Once again, the defense calls on Matthias Farley

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When Matthias Farley grows older, when his beard turns from black to grey, he’ll look back on his years at Notre Dame and smile. The fifth-year captain is a football survivor. He’s also the face of the resiliency that head coach Brian Kelly has instilled in his roster.

How best to succinctly tell Farley’s story? Let’s try.

Matthias Farley: The back-up plan? Matthias Farley: Bailing out the defense since 2012? Matthias Farley: No matter where you bury him on the depth chart, he’ll be there when you need him?

Last Saturday, Farley added another chapter to one of the more remarkable on-field stories we’ve seen in recent years. After spending the first half on the sidelines and playing special teams, Farley was called into action after Drue Tranquill went down.

And then, on one of his first snaps of the afternoon, Farley found a way to be involved in one of the biggest plays of the game: he and Jaylon Smith forced a fumble that Smith very nearly ran back for a touchdown.

There he was, a back-up superhero who only gets to put his cape on when Superman or Batman pull a groin or tweak a hamstring. Kelly talked on Tuesday about Farley’s ability to impact games, while still not being able to find his way into the starting lineup.

“He doesn’t like it,” Kelly said. “He wants to be out there starting. He believes that he can help this football team as a starter. But he’s one of those guys that makes this 2015 football team special in that he’ll do whatever is necessary for the good of the team.”

Farley has made a career out of being ready. It started in 2012, when the converted receiver was just days into his career as a safety when he leap-frogged fifth-year safety Dan McCarthy as the opening day option specialist in Notre Dame’s drubbing of Navy in Dublin. Then when Jamoris Slaughter’s season ended just a few weeks later, Farley was asked to step into the starting lineup, to carry one-eleventh of the weight for one of Notre Dame’s finest defenses in school history.

His teammates know that. Farley found a way to be a key piece of a defense that led the Irish to an undefeated regular season. And they’re hoping he’ll do it again.

“Matthias started like nine games on the way to the National Championship Game, and started in the National Championship Game and played I think four years now,” Joe Schmidt said Wednesday.

“He’s been a starter. He’s been not a starter. He’s been the special teams captain. He’s been just about everything in his time here, and so I just think it’s so funny that it’s even a question if he’s ready or if he’s going to perform because he’s a baller.

“He’s been a baller. He’s always going to be a baller.”

Farley’s fit in Brian VanGorder’s defense has been a curious one. After an injury-plagued and disappointing 2013 season, Farley switched positions, turning him from starting safety into what amounted to roughly a sixth-string cornerback. Farley looked closer to Siberia than the starting lineup.

But what ended up happening? KeiVarae Russell gets suspended.  Cody Riggs got hurt. And Farley ended up filling up the stat sheet better than any other defender on the roster.

Entering 2015, Farley once again didn’t look like he had a place in this defense. Freshman Shaun Crawford looked like a perfect fit at nickel cornerback. Safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate were dialed into the starting lineup. Even in specialty packages, Tranquill was a better fit for the battering ram VanGorder was looking for in dime and option situations.

So Farley did his job. And for two games, that meant leading the special teams.

“A captain’s role is to lead and it doesn’t always have to be on every single down,” Farley said Wednesday. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a play-a-hundred-plays-a-game kind of deal.”

But that moment is coming. With the Next Man In now clearly focused on Farley’s availability, the veteran has the opportunity to finish his collegiate career playing a ton of important snaps for the defense, a group that understandably has confidence in one of the team’s best leaders. Even if—once again—it’s by accident.

“We all have complete confidence in Matthias because he’s been there and he’s done it,” Schmidt said.  “He’s been successful and he’ll continue to be successful.”