylor, Ole Miss and Texas Tech.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Played in all 13 games both on special teams and as a back-up safety. Made eight tackles and a key interception against Michigan in the end zone, the first by a freshman since 2008.

Sophomore Season (2013): Missed the season with an injury.

Junior Season (2014): Recovered a fumble against Rice in season opener. Injured on his first play at safety against Purdue, ending his season in early September.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Here’s what our Crystal Ball said about Baratti this time last year.

I tend to think Baratti is too good of a football player to not see the field. If not for his shoulder injury, some expected Baratti to be one of the winners of last spring’s wide-open safety battle, and if he’s fully healthy and can play at full speed, there’s no reason why he can’t be a contributor.

It might not happen in 2014, but the depth chart starts to clear up once Collinsworth departs, as it’ll be interesting to see if Eilar Hardy sticks around for a fifth year.

Without having seen Brian VanGorder’s defense in action, it’s hard to know how often he’ll utilize the safety position in nickel and dime packages. Bob Diaco loved using a safety as the next defender in, though it sounds like VanGorder will put an extra corner on the field first, especially with the talent Notre Dame has at the position.

But Baratti was known for his speed coming into South Bend. So if he’s able to cover, he’ll have a chance to play.

In retrospect, not having a sick and twisted sense of fairness kept me from guessing that the worst-case scenario was about to strike Baratti.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s now or never for the senior safety. A widely-discussed candidate for a medical hardship scholarship, multiple shoulder surgeries had him in a similar category to Jarrett Grace and Chase Hounshell heading into spring.

But Baratti participated in spring practice, and he’ll be full-go this summer as work in the weight room and in OTAs will force him to test his shoulder early and often.

There’s no veteran depth in this secondary at safety that’ll play before a healthy Baratti does. Of course, assuming health from a player whose shoulder hasn’t been able to withstand the punishment of college football is a risky proposition.

With the depth chart being what it is, there’s no position better suited to allow Baratti the chance to have a successful return to the field. With graduate transfer Avery Sebastian and then a slew of kids, the chance to get back on track is there if Baratti’s body will let him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Completely murky. While we’ve seen the careers of contributors like Tony Springmann get derailed after major injuries, Jarrett Grace seems to have returned from long odds and turned himself into a rotational player. Baratti will have earned at least one additional year of eligibility, and a sixth-year medical exemption would likely be a possibility if his body can fully recover… and the Irish see him worthy of two more seasons in the program.

Ultimately, there’s no reason not to push Baratti’s shoulder and see if it’ll hold up. That was likely the plan this spring, with scholarship numbers being tight. And that’ll likely hold true this August, with the Irish needing to be down to 85 scholarships before kickoff against Texas.

We saw a smart, athletic and capable football player as a freshman. If he can stay healthy, Baratti can return to form after a painful detour.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB

 

Irish still trying to find the right answers at safety

Purdue v Notre Dame
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As Notre Dame’s finishes up a May spent on the road visiting recruits, one of the keys to a successful 2016 recruiting campaign is to restock the safety position. While graduate transfer Avery Sebastian comes onto campus providing immediate experience, the position is one of the lone worrisome spots on the fully-stocked Irish roster.

As Brian Kelly moves into his sixth season in South Bend, struggles at safety seem to be an evergreen issue. While some Signing Day losses last February kept the haul to just Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta, Notre Dame is targeting three safeties in the 2016 recruiting cycle. The Irish lost out on three-star prospect Kenney Lyke to Michigan State last week, though it doesn’t sound like the Irish are giving up on his recruitment any time soon.

Regardless of Lyke coming around or not, the Irish need to restock the position. Both Elijah Shumate and Sebastian will be gone after the season, so will Swiss-Army defender Matthias Farley. Max Redfield will complete his eligibility in 2016. And the future of mismatched John Turner and injury-plagued Nicky Baratti are cloudy at best.

The struggles at safety go back to the roster Kelly inherited from Charlie Weis. In 2010, the Irish had a two-deep with only four scholarship safeties: Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, Dan McCarthy and Zeke Motta.

Before Smith was a first-rounder and All-American caliber player, he was a guy who Irish fans had given up on and relegated to linebacker. And when Slaughter was injured in the season opener against Purdue in 2010, Kelly was left with Motta learning on the fly while McCarthy—a guy who some might say never got completely healthy after a serious high school injury—struggled to find a role on the field.

