Shaun Crawford is done for the season. Max Redfield didn’t make it to the season opener. Nick Watkins is still waiting on a broken arm to heal. Devin Butler is suspended indefinitely and wearing a walking boot.
A talented depth chart went from stockpiled to bare bones in two weeks, a nice reminder that you can never have enough talent on a roster.
So the Irish move forward, likely junking their latest contingency plan to try and find a way to stabilize the back-end—all while teaching a remarkably young group of defensive backs to grow up quickly. It’s a challenge that nobody saw coming entering the season. But it’s one that’s par for the course as Notre Dame continues to battle tough luck on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s not all bad news. Especially when you consider that Michigan State and Duke are still breaking in young quarterbacks, with Syracuse, NC State and Stanford not much more experienced.
But how can the Irish rebuild a secondary that’s already showed holes? A few humble suggestions below.
STICK WITH STUDSTILL
Devin Studstill played every snap of the Nevada game, a toss into the proverbial deep end if there ever was one. Studstill held up just fine, likely making the Irish coaching staff wish they’d have trusted the talented youngster more against Texas, when the staff chose to lean on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian instead of the true freshman.
It took less than a half of football in Austin to understand that wasn’t going to work. And now two games into the season it’s Studstill or bust at free safety, a choice that gives the Irish defense a look towards the future while also best serving their present-day goals.
Studstill wasn’t perfect on Saturday. But he was strong in run support and had no major hiccups in the passing game, already an athletic improvement over Tranquill and Sebastian, two in-the-box defenders asked to be too far outside their comfort zone in centerfield.
You never want to be breaking in a true freshman safety. But doing it now against quarterbacks just as green as Studstill is at least making the best of a bad situation.
GET NICK COLEMAN RIGHT… OR GET YOUNG AT CORNER, TOO.
Nick Coleman has a bullseye on his back. And he will until he starts making some plays. Coleman knows that, Brian Kelly knows that, and everybody in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night will know that, too.
“They’re going to keep going at Nick Coleman,” Kelly acknowledged. “We’re quite aware of that situation. But I think Nick has showed himself that he’s up to the task and he’s going to continue to work to get better at it. When you lose a player like Crawford, the guy that comes in, they’re going to pick on him. But I like the fact that Nick has made the kind of corrections necessary to go out there and compete for the football.
Some of those adjustments showed on the field against Nevada. Then again, so did Coleman’s downfield stumble, turning for the football but then losing his feet on an easy deep ball completion.
Assuming Ashton White is no longer in the head coach’s doghouse, he should be getting a look during practice. So should Donte Vaughn, the lanky freshman able to make up for some mistakes with his length and athleticism. Jalen Elliott and Julian Love are competitive, high-IQ football players. Give them a shot and see what happens.
The staff isn’t giving up on Coleman, nor should they. He’s a competitive kid, a good athlete and someone they think highly of.
But he’ll need to find a way to get his mental game straighten out quickly. Because opposing quarterbacks aren’t going to be looking at Cole Luke when they’ve got Coleman on the other side of the field. And the ball will keeping coming at him until he starts making some plays.
KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Notre Dame’s 3-3-5 against Texas will likely go down as the bad-idea of the season, a move designed to give the Irish their best chance at winning, but one that could also be considered outthinking themselves. Of course, that’s ignoring the job Texas did in the trenches, the missed tackles by the players Notre Dame put in position to make the plays, and the deep throws that went over the top of a coverage scheme designed to guard against that very thing.
But that’s football. And a big reason why Brian VanGorder will now go back to the chalkboard, hoping to design a defense that allows his young talent to figure things out, but also gives his scheme a chance to make up for some glaring personnel weaknesses.
Even the best secondary can’t cover receivers forever. And with Notre Dame’s current pass rush, that’s the ask. (At least if they want to drop six or seven.) That same pressure is applied if the front seven can’t slow down an opponents run game—committing extra hats to the box should help, but it leaves a young secondary vulnerable and on islands.
With the heat already cranked up on VanGorder, it’ll be the long-time assistant’s job to find a happy medium, manufacturing confusion and heat on quarterbacks while also making sure the Irish can win on first and second downs.
None of that sounds simple. But of course, that’s what young players need—and why VanGorder’s paychecks have all those zeroes.
HAVE THE OFFENSE HELP OUT WHILE THE DEFENSE GROWS EACH WEEK.
Don’t expect things to be solved on Saturday. But progress needs to be made, making sure that the team Notre Dame puts on the field in October is better than the one asked to survive September.
Brian Kelly has built a roster to his liking. He’s had a successful recruiting run. And he’s found defensive backs that fit the profile that VanGorder is looking for, man-coverage skills that should be able to hold up in space better than the Cover 2 players he inherited.
Now Todd Lyght needs to coach them up. VanGorder needs to keep designing sound schemes. And Kelly needs his offense to support the other side of the football—taking pressure off his defense by either scoring points by the bushel or keeping opponents off the field. (Preferably both.)
DeShone Kizer and the offensive line can be a big piece of the defensive puzzle. So can a three-headed running back position that can eat clock and limit possessions. With a quarterback capable of winning football games with his arm, his feet and—more importantly—his head, adjusting a game plan to pick up the slack for the defense shouldn’t be asking too much.
Because if it allows the defense to tread water for a few weeks as the kids get used to things, this defense can get better week to week.