Spring Solutions: Secondary

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Gone are Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth. Returning is a safety position that’s struggled, another transfer, a young cornerback on the rise, and (hopefully) an exiled potential star.

Welcome to the Notre Dame secondary. New coaching, same scheme, different players, and one of 2015’s great unknowns.

In year one of the Brian VanGorder era, we saw the best and worst from this group. Early in the year, the Irish were an aggressive, man coverage team that shutout Michigan for the first time in the rivalry.

Against USC, Notre Dame’s depleted secondary looked like burnt toast, with JuJu Smith, George Farmer and Nelson Agholor having their way with a group that looked lost and overmatched.

Kerry Cooks is gone to Oklahoma. Todd Lyght will be introduced shortly. And if we’re to believe reports, VanGorder himself will take aim at the safety position, fully intent on making Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate the playmakers this defense requires.

Before Avery Sebastian, Nicco Fertitta, Mykelti Williams (and hopefully KeiVarae Russell) and some young cornerbacks arrive on campus, let’s take a look at the remaining bodies in the secondary.

 

SECONDARY DEPTH CHART

CB: Cole Luke, Jr. 
S: Elijah Shumate, Sr.
S: Max Redfield, Jr.
CB: Devin Butler, Jr.*
Slot: Matthias Farley, Grad Student

CB: Nick Watkins, Soph.
S: Nicky Baratti, Sr.*
S: Drue Tranquill, Soph.

Gone are Eilar Hardy, Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson — all three essentially unusable last season as well. This is easily the thinnest position group on the roster, and a big part of why Notre Dame’s looking to bring in five more players in the secondary in next year’s recruiting cycle.

Even if Sebastian isn’t as readymade of a player as Riggs was, there’s no doubting Notre Dame’s need for a veteran who has played competitive football.

Because there’s just no knowing what the Irish can get out of Baratti or Tranquill coming off of injuries and after seeing Butler play late last season, his spot in the starting lineup is strictly a placeholder.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Cole Luke: For as big of strides as Luke made in 2014, the USC game showed there is still work to be done. That’s no knock on Luke, who Brian Kelly credited with one of the biggest jumps on the defense.

Luke has cover ability. He’s a good tackler. And he’s game for any challenge, his work on Louisville’s DeVante Parker was as good as there was.

But if KeiVarae Russell’s Michigan game in 2013 served as his motivation during last offseason, watching George Farmer, Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith light up the Coliseum should do that for Luke.

Notre Dame has a very good cornerback here. But Luke’s task this spring is to take the next step, something that looks very possible.

Elijah Shumate: Where to begin… Shumate’s a senior now, the final season of a career that started with Shumate excelling in a specific role, but struggling with more heaped onto his shoulders.

We saw bright spots — though his pick six to end the Michigan game was called back after a questionable flag. But Shumate has to mentally succeed this offseason, matching up his considerable physical skills with the Football IQ needed to be a great safety.

With Tranquill and Baratti not full go this spring, it’s Shumate or bust, especially before the reinforcements arrive this summer. So that’s likely why VanGorder will spend a ton of time with the safeties, knowing that Shumate and Redfield are the only guys capable of getting this thing done.

Max Redfield: When Redfield was benched after a disappointing performance against Arizona State, it was eye opening. Here’s a guy who was one of September’s heroes, a former 5-star prospect coming into his own… or so we thought.

From there, Redfield was stuck deep in the doghouse. Like special teams gunner deep, who was glued to the sideline as the Irish coaching staff committed to playing a one-armed Austin Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill. Nevermind that it was painfully evident that the freshman wasn’t ready or capable to be a full-field safety.

Redfield salvaged his season in the bowl game, recovering from a broken rib to play well against LSU, even with a potential mistake allowing a touchdown over his head.

Redfield’s freshman eligibility was put up in smoke during the Pinstripe Bowl, with Kelly forcing him into the lineup. His sophomore season was spent learning an entirely new system.

Now his junior year needs to be the one where his talent shows through. This spring is key from a mental perspective as well as from a leadership point of view. Your free safety needs to be the brain of the operation. Let’s see if Redfield can take that step.

Devin Butler: I’ll be the first to question if Devin Butler is a starting-caliber cornerback. What we saw late last season leads me to believe the answer is a resounding no.

So Butler has 15 practices to make sure the coaching staff believes he’s a player who can make an impact. Or he’s going to be passed by Nick Watkins (if he hasn’t been already), and likely a slew of freshmen who will enter this June with eyes on early playing time.

Butler has length and has shown a knack for making a big play. But he also turned way too many passes by Cody Kessler into big plays for the Trojans.

Butler’s positional flexibility makes him a useful piece. But right now, it’s Butler’s job to show that he can be a player capable of contributions come September, especially when asked to match up in man coverage against top programs.

Put harshly, there’s no weaker piece in the starting lineup than Butler, and his name is here simply because there’s nobody else to put in there.

Matthias Farley: If any of the players in the secondary want to take solace in their struggles and know that better days can be ahead, just look at Farley. After being put out to pasture and left for dead last spring by fans, Farley was one of the defense’s most productive players.

The position switch to slot corner looked like a demotion and likely burial on the depth chart. But Farley played critical snaps for the Irish defense, and will be asked to do so again — his versatility absolutely perfect for the job.

With the safety depth chart, he may end up there. And there are limitations to his game, Farley will still occasionally struggle matched up in man coverage.

But Farley showed a knack for making plays, a nose for the football, and the type of competitiveness you can only hope everybody on the defense has. If you’re looking for a below-the-radar captain candidate, put Farley near the top of the list.

Nick Watkins: We heard nothing but good things about Watkins coming out of high school, early in camp, and throughout the season. Now there’s a starting job (even if it’s temporary) there for the taking, and Watkins needs to go out and get it.

Even if Watkins is the third corner, that’s a job that’s going to be vital. And after playing only sporadically last year, we need to see a big jump from the sophomore out of Dallas.

Nicky Baratti: Another shoulder injury put Baratti’s future in question, his first snap against Purdue throwing a weakened shoulder out of socket and ruining another season for the Texas native. But Baratti is intent on coming back, will be working with the team this spring, and could be desperately needed come the fall.

What Notre Dame can get out of him? Who knows at this point. But Baratti was one of the first freshmen to see the field in 2012, and if he’s capable of staying healthy, he’s a football player who could help the weakest depth chart on the roster.

Drue Tranquill: After tearing his ACL in November, Brian Kelly mentioned that Tranquill is well ahead of schedule in his recovery. (Then again, Kelly says that about everyone.) So spring will be about getting healthy and recovering… before asserting himself back into the mix for playing time.

Tranquill showed himself to be very useful as a third down component in this defense. While he was exploited in space after stepping in for Max Redfield, he was also a freshman playing for the first time, hardly the last to have that happen.

At 220-plus pounds, Tranquill is a unique athlete. He’s also the type of ingredient who can be utilized in scheme specific game plans if he’s not ready to be the team’s starting strong safety. But all of that necessitates a healthy recovery from ACL surgery.