Filling holes: Safety

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Just a year after Harrison Smith played the role of ball hawk, the senior safety was snake-bit. Seven interceptions in 2010 had Irish fans thinking Notre Dame’s defense had a gold-glove center-fielder. But in 2011, while the defense had a more mature and comfortable Smith roaming the secondary, the interceptions just didn’t come. Smith had 10 pass break-ups (up from seven during 2010), but his interceptions dropped from seven to zero, a staggering decline for a guy that put together game tape and athleticism that has him climbing closer to a first-round grade by the day.

NFL personnel men wouldn’t be swooning over Smith if they didn’t like the way he played his senior year. But if there’s ever proof that football is a game of inches, 2011 gave it to us. Whether it was quarterbacks identifying where Smith was at all times, or a change in scheme or playmaking, the Irish didn’t get the the turnovers in the passing game they needed, with Smith coming up just a hair-late or inches from a game-changing turnover. Just another small piece of why the 2011 season was ultimately a disappointment.

With the Irish defense needing to replace it’s defensive captain and starting free safety, let’s take a look at the battle coming together this fall.

2011 Starters
Harrison Smith, Sr.
Jamoris Slaughter, Jr.

Quick Positional Recap

While his interceptions plummeted, Smith still played great football. He was on the field for a staggering 95% of all defensive snaps, an amazing number considering the lopsided victories the Irish had against teams like Purdue, Navy, Air Force and Maryland. That shows Smith’s impact wasn’t just from whistle to whistle, but before the snap, making sure the Irish were in proper alignment and calls. Smith also had the second-highest productivity as a tackler, trailing only Manti Te’o among major contributors, a pretty impressive feat for a guy that spent a lot of time in coverage.

The second safety position was mostly manned by the platoon of Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta. As discussed earlier, Motta was more impressive than you may remember, and Slaughter’s play down in the box against Air Force, and his subsequent use as the “star” linebacker showed some versatility that will give the Irish defense some additional options in 2012. Both Austin Collinsworth and Dan McCarthy saw playing time, each clocking in around seven percent of snaps in reserve work.

The Candidates

Zeke Motta, 6-2, 215, Sr. — If Motta has the ability to be a great safety in space, we haven’t seen it yet. The knock on Motta’s game so far has been the occasional out-of-control play that’s made him look bad out in space against running backs or wide receivers. (That was also the knock on Smith until his tackling radically improved when Brian Kelly came to town.) Motta, who took almost 70 percent of the defense’s snaps as a nickel back, will play a lot. Where remains the question.

Austin Collinsworth, 6-1, 200, Jr. – It was Collinsworth that worked his way past Dan McCarthy in the safety depth chart after spending his freshman season as a wide receiver. Now it’ll likely be those two battling for the primary nickel job that Motta owned last season, with Collinsworth hopefully making the leap now that he’s entering his junior campaign. Brian Kelly and the defensive staff are high on Collinsworth’s football IQ and playmaking ability, and we’ve seen flashes of both in special teams. Having that translate into defensive success with be key in 2012.

Danny McCarthy, 6-2, 205, Sr.  — McCarthy was the primary beneficiary when the Irish recruiting class came up a bit short in February. That’s not to say he’s some leftover body that fills an empty hole on the roster. When McCarthy chose the Irish over offers from Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, and Michigan after being Ohio’s player of the year, many expected a more athletic version of his older brother, current NFL’er and former Irish captain Kyle. But McCarthy hasn’t been able to crack the safety rotation yet, with various injuries the main culprit. Still, he’s a great athlete that has a chance for a “light-bulb on” final season in South Bend, just like Jonas Gray.

Eliar Hardy, 6-0, 185, Soph. — Just as word was coming around that Hardy was impressing during fall camp last year, a knee injury robbed Hardy of his freshman season. It might be a blessing in disguise as the undersized safety was allowed to save a year of eligibility while also developing in the weight room. We won’t know what to expect from Hardy until spring practice gets underway, but he’s a great wild-card in a position battle that seems pretty straight-forward.

Tee Shepard, 6-1, 186, Fr. — Shepard is also a leading candidate to push for time at cornerback, but at six-foot-one, and good natural size even before spending six months with Paul Longo, he’s the type of big-bodied athlete that could find his way to the nickel back spot early. Early enrollment was critical for Shepard, who lost a season of development when his senior year on the football field was forfeited because of a transfer rule. Shepard is one of the more intriguing athletes to watch during spring practice.

Chris Salvi, 5-10, 190, Sr. — Let’s not forget the former walk-on special teams dynamo. Chuck Martin mentioned last season that he wouldn’t hesitate putting Salvi in the game at safety. (He almost had to during the injury plagued 2010 season.) That likely won’t change when new safeties coach Bobby Elliott gets his hands on the Bengal Bouts champ, who knows the system and has plenty of speed and athleticism.