While Smith and Motta provided stability on the back end, it’s been a challenge filling their shoes. The 2013 defense didn’t get great safety play, though Austin Collinsworth finished the season strong. And after Farley shifted to nickel cornerback, the Irish were short-handed from the start last season when Collinsworth was injured 48 hours before the season opener, putting the back-end of Brian VanGorder’s defense both shorthanded and inexperienced with the loss of their fifth-year captain.

We’ve heard all the right things about Shumate and Redfield, who separated themselves in spring ball, especially with Drue Tranquill recovering from an ACL injury and Baratti not a full participant. But the health of this duo is critical, especially if it’ll allow Sebastian to play a complementary role and Farley to stay closer to the line of scrimmage as a slot cornerback.

We’ll get to know names on the recruiting trail like Southern California’s Chacho Ulloa and Devin Studstill, a former high school teammate of freshman Te’von Coney. But with Todd Lyght in his first big-time college job, he’ll be thrown into the deep end trying to upgrade a position group that’s proved to be a challenge from the moment Kelly arrived.

 

Post-spring stock report: Secondary

Michigan v Notre Dame
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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

 

STOCK UP

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.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

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.

 

STOCK DOWN

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.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nicky Baratti

Baratti
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Entering last spring, Nicky Baratti looked like a candidate to win a starting job at safety. But his career trajectory was thrown into doubt when a shoulder injury cost him his sophomore season. Healthy after returning to action this spring, Baratti enters a depth chart that doesn’t even resemble the one he entered in 2012. But he’ll be back in the thick of a secondary that’s talented but still needs to sort things out.

Let’s take a closer look at the rising junior from Texas.

NICKY BARATTI
6’1″, 206 lbs.
Junior, No. 29

RECRUITING PROFILE

In the height of the RKG craze, Baratti looked like a custom fit. The Spring, Texas native was an “athlete” that projected to be a safety at the next level. Baratti’s offer list was good, but didn’t contain many elite options, though schools like Arizona State, Arkansas, Baylor, Ole Miss, Northwestern and Texas Tech chased him, even though he committed early to Notre Dame.

Baratti played five positions during his senior season, working as a quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and safety. He also punted. He was named to the first-team 5A All-State team by the Texas Sportswriters Association.

Like most recruits, Baratti “shrunk” when he actually got on campus, not quite the 6-foot-2, 215-pound safety that Rivals advertised. But he saw the field quickly, contributing a key interception as a freshman and working his way up the safety depth chart immediately.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Played in all 13 games both on special teams and as a back-up safety. Made eight tackles and a key interception against Michigan in the end zone, the first by a freshman since 2008.

Sophomore Season (2013): Missed the season with an injury.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s no question Baratti’s career is at a crossroad. Since his injury, Max Redfield has emerged as a starting safety and Austin Collinsworth has returned to action. Classmate Elijah Shumate is also battling for playing time at safety along with Eilar Hardy, who had a nice 2013 season in Baratti’s absence.

But there’s still reason to believe that Baratti can be a productive player. Brian VanGorder’s system has shifted “safeties” like John Turner and James Onwualu into a different mold, likely pushing them closer to the line of scrimmage. That leaves Baratti, Hardy, and Shumate as the depth at the position, now that Matthias Farley has turned into a cornerback.

One place Baratti will likely stand out is on special teams. He showed a knack as a true freshman on coverage units and will likely add some speed and athleticism to those teams this fall. But that likely won’t be enough to satisfy Baratti, who managed to play his way onto the field early as a freshman, giving you an idea that his football IQ is above-average. With the Irish rebooting their system this year, Baratti has a chance to make up some lost ground with a strong knowledge base.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I tend to think Baratti is too good of a football player to not see the field. If not for his shoulder injury, some expected Baratti to be one of the winners of last spring’s wide-open safety battle, and if he’s fully healthy and can play at full speed, there’s no reason why he can’t be a contributor.

It might not happen in 2014, but the depth chart starts to clear up once Collinsworth departs, as it’ll be interesting to see if Eilar Hardy sticks around for a fifth year.

Without having seen Brian VanGorder’s defense in action, it’s hard to know how often he’ll utilize the safety position in nickel and dime packages. Bob Diaco loved using a safety as the next defender in, though it sounds like VanGorder will put an extra corner on the field first, especially with the talent Notre Dame has at the position.

But Baratti was known for his speed coming into South Bend. So if he’s able to cover, he’ll have a chance to play.

***

The Irish A-to-Z
Josh Atkinson