One common misperception about college football in the modern era is that base defenses still focus on a 3-4 or a 4-3 defensive front. More and more often, defenses spend more time with at least five defensive backs on the field than with seven defensive linemen and linebackers. The nickel defense is the most common look.
That has changed mostly in reaction to college football so heavily leaning on the pass — one of the reasons the NCAA may opt to keep the clock running following incompletions beginning next season, a rule change pending approval this offseason — but also as a luxury of more multi-faceted defenders.
Tariq Bracy may not have looked like a physical player on paper, listed at 185 pounds and 5-foot-10 ⅛ last season, but the veteran carried much of that weight in his legs, making him a powerful tackler as well as quick enough to keep up with most slot receivers.
When Notre Dame lost Bracy to injury at USC to end the season, freshman Jaden Mickey hardly stood a chance in the pivotal position.
Enter Oklahoma State transfer Thomas Harper.
Harper is usually listed as a safety, but even he admits what is most likely his destination in the Irish defense.
“Really just kind of get in where I fit in and playing some free safety, some nickel,” he said last month on his coming role. “Getting in where I fit in, wherever I’m needed, that’s where I’ll be.”
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For a veteran with one season of eligibility remaining, any transfer comes with the thought of showing off for the NFL. At 5-foot-11, Harper is self-aware enough to know an NFL career at safety is unlikely. Proving himself as a three-down defender near the tackle box, though, could give Harper a chance at the next level.
“Going somewhere that I felt like would benefit me the most as far as help me maximize my potential and get me to that next level,” he said. Some of that ties beyond playing nickel back at Notre Dame and to the stage he’ll be playing on. “Being able to be on a team where I can show my ability vs. other teams other than just the Big 12, that’s a really big reason why I wanted to come here.”
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Brandon Joseph did two things as expected in his one year with the Irish. He made a big play, returning an interception for a touchdown on the first play of the game at Syracuse, though only one such big play. And he jumped to the NFL after only one year.
Notre Dame was better off with Joseph than it would have been without him, but his impact was far from as exclamatory as expected based on some of his days at Northwestern and his work in preseason practices.
Thus, Bracy’s matriculation may have been the bigger concern for the Irish, that is, until Harper transferred in.
Notre Dame will take some time figuring out its safety rotation, something that could seemingly be said each of the last three seasons, but it is not inherently starting from a position worse than it ended last year.
DJ Brown: 13 games; 48 tackles with 0.5 for loss, plus two pass breakups.
TaRiq Bracy: 11 games; 39 tackles with six for loss including one sack, plus one interception and one pass breakup.
Xavier Watts: 13 games; 39 tackles with two for loss including one sack, plus three pass breakups.
Houston Griffith: 13 games; 33 tackles with one for loss.
Benjamin Morrison: 13 games; 33 tackles with one for loss plus six interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and four pass breakups.
Brandon Joseph: 10 games; 30 tackles with one interception returned for a touchdown and one pass breakup, as well as one forced fumble.
Clarence Lewis: 13 games; 29 tackles with one for loss, plus one interception and four pass breakups, as well as one fumble recovered and one fumble forced.
Cam Hart: 11 games; 24 tackles with three for loss, plus four pass breakups.
Ramon Henderson: 11 games; 23 tackles with two for lossi including 0.5 sacks, plus one fumble recovered.
Jaden Mickey: 11 games; 9 tackles.
Justin Walters: 4 games; two tackles.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
There may be a hole at safety, one likely filled by rising senior Xavier Watts and a starter to be named later, and Harper’s arrival at nickel back may generate some buzz as shiny new toys always tend to. But make no mistake, there is one name that defines the Irish secondary in 2023 and one name only: Benjamin Morrison.
The sophomore cornerback should land on some preseason All-American lists, and hype around him may reach heights too high by the time Notre Dame heads to Dublin (166 days). If intercepting six passes as a freshman was not impressive enough on their own, snagging two and returning one 96 yards for a decisive touchdown in the biggest Irish upset of Marcus Freeman’s debut campaign was certainly a moment that will linger in Notre Dame lore.
“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” Freeman said after that 35-14 win against Clemson. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.”
Those reservations for six in the end zone may have been the highlight, but Morrison’s first interception against Clemson may have been more impactful. The Tigers were backed up near their own end zone, already trailing 14-0, when Morrison intercepted a crossing route, a throw rushed by defensive end Justin Ademilola.
Morrison less jumped that route and more remembered his coaching and the play call. He was intended to undercut the receiver and place his trust in the safeties behind him to limit a big play. Consider that a moment where DJ Brown’s experience aided the defense in a way that never showed up on the stat sheet. He was the sole deep safety, mirroring the crossing route from 10 yards behind, giving Morrison the coverage to gamble.
Morrison gambling was not the mark of a player starring beyond his years. Him doing so within the play design, however, was the mark of a player thoroughly understanding the defensive scheme.
Opposite him in 2023 will be another such player in fifth-year Cam Hart, though a shoulder injury should limit his contact this spring, creating more opportunities for Jaden Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis to reassert themselves.
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Incoming freshman Brandyn Hillman’s sudden Sunday departure from the program robs Notre Dame of something of a shotgun approach at safety this past recruiting cycle. The Irish pulled in three safeties in Hillman, Ben Minich and Adon Shuler, presumably hoping at least one would pan out. Now that is a 50/50 proposition, with Shuler sidelined by a shoulder injury presently.
In terms of the next Morrison, a thought that no prospect should be burdened with, many spring practice praises will fall upon Christian Gray, a lengthy and athletic early enrollee, while Micah Bell’s speed may make him a special teams contributor when he arrives in Augst.