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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s defensive backs, stellar cornerbacks and concerning safeties

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When having these discussions, it would make sense to split this broad group into two not only by positions of cornerbacks and safeties, but also by strength and likely weak point, respectively.

Notre Dame has cornerback depth and proven talent — so much so, all the cornerback options cannot line up at the position at once in any situation. The Irish also have no proven contributors at safety, although some help may have spent the last year on the roster, perhaps playing at another position or sidelined by the NCAA’s mandate.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nick Watkins and rising junior Troy Pride at boundary cornerback.
— Rising juniors Julian Love (pictured above) and Donte Vaughn at field cornerback.
— Rising senior Nick Coleman, rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath, rising junior Devin Studstill and rising senior Nicco Fertitta at boundary safety.
— Rising juniors Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson and rising junior D.J. Morgan at field safety.
— Rising senior Shaun Crawford at nickel back.
— Early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith somewhere among the cornerbacks, likely backing up Crawford at nickel.

Yes, the orders of mention above should be noted, but the safety situation will be much less murky after just one day of seeing Notre Dame in spring practice.

Summer Arrivals:
— Incoming freshmen cornerbacks D.J. Brown, Joe Wilkins, Noah Boykin and Tariq Bracy.
— Incoming freshmen safeties Derrik Allen and Paul Moala.

Rising junior Jalen Elliott started every game in 2017, but that is not mean he will be a starter in 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
As is, the Irish cornerbacks are set with an excellent two-deep roster, including Crawford seeing more and more time at nickel back with his fitness finally fully-returning after two consecutive injury-halted seasons.

At safety, however, it should be a wide-open spring competition between Gilman, Coleman, Genmark-Heath, Elliott, Studstill and Robertson. Frankly, whoever earns the gigs will get them. No player begins with an advantage due to past performances.

Gilman has earned only praise since transferring from Navy, but this spring will be the first genuine chance to see him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey while Elliott and Studstill have two years of mixed results, to put it generously, and Coleman has one of his own, though his result are a bit more favorable than either Elliott’s or Studstill’s.

Genmark-Heath and Robertson hardly saw much time as freshmen, but both looked to be developing as physical fits.

Biggest (Reader) Question(s):
Donte Vaughn was another “big get” for Notre Dame, but he also seems to have dropped off the grid. I’m not seeing him in any projected two-deeps for 2018. — Ken M.

To be honest, Ken offered today’s Vaughn question in the same sentences as yesterday’s pertaining to rising junior receiver Javon McKinley, but for the sake of this “Spring Outlook” series, splitting them into two paraphrased bits made more sense.

Vaughn’s lack of notable impact to date comes as a direct result of the emergence of Love, combined with Crawford showing every skill wanted of a corner aside from health. When others perform well, it does not necessarily prove another’s struggle.

Douglas, a sincere question. You have mentioned, on multiple occasions, that Julian Love could be moved to safety. I, respectfully, assume that such statements are rooted in solid information. Given that Love has developed into, or at the least is developing into, a genuine shutdown corner, why would the coaching staff move him to safety? Is there that much confidence in the other CBs, or is there that little confidence in the current safeties? Given how rare shutdown corners are, and the fact that they can effectively cut the field in half, isn’t the presence of such a corner more valuable than a potentially above-replacement safety? arbormazoo

There is a lot to unpack here, even once getting past the shock of a sincere and respectful question.

First of all, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has both explicitly and implicitly mentioned the possibility of moving Love to safety, so the idea has at least crossed the coaching staff’s mind.

While Love is not necessarily a shutdown cornerback — the moniker is a tough one to earn, especially at the college level where most cornerbacks do not handle both left-side and right-side, or boundary and field, duties — he is by far Notre Dame’s best cornerback, and that is where he is at his best. He could also conceivably be the best safety on the roster. The question then becomes, is the gap from Love to the next option more glaring at cornerback or at safety?

This comparison may seem odd, considering offensive linemen and cornerbacks have little-to-nothing in common, but stick with it for a moment. Last spring and summer, the Irish line was set from left tackle to center, but the right side had some questions. The only certain thing was Alex Bars, now a fifth-year, would be involved. Coming off a year starting at right tackle, that may have seemed the obvious spot to keep Bars, but instead he moved inside to right guard.

Bars was both Notre Dame’s best right tackle and best right guard, and then-sophomore Tommy Kraemer was likely the next-best option at both positions. The gap between Bars the tackle and Kraemer the tackle was less of a gap than the one between Bars the guard and Kraemer the guard. Thus, the greatest total value along the offensive line included moving Bars away from his best position.

That is the logic in considering moving Love. If Vaughn can provide much of what Love does at cornerback, then the drop-off there could be minimal compared to the effect of not moving Love to safety.

What is the plan to redshirt some of the coming junior defensive backs? We have defensive backs and wideouts coming out of our ears and seemingly do every year. nebraskairish

Who would you redshirt? If Love stays at cornerback, then either Pride or Vaughn is needed in dime packages, with the other providing vestiges of experienced depth. If Love moves to safety, then all the junior cornerbacks are vital pieces of the secondary.

Elliott and Studstill have started parts of two seasons. No coaching staff would then sideline one as a junior. Furthermore, such absences would serve to leave special teams only short-handed.

That leaves Morgan. Whether or not a year spent preserving eligibility becomes an official item or not will likely end up moot. Considering his first two years with the Irish, it is hard to envision him ever being considered for a fifth year.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Love: 68 tackles with one for loss; three interceptions and 20 more pass breakups.
Coleman: 44 tackles with one for loss; three pass breakups.
Elliott: 43 tackles; two pass breakups.
Crawford: 32 tackles with 1.5 sacks; two interceptions, five pass breakups, two fumbles recovered, including one he forced.
Watkins: 29 tackles; one interception and eight pass breakups.
Pride: 22 tackles with one for loss; one interception with two pass breakups.
Studstill: 18 tackles.
Genmark-Heath: 16 tackles.
Fertitta: 10 tackles.
Robertson: Eight tackles.
Vaughn: Six tackles.
Morgan: Two tackles.

2017 Departures:
None. At all. Not even a transfer yet.

That may be a big three-letter word closing the previous sentence, but it feels pertinent in this position group with Notre Dame cruising four scholarships above the NCAA maximum allowed come fall.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Derrik Allen
Notre Dame gets the letter: Houston Griffith
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tariq Bracy
Notre Dame gets the letter: Paul Moala
Notre Dame gets the letter: D.J. Brown
Notre Dame gets the letter: Joe Wilkins
A Signing Day victory, Notre Dame gets the letter: Noah Boykin

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent
Defensive line, a returning strength
Receivers, now without both St. Brown & Stepherson

As always, further reader questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.