In many respects, looking at last year’s defensive performances, both as a team and as individuals, is time spent in folly. Four games into the 2016 season, the Notre Dame defense shifted drastically when Greg Hudson took over the duties of defensive coordinator after Irish coach Brian Kelly dismissed Brian VanGorder. Mike Elko will now install a new scheme, likely moving some players around and evaluating others differently than his predecessors did.
While spring practice is far from as enthralling as the fall in any respect, what it can show in situations like these makes it genuinely intriguing.
In the defensive backfield, that intrigue focuses on the deep but unproven cornerback position. Cole Luke’s graduation will be noticed, not that safety Avery Sebastian’s won’t be, but it will not be as significant as the exit of Luke’s 38 career starts.
For these purposes, discussions of Elko’s rover position—and those most-likely to fill it, being senior Drue Tranquill and sophomores Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan—will be included in a later look at linebackers. In theory, that new wrinkle will fit in more with the Nyles Morgans and Greer Martinis of the world than the Nic(k)s Watkins, Colemans and Fertittas.
All of the Irish defensive backs returning from 2016 will also be able to return next season. Only Nick Watkins is a senior, and he will yet have a year of eligibility remaining after this season. That holds true even if including the rover position, with Tranquill there fitting the description just applied to Watkins.
Notre Dame returns 19 starts from last fall at cornerback, though two come from junior Shaun Crawford who tore his Achilles tendon in the season’s second game, a 39-10 victory over Nevada. While Crawford’s ability is real and his value to the depth chart tangible, he is superfluous to this conversation until proven healthy, and that will certainly not be this spring. For a reminder’s sake, one reader followed the commitment of consensus four-star cornerback Kalon Gervin by asking, “When was the last time ND got a true CB in Gervin ranked this high?” Only two years ago, Crawford is the answer. He was the No. 7 cornerback in the 2015 class, per rivals.com.
Two more of those starts come from junior Nick Coleman, who fell down the depth chart after starting two of last season’s first three games. Barring unforeseen growth, his contributions at cornerback are likely in the past, though he may yet remain in the defensive backfield.
That leaves Watkins, who also missed last season due to a broken arm, and sophomores Julian Love (eight starts), Donte Vaughn (four) and Troy Pride (three). This spring may not reveal which two among those four will start come fall, but it should give a strong indication as to any comfort level within Elko’s defense.
Love would seem a frontrunner—his eight starts were the season’s final eight games—while Vaughn and Pride remain more theoreticals than proven commodities. Vaughn started against Syracuse, Stanford, Navy and Army. Pride started against Stanford, Miami and USC.
No defensive coordinator will gripe about having this variety of options, especially in today’s era of football when a third cornerback is needed on the field as often as not. Notre Dame may have as many as five viable possibilities at the position. This spring four will look to impress.
Safety brings less uncertainty. Sophomore Devin Studstill started nine games in his debut campaign, making 38 tackles and one interception, also forcing one fumble. With Tranquill’s anticipated move to rover, Studstill may be counted on as the veteran of the defensive backfield.
His counterpart will presumably come from the trio of juniors Coleman and Nicco Fertitta, and sophomore Jalen Elliott. With the afore-discussed five-some of corners, Coleman may get a look at safety. The same goes for junior Ashton White.
Ferttta and Elliott both chipped in at the position last season, each appearing in all 12 games and tallying 17 and 14 tackles, respectively. The former would provide a lower floor, the latter a higher ceiling.
Early enrollee Isaiah Robertson will further the depth a safety this spring, and playing time does appear to be available if he proves himself worthy of it. If not, he will undoubtedly contribute on special teams under new special teams coordinator Brian Polian.
Freshman Jordan Genmark-Heath will join the safety ranks come summer and fall.
Last year, the Irish gave up a total of 2,357 passing yards at a rate of 7.53 yards per attempt and 196.4 yards per game (No. 21 in the country). After VanGorder’s departure, that last figure fell to 168.13 yards per game, which would have been the NCAA’s sixth-best, but statistics can be manipulated any which way to prove one’s desired point. In the season’s final eight games, Notre Dame played North Carolina State in a literal hurricane, as well as two option-dependent teams in Navy and Army. Remove those three games and their combined total of 102 passing yards, and the post-BVG passing yards allowed per game average jumps to 248.6., in line with the No. 87 passing defense over the entire season.