Kelly rolls the dice again with position switches

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Brian Kelly has never been afraid to move players. In his four seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly has filled his secondary with former wide receivers, turned a linebacker into a tight end, running backs into wide receivers, and bounced lineman across the line of scrimmage.

After beginning his career at Grand Valley, the Irish head coach learned quickly that his favorite players often played the position of “football player.” That meant finding a way to get his best athletes on the field, even if it meant keeping an open mind as a young player developed.

We saw early Kelly’s commitment to this principle. His first signing class wasn’t filled with position listings, but rather player types: Skill, Big Skill, Power. That meant that Troy Niklas could start his career at outside linebacker, spending part of his freshman season rushing the passer from the interior of the defensive line. It also allowed him to make the switch to tight end, where in two seasons he played well enough to have some believing he’s a potential first round draft pick in this May’s draft.

Sometimes those position switches don’t always work. Kelly tried turning Theo Riddick into the answer at slot receiver. After so-so results, Kelly pulled the plug on the experiment, transitioning Riddick back to running back in the final regular season game of a disappointing 2011 season. But he was rewarded in 2012, as Riddick became the most trusted back on a team that played for the national championship.

After playing a secondary that at times had four converted wide receivers starting at the same time, Kelly is once again rolling the dice on a few key position switches, with hopes of shoring up the back end of the defense. They include a minor move — pushing starting safety (and converted wide receiver) Matthias Farley outside to cornerback. They also include a major move — taking rising sophomore James Onwualu from offense to defense, even after he started four games as a freshman receiver.

Farley’s move comes after a somewhat disappointing season. After filling in admirably when Jamoris Slaughter went down, he struggled to anchor the secondary. Kelly talked candidly about Farley’s play, acknowledging that the shoes he was asked to fill might have been too big.

“He was put into a very difficult situation,” Kelly acknowledged. “We were trying to get him to replace Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith – two pretty good players, and two physical players.

“He’s not that kind of player… That’s not his best trait. He’s really smart. He’s got some tools that, if we play him in the right position, can really help our defense.”

A cerebral and eclectic student-athlete, Farley came to Notre Dame a raw prospect, new to football and projected as a wide receiver. After spending his first season in the program playing scout team receiver, Farley impressed during spring and fall camp at safety, playing well enough to beat out fifth year safety Dan McCarthy to take snaps against Navy. 

Given limited responsibilities, Farley’s athleticism and instincts quickly stood out. But tasked with running the secondary, Farley faced his first true adversity on the field.

“It was a big jump from playing your first year in 2012 to having all that on your plate in 2013,” Farley admitted last week after practice. “You had to know where everyone was supposed to line up. You had to know how everything fits, how you fit in it. Getting the calls to everybody. It was definitely a lot, going through some struggles, the ups and downs, and coming out better for it.”

Better might be at cornerback now. As offenses do more and more to spread the field, the Irish defense will adapt with sub-packages better suited to play a diverse set of opponents. Putting Farley in a quadrant of the field, or playing him “outside in” as Kelly alluded to when discussing the position switch, should allow him to play more instinctual football.

The biggest surprise of spring was the move of James Onwualu to safety. While he only made two catches during his freshman season, Onwualu was an immediate contributor for the Irish, filling Daniel Smith’s role as a physical receiver blocking down field.

Onwualu also made his presence felt on special teams, a key contributor on coverage teams. That presence is likely where the idea to play defense came from, following a similar script to the ones Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth parlayed into starting jobs.

“He’s got great contact skills,” Kelly said of Onwualu. “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.”

That Onwualu ends up on the defensive side of the ball shouldn’t be that surprising. Talking with Mike Scanlon, Onwualu’s high school coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, he thought the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder’s best position could be a hybrid safety, physically capable of running with receivers, but stout enough to make an impact in the box.

In the past, Kelly has talked about position switches to help get a player on the field. For Onwualu, going from a position where he contributed as a true freshman to a somewhat stacked safety position is a bit of a gamble, but one that the staff must feel confident about.

After watching last season, it shouldn’t be hard to feel good about the future of Eilar Hardy. Collinsworth likely will be another trusted cog as well. Throw in the healthy return of Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate rebounding after an injury plagued sophomore season and Max Redfield being groomed as a starter, and talented options don’t appear to be scarce. How Onwualu fits into this group will be fascinating to watch.

With question marks at a lot of positions as the front seven rebuilds and schematics are adjusted, these position changes are coming at the right time, with spring dedicated to learning not necessarily refining. For the defense to play up to his potential, both these position changes need to be more than mere depth chart support.

If history has shown anything, Kelly has moved contributors to roles that only enhance what they’re doing on the field. If Kelly can hit on the position switches of Farley and Onwualu, it’ll mean good things for the Irish defense.