Associated Press

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s safeties strengths may need to cover cornerback concerns

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If you’ll forgive efficiency in place of effort, an accurate discussion of Notre Dame’s secondary can be had simply by flipping two words in last spring’s preview.

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

“Notre Dame has [safety] depth and proven talent — so much so, all the [safety] options cannot line up at the position at once in any situation. The Irish also have no proven contributors at [boundary cornerback], although some help may have spent the last year on the roster, perhaps playing at another position or …” injured.

Such is the cyclical nature of college football roster construction. Inexperience manifests itself as weakness only rectified by playing time and thus experienced up until departure.

Spring roster:
— Starting senior safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman.
— Starting senior field cornerback Troy Pride.
— Boundary cornerback competition between senior Donte Vaughn and sophomore TaRiq Bracy.
— Presumed backup safeties senior Devin Studstill and sophomore Houston Griffith.
— Safety depth in sophomores Paul Moala and Derrik Allen.
— Cornerback depth in sophomores Noah Boykin and DJ Brown.

Summer arrivals:
— Incoming freshmen safeties Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon.
— Incoming freshmen cornerbacks Isaiah Rutherford and KJ Wallace.

A late summer addition:
— Fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford should recover from his torn ACL suffered in August sometime this summer, theoretically reaching full-contact about a year after the injury occurred. Torn ACLs are no longer the long-term death knell for explosiveness they once were, but their recovery times are still uncertain and depend entirely on the individual case and player.

Donte Vaughn’s last on-field showing spelled doom for Notre Dame’s hopes in the College Football Playoff. If the rising senior can shake that off, though, he is primed to become a starter. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Health will affect this as much as talent. If Crawford were fully healthy, he would already be penciled in as the starting boundary cornerback, only sticking with pencil because he could just as easily finish his career in the nickel back role that allows him to freelance a bit, showcasing his playmaking knack. Alas, Crawford is not healthy.

Neither is, reportedly, Vaughn. A shoulder injury may have played a part in Vaughn’s struggles filling in for Love in the Cotton Bowl. He was still quite out of position on a few plays, but having two fully-functioning arms undoubtedly would have aided the cause.

To some degree, one wonders how Vaughn’s psyche will rebound from that second quarter against Clemson. A cornerback is only as good as his ability to forget the last play, and if Vaughn cannot forget that game entirely, it could haunt the rest of his career.

At which point, Bracy or even Griffith may get an extended look. Bracy played well in limited moments last season, his slight frame eventually wearing down and getting exposed, in particular at USC to close the regular season. If he has successfully added some heft this offseason, then Bracy’s claim as Love’s successor may be a solid one.

Griffith dabbled at nickel back last season, showing the physical gifts but not necessarily the mental understanding needed. His time at Notre Dame is not yet assured as a safety, and a hole at cornerback could shift that this season, especially with the starting safety duo set in stone for the season and some of the most high-profile Irish recruits of recent years providing depth there.

2018 statistically speaking:
Gilman: 94 tackles with three for loss; two interceptions, two forced fumbles and five pass breakups.
Elliott: 67 tackles with one for loss including half a sack; four interceptions, one forced fumble and seven pass breakups.
Love: 63 tackles with three for loss; one interception, three fumbles recovered and 16 pass breakups.
Pride: 47 tackles with 1.5 for loss; two interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovered and 10 pass breakups.
Bracy: 18 tackles with one forced fumble.
Griffith: 14 tackles with two pass breakups.
Nick Coleman: 16 tackles with one interception and four pass breakups.
Nicco Fertitta: 12 tackles.
Vaughn: 11 tackles.
Studstill: Four tackles.
Moala: One tackle.

2018 departures:
Love, Coleman and Fertitta. Those latter two came by way of running out of eligibility while Love heads to the NFL a likely second-round pick after setting records at Notre Dame and reaching consensus first-team All-American status.

There could be another name or two on the way out following the spring as the depth chart sorts itself out a bit. Such speculation depends on how those position competitions progress.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Kyle Hamilton
Notre Dame gets the letter: Litchfield Ajavon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Isaiah Rutherford
Notre Dame gets the letter: KJ Wallace

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