Position switches help depth chart come into focus

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It was a slightly more newsworthy opening press conference than you might expect from Brian Kelly. While the usual introductory remarks were certainly there, Kelly also broke a fair amount of news as the 2014 Irish begin their work in earnest.

We’ve already talked about the tweaks to the coaching staff. But some significant roster moves also help set in motion what the depth chart will look like. Some moves are large, some are more subtle, but all are worth discussing.

First, there’s a move across the line of scrimmage for James Onwualu. After starting four games at wide receiver, Onwualu will spend the spring as a safety, a decision likely based on the production and aggression Onwualu showed on special teams.

Kelly talked about the decision-making process, a harder decision than you’d expect considering Onwualu made just two catches last season.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.  He’s a ferocious competitor and I wanted to take a look at him because he is such a physical player and he’s got an incredible volume to him in terms of his ability to play every play. So this was a time to take a look at him at safety.”

It’s hard not to think about the evolution of Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth when discussing Onwualu. At 6-foot-1, 215-pounds, Onwualu adds some size to the back line, and the chance to compete right away, even with some talent at the position.

While the safety depth chart added Onwualu, it subtracted two members. John Turner is listed as an outside linebacker, likely providing depth at a relatively thin drop position with Ben Councell out. Turner played in 13 games, logging mostly special teams minutes. But the surprise of the spring was Matthias Farley‘s transition from safety to cornerback.

Farley has essentially been a starter at the position the last two seasons, stepping into the lineup in 2012 after Jamoris Slaughter went down. He started the season as one of two regulars at safety, but an up-and-down season had Max Redfield starting opposite Austin Collinsworth in the bowl game.

Kelly talked about the rationale of the move for Farley, which turned out to be an interesting explanation.

“We’re going to give him an opportunity to play corner,” Kelly said. “As we’ve looked at the depth that we have back there, is that the one thing that we’re looking for and Coach VanGorder is looking for is ‘outside‑in’ players and ‘inside‑out’ players at that position.

“We think that he can be a very good player, especially a tackler from an ‘outside‑in’ position.  He’s been playing inside‑out right; he’s been running the alley ‘inside‑out.’

We think he can be a very good force player from an ‘outside-in’ position and he’s really a good athlete.  He can run and he’s got very good ball skills. So we are going to give him an opportunity out there to compete and take a look at him.  We are going to play more than two corners.  We are going to play as many as four.”

Farley had some high profile missed tackles last season, not necessarily a good thing for a player that’s the last line of defense. And as a safety that’s tasked with protecting the middle of the field, coming up the alleys to support isn’t a place where that’s acceptable.

With KeiVarae Russell comfortably locked onto the field (or wide) side of the formation, Farley is going to be given the chance to compete with Cole Luke for Bennett Jackson’s job. That might be a perfect place for his skill-set.

Farley’s a solid thumper and has solid wheels, but he might have a better chance to utilize those skills as a boundary cornerback, coming off the edge and playing as an attacker in Cover 2 sets.

With Cody Riggs entering the conversation this summer and Devin Butler returning this summer after shoulder surgery, there’ll be competition soon. But expect to see Farley getting plenty of reps in a somewhat new scheme.

Lastly, the running back depth chart thinned itself out. Even with George Atkinson leaving early, it was difficult to figure out how five backs were going to get a crack at the starting job. That’s certainly not the case anymore.

Will Mahone is listed as a slot receiver, quite an interesting spot for a 5-foot-11, 214-pounder, but a place where he got good reviews during 2013 camp. Amir Carlisle is listed as a RB/WR, giving him an opportunity to battle for snaps at the slot as well.

“We’ve got a good stable of backs there, and I’m just trying to get guys reps, and we don’t have as much depth at that position,” Kelly said about Carlisle’s added responsibilities. “I want to take a look at him at some slot receiver, too, so we’ll get a chance to get some reps with him, too.”

That puts the focus on three backs, with Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant taking center stage. That’s a manageable number, and one that certainly tells you how the coaches see things playing out. While Kelly wasn’t asked about running back, the changes to the depth chart likely say all we need to know.