We've finally arrived to our last position group of the preseason, culminating in a thorough look at the Irish secondary.
If you've missed any of the other units click on the names below.
*Denotes fifth year eligibility
Gary Gray, Corner, Fifth Year Senior
Robert Blanton, Corner, Senior
Lo Wood, Corner, Sophomore
Bennett Jackson, Corner, Sophomore
Eilar Hardy, Corner, Freshman
Jalen Brown, Corner, Freshman
Josh Atkinson, Corner, Freshman
Harrison Smith, Safety, Fifth Year Senior
Jamoris Slaughter, Safety, Senior*
Dan McCarthy, Safety, Senior*
Zeke Motta, Safety, Junior
Austin Collinsworth, Safety, Sophomore
Matthias Farley, Safety, Freshman
Depth at Corner is Much Worse than at Safety
We’ve been going back and forth on this site in the comment section about how the depth chart looks across the board and where Notre Dame needs to recruit bodies to bolster certain positions.
I’ve made it known that although the situation at safety isn’t particularly cozy, the depth at corner is downright scary.
After 2011 there are ZERO corners with significant playing time as their minutes stand right now. At least with safety we’ll have Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter coming back. Sure the situation after 2012 doesn’t look great for safety right now, but having that extra year of two starters coming back in 2012 and easing in younger players for another 12 months is huge.
Think about that for a second. Either Lo Wood, Eilar Hardy, Jalen Brown or whomever is going to have to step up and be a starter just as Notre Dame begins the unholy 2012 schedule.
At safety, we’ll be able to start to veterans and bring along another veteran (McCarthy) and ease in three or four younger players.
Who Needs to Step Up?
There are a couple of candidates but the most important is whoever ends up being the third (and to a certain degree) fourth option at cornerback.
Lo Wood played some minutes in 2010 as a true freshman but didn’t make a mark, so no one is sure if he is the type of talent to become a starter. Behind him is Bennett Jackson as a position switch from receiver and three incoming freshmen, none of which will be in for spring.
So in a sense a collection of young players need to step up.
It will be nice if one of the young corners plays a lot in 2011 and gives the team something to build off of the following season, but if that can be two or even three players then there will be a lot more positive vibes heading into 2012.
The spring game will beneficial because only four scholarship corners will participate and we should get a really good look at Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson.
What Impact Will the Freshmen Make?
I’ll go out on a small limb and say that every single corner sees the field in some fashion during the 2011 season, with at least two seeing time in a non-special teams role.
The most ready to play is likely Eiler Hardy and he should be among the top two or three freshmen roster-wide to get minutes in 2011. Originally thought to be a safety with good size (a big 6’1" 175), the coaches have said Hardy will get a look at corner first (not a bad idea due to depth) and he could very well develop into a backup corner/nickel package type of player as an underclassmen.
Jalen Brown is probably less talented than Hardy in terms of skill, but he’s much more of a polished corner in comparison to Hardy being an outstanding secondary player in high school and kick returner/running back/jack-of-all-trades type of guy.
Brian Kelly really spoke highly of Brown and called him a steal out of Texas so I think he has a great shot at making his way into the rotation in the middle of the season or earlier.
Josh Atkinson is one of those corner/athletes that could bring a lot to the Irish on defense too. I still think he’s pretty raw as a corner fundamental wise, but he appears to be a big time gamer that will simply make plays no matter what. I think he’s the third option at corner among the freshmen heading into next year, but he should be a special teams player and bring something to the table in the form of punt blocks or even in the return game.
Matthias Farley is an interesting player because he’s probably the most raw of any freshman, but the coaches have already said he’s physical ready to play.
With four upperclassmen ready to fill out the two-deep at safety, I doubt Farley sees the field on defense, but he might be a special teams candidate. It’s not like Notre Dame has recruited a stud safety yet so developing someone like Farley should be a high priority this season.
What Will the Lineup Look Like?
There’s zero doubt that Gary Gray and Robert Blanton will be starting at corner.
In all likelihood, this is the top pairing the Irish have had in years in terms of athletic ability and playmaking. Gray went through some issues early in his career but he was Notre Dame’s best corner in 2010 and offers the best combination of shutting down a receiver and tackling ability.
Gray might be less popular than some other Irish defenders, but he could be the highest draft pick out of the players that leave after 2011. He’s just that good.
Robert Blanton made a big impact as freshman (33 tackles, 2 picks), didn’t really explode as a sophomore, and had a pretty good junior year. He doesn’t offer the complete package like Gray, but Blanton is very athletic and a great second option to have at corner.
The best thing about the combination of Gray and Blanton is that they are both very physical while also being among the best pass defenders the Irish have had in years. The front seven can be dominant, but the corners in Diