With three starters returning on the back end of the defense, many expected the Notre Dame secondary to thrive this season. Bennett Jackson had the makings of an All-American caliber player. KeiVarae Russell was finally able to spend an offseason training to play cornerback after an impressive true freshman campaign. And Matthias Farley was back after stepping capably into the starting lineup.
With veterans like Lo Wood returning from injury and young talent pressing veteran cornerbacks Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, cornerback depth was as strong as its been in years. Add to that the fleet of safeties the Irish brought in the past few years, and a great battle happening between Farley, Elijah Shumate, Austin Collinsworth, with Max Redfield and Eilar Hardy right on their tails, and the back-end was as stable as it had been in almost a decade.
Of course all of those assumptions changed when the Irish started playing. Michigan lit up the Irish, with Jeremy Gallon beating just about every Irish defensive back for a big gain. Jackson and Russell both looked worst than just susceptible in man coverage, they looked downright lost sometimes. And a season after playing well, both Farley and Shumate seemed to regress as well.
Brian Kelly has preached patience and that seems to be paying off. The Irish defense played their best game against Arizona State, with the Sun Devils passing game kept in check by a group that struggled to do that in crunch time multiple times.
Let’s take stock of where we are at the halfway point of the season.
Bennett Jackson — 35 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 INT (TD), 2 BU, 3 PD, 1 QBH, 1 FF
Matthias Farley — 25 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INTs, 2 BU, 4 PD
KeiVarae Russell — 23 tackles, 4 BU, 4 PD
Elijah Shumate — 21 tackles, 1 TFL
Austin Collinsworth — 13 tackles, 2 QBH,
Cole Luke — 6 tackles, 1BU, 1 PD
Devin Butler — 2 tackles
Lo Wood — 2 tackles
Max Redfield — 2 tackles
Eilar Hardy — 1 tackle
No big plays. After learning on the job last year, it’d help to take a cue from last year’s playbook. Keep things in front of you and force an opponent to beat you with a sustained drive, not a big play downfield.
Too ofter the Irish have been burned this season after being one of the most stingy pass defenses in the country. But as the Irish sent blitzers and relied on man-to-man coverage, the rush too often didn’t get there and the defense got beat for a big play.
That’ll be tested next Saturday when a USC offense that looks to have awaken from its slumber comes to South Bend.
Get better safety play. The Irish have really missed that veteran hand in the secondary, somewhere the Irish really thrived with Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta playing centerfield. Both Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley have struggled this year and Max Redfield still feels a few games away from being ready.
Elijah Shumate looks like he should be a guy that’s a front line contributor but he’s still finding his way. And while Collinsworth has been in the system for three seasons this group is missing that anchor that puts the team in the right place and that’s obviously hurt in some very big situations.
Force turnovers… and look for the football. After doing a better job of it last season, the Irish secondary has been beaten a few too many times this season by simply not turning back and looking for the football.
Being in position to make a play and making the play are often separated by technique and poise. The Irish secondary needs to refine its technique and also trust that it’s in the right place. The football has been there for the taking, Notre Dame just needs to play the ball better.