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‘Limitations’ continue to define Notre Dame’s safeties

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Asked a simple question about Devin Studstill, Notre Dame safeties coach Terry Joseph used it to make a broader point. The fact that his overview came in response to a thought of the rising-junior safety implies the point applies to Studstill, but it also sheds light on all the Irish safeties.

“All those guys are in the mix because nobody has done enough up until this point to pull away,” Joseph said Thursday.

That includes not only Studstill, but also rising-juniors Jalen Elliott (pictured above) and Alohi Gilman, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath and, even as he spends some time working at nickelback, rising-senior Nick Coleman. After spending the last week or so at safety, as well, early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith joins the mix of options still under consideration at safety.

They each have flaws, but to Joseph that is hardly an exclusionary distinction, as long as each player is aware of his shortcomings.

“You can be a good player with limitations when you understand what your limits are and you don’t put yourself in position to get exposed,” Joseph said. “… When you realize what you can’t do, try to stay away from that situation.”

Obviously, avoiding a particular situation is largely dictated by an understanding of assignments and pre-snap reads. Thus, logic points to what has occurred after eight spring practices: The most game-tested players are faring best — Elliott and Gilman have shown the strongest grasp of their responsibilities. Joseph assumes that is due to their advantage in experience. Elliott has appeared in all 25 possible games during his two years at Notre Dame, including starting all 13 last year. Gilman started 12 games and played in 14 as a freshman at Navy before last summer’s transfer.

“Those guys don’t really have a lot of panic to them,” Joseph said. “They’re calm and put themselves in position that they need to be in.”

That is not to say they do not also have their areas needing improvement. Gilman in particular needs to reintegrate himself into the mindset of a defensive contributor rather than a scout team role player. In that latter duty last season, Gilman did not need to worry about reads or assignments. He was simply mimicking that week’s opponent.

Now, Gilman must work through each progression, check each route, understand the offense as much as the defense.

“Alohi is a guy who is very athletic, has great instincts, a guy that can play from sideline-to-sideline,” Joseph said. “… Now you want him to go past the speed limit a little bit yet still be under control. He was so excited to get back into the mix after spending a year on scout team.”

Gilman’s and Elliott’s experience helps them stay just ahead, if ahead at all, of the likes of Coleman. His athleticism and physicality is a large part of the reason he is under consideration at nickelback. The exact nature of that position, though, requires just as much understanding and anticipation as the safety spot does.

“If you were just testing him in a combine setting, [Coleman] would be off the charts,” Joseph said. “From a skill standpoint, he has the tools to be a starter at a Power Five school. Now it’s about refining those tools to become a great football player. A lot of that starts above the shoulders.”

Such went the theme as Joseph discussed each of the players under his tutelage. Gilman needs to get back in the habit of reading the offense. Coleman needs to understand the position a bit better. Genmark-Heath has “to be a better guy in space and in the deep part of the field.”

These critiques will likely continue well into preseason practices in August. Joseph at least hopes so, figuring that open competition will keep the entire group involved. It will also serve to give incoming-freshman Derrik Allen a chance to crack the rotation.

Whoever finally does enough to pull away, Joseph insisted he will not be bound by anything other than that performance in determining his starters. With his arrival this offseason (replacing defensive coordinator/safeties coach Mike Elko after he left for Texas A&M), Joseph touted a clean slate.

“At the end of the day, I love them all, but the truth of the matter is, the two best guys are going to run out there against Michigan on Sept. 1,” he said. “I don’t care what grade they’re in, I don’t care what jersey number [or] how long they’ve been here.

“At the end of the day, the two best guys are going to run out there.”

That is 149 days away, if anyone is curious, meaning those players have that long to make their skills and qualities stand out more than the limitations each one has and, given human nature, will continue to have.