For every praise of Notre Dame’s cornerbacks’ performance in 2017, some slight portion of it should go toward mitigating the criticisms of the Irish safeties. While Julian Love broke up 20 passes and picked off three passes, all of the safeties combined for five breakups and no interceptions. At some of those moments, though, Love could break on a pass because he trusted the safety behind him to provide support.
Hard as it may be to believe, and partly because there was hardly anywhere to go but up, Notre Dame’s safeties showed improvement this spring. Juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman emerged as a starting duo, the former still with room for improvement in tackling and the latter’s nose for the ball perhaps bordering on too ambitious. With junior Devin Studstill still in the mix at safety and early-enrollee freshman Houston Griffith having moved from cornerback, even a recognizable second-unit may exist, not to mention incoming freshman Derrik Allen.
With that development at safety, Love may be able to gamble even more. At least, that is the intention.
“We’re going to be doing some things that I think are going to accentuate his ability to play press coverage,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in March. “We want to play some press. It’s something we haven’t done much here, but it’s something [Love] brings to our football team and when you can press some guys and have the physicality that he has, it elevates his game.”
That may be the difference between where Notre Dame’s defensive backfield was before the spring and now is heading into the summer. Where the cornerbacks once excelled in spite of the safeties, they may now make even more plays because of the back-end.
Such progress may not manifest itself in statistical improvement. It should, but there is no guarantee, even if Gilman has a knack for getting to the ball.
“To have zero [interceptions from the safeties last season], that’s tough luck,” first-year Irish safeties coach Terry Joseph said in April. “It’s almost impossible to happen.
“At the same time, pre-snap getting yourself in position, understanding what’s about to happen, being half a step late, you’re going to be out of position.”
Those basic improvements could, arguably should, lead to greater returns, be they from the safeties or the cornerbacks.
The move of Griffith leading to Coleman’s shift
When Griffith slid from cornerback to safety in his first few months of collegiate practice, his quick impression made senior Nick Coleman’s availability at safety much less crucial. With that in mind, Coleman started getting work in at nickelback, offering an opportunity for senior Shaun Crawford to move to field cornerback.
“Nick Coleman has done a good job at nickel, getting where you are playing some man coverage situations,” Joseph said. “Just trying to find the best combination of guys. That’s why the [Griffith] move was so critical to do it now where at least we know when we get back to training camp who is going to be the guys in our rotation and we can figure out which spots to put them in.”
There may be reason to wonder why Notre Dame wants to diminish Crawford’s on-field time at all by moving a starter-quality defensive back in Coleman to nickelback. At the least, that will cut into Crawford’s repetitions. At the most, it will push Crawford to a backup role behind junior Troy Pride, whose emergence in November and this spring played a part in fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins opting to transfer for his final season of eligibility.
Crawford admittedly was not at peak fitness much of 2017’s fall after suffering two season-ending injuries in the previous two years. He showed himself to be a playmaker once healthy, but perhaps that 2016 Achilles injury cost him an imperceptible touch of quickness.
Cornerback: Love; Donte Vaughn.
Cornerback: Pride; Crawford.
Safety: Elliott; Studstill; Nicco Fertitta.
Safety: Gilman; Griffith.
Freshmen yet to arrive: Cornerbacks Tariq Bracy, Joe Wilkins, Noah Boykin and D.J. Brown; and safeties Derrik Allen and Paul Moala.