Following the spring game we're entering the dark period of college football with very little to talk about. But we can't just take a 3 month vacation around here. That's not in our blood.
There is still the all-important fall camp coming up in August but I wanted to look at the 2013 Fighting Irish and ask one question for different parts of the team: Are we better or worse?
The first unit we'll take a look at is the secondary which had one of the more impressive seasons last year despite near panic within the fan base prior to 2012 beginning.
*Rankings are from 1 (poor) to 10 (great).
You might disagree with some of these rankings but there's one thing that can't be denied about the 2012 secondary---they performed way beyond expectations. Like way, way, way, beyond expectations. The coaching effort here by Cooks, Elliot, and Diaco might be the best we've seen for a position on either side of the ball in many years.
Obviously the rankings for 2012---especially the first 3---took a major hit because of injuries. Jamoris Slaughter brought a lot of experience and tons of versatility but was lost due to injury after 2.5 games. Lo Wood didn't have much experience but figured to start at corner and could have provided much needed depth. Austin Collinsworth was coming on strong during spring and was going to bring some quality depth before shoulder (and later back) surgery ended his season before it got started.
The core of major players basically came down to Motta, Jackson, Russell, Farley, with some help from Shumate at nickel and a little less from Baratti at safety. In case you were wondering that's 3 first time starters, 3 true freshmen, and 4 players stepping on the field for the first time in their career.
I originally had this group's Productivity score a little higher but then bumped it down for 4 reasons. First, 3 of their 8 interceptions were lovely gifts from Michigan. Second, that Alabama game. Third, the secondary was lucky not have faced Matt Barkley or Kevin Hogan on the schedule. Four, there were no pick sixes' or fumbles returned for scores.
No doubt it was a great season from the 2012 secondary---especially given the expectations---but these factors kept this group from breaking in to the elite stratosphere. I think that's fair. Still, in most ways this was an amazing season for them and it will be very difficult for the 2013 to match their output.
The aforementioned 8 interceptions is a solid number, 199.8 passing yards per game given up is very good, as is the 111.41 QB rating and just 11 touchdown receptions surrendered---the latter stat was 7 TD's through 12 games to go with 16-team interceptions...really phenomenal stuff.
Best of all is being ranked 2nd nationally in fewest 30 and 40+ yard plays given up from scrimmage and tied with 4 other teams in not giving up a single play of 60 yards or more. It will be very tough for the 2013 unit to pull off this type of big-play stopping ability again.
Hello improved rankings!!
I'm sure some are looking at these numbers and attributing it to typical spring optimism but the secondary is the one position on the team that has done a 180 from this time last year and is looking much stronger across the board.
Wood and Collinsworth return from injury to fill out the two-deep behind a trio of starters---one of which just finished a freshman All-American season and could be the best corner at Notre Dame in a decade. Losing Motta and his 77 tackles (to say nothing of his leadership) hurts but a pair of young safeties in Shumate and Baratti likely offer more playmaking ability and a higher ceiling athletically.
Moreover, there is now plenty of depth to work with whereas last year the defense literally refused to switch to dime coverage because the coaching staff didn't trust the additional DB that needed to come on the field. Now add in Jalen Brown, Josh Atkinson plus the aforementioned Wood, Baratti & Collinsworth and the secondary has viable options outside of the starters. This group might not wow anyone but they're all a year older and fighting for real playing time and not just names on a roster.
I haven't even mentioned Max Redfield who is the highest recruited Irish safety in roughly 45 years* and will likely push hard for serious minutes. Also, incoming freshman Cole Luke is polished enough to jump the likes of Atkinson & Brown at corner as well. There's just ridiculous depth in the secondary.
I expect a jump in productivity (especially with the pieces coming back at defensive line) from this unit in 2013 with a couple more interceptions and more big plays overall.
However, there's also the possibility that the secondary is more aggressive, opens itself up to some mistakes, and doesn't quite reach some of the defensive stats from a year ago. I'd also say the opponent quarterback crop this fall will be a little better as the 'Nard isn't chucking balls all over the place and Max Wittek, Kevin Hogan, Keenan Reynolds, and Andrew Maxwell are a year more mature---plus the addition of Arizona State's Taylor Kelly to the schedule.
The versatility ranking that could improve but we don't know how much someone like Redfield could be used like Shumate last year at the nickel position, or whether a certain linebacker from Fort Wayne is going to bring that versatility instead of someone from the defensive backfield.
Overall, this unit doesn't have the star power or dominance as a couple other areas on the team but there may not be a more healthy one. The Irish secondary should definitely be better in 2013.
*This isn't quite accurate.