Competition, self-scout key to secondary’s improvement

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Notre Dame’s coaching staff spent the winter months evaluating their shaky play in the secondary. And it likely didn’t take a spot on Brian Kelly’s staff to understand some of the deficiencies that plagued the unit.

Just as Brian VanGorder discussed on Wednesday, explosive plays, blown assignments and underperforming personnel added up to the mixed bag we saw on the field last season. And it’s a big reason secondary coach Todd Lyght enters his second season coaching at his alma mater with an open competition at every position.

That’s why we’ve heard about Devin Studstill challenging Max Redfield. That’s why Lyght revealed that rising senior Cole Luke—the most experienced player on the field next season for Notre Dame’s defense—is cross-training at nickel back. Lyght seems focused on taking the lessons learned from season one and applying them to a secondary that’ll be reloaded and more versatile, even after saying goodbye to KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate.

Lyght talked a bit about the open competition, perhaps giving us a clue at the expanded rotation on the back end in 2016 while doing it.

“I think the open competition is great,” Lyght said. “Everybody is still challenging for the starting spots and we know that we’re probably going to have to play eight guys deep across the board, especially with our nickel and dime packages. Everybody is going to have a hand in making this team successful on the back end.”

An eight-man rotation wasn’t possible last season, not after losing Shaun Crawford, Avery Sebastian and Drue Tranquill by mid-October. But as Lyght’s secondary looks to bounce back, those injured players—especially Crawford and Tranquill—seem to have made themselves indispensable.

“Last year, we lost our nickel package. Shaun Crawford we knew in training camp was our best nickel and we lost him,” VanGorder acknowledged yesterday. “We lost our speed package, too, when Tranquill got hurt. That was really important to us. That’s just the way it went.”

Maybe it was the lack of versatility that accentuated some of the deficiencies. With a top-heavy snap count in the secondary—only Luke, Shumate, Russell, Redfield and Matthias Farley played more than 150 snaps—there were times the Irish must’ve felt like they were defending with one arm tied behind their backs.

But a self-scout also revealed some schematic weaknesses that opponents exploited, with Lyght acknowledging some of the adjustments that’ll be made. IrishSportsDaily.com’s Matt Freeman pulled this interesting nugget from Lyght’s comments, acknowledging the soft middle that too often was exploited in the defense.

“We played a lot of split safety defense, an of middle open defense, quarter/quarter half and half coverage. I think this year with our self-scouting, we might close the middle a little bit more and challenge the outside of the perimeter more. We did a great job on third-down and I want to improve on that success.”

It’s a lot easier to close the middle of the field with competent play from a free safety, or sticking with your preferred Cover 1 scheme. But with injuries and personnel struggles, the tendency to protect the secondary might have opened up the defense to some other vulnerabilities.

Recruiting is the best solution for those ills. We’ve seen Studstill come in and give the Irish what they want at free safety, even as he’s learning on the job. They’ve also seen it from Redfield, if only in flashes.

With young talent like Spencer Perry, Crawford, Nick Coleman and Nick Watkins, there are competitive bodies ready to challenge for snaps. Even better, there’s more versatility coming to campus this summer. It won’t be long before we hear this staff rave about Jalen Elliott, the team’s strong safety of the future or jumbo cornerback Donte Vaughn. The efforts in the 2016 recruiting class made it clear that Brian Kelly and the Irish staff are unwilling to be caught shorthanded again.

Until then, Lyght’s job is to learn from an eventful debut season. More importantly, to take those lessons into 2016 as a rebuilt secondary faces great expectations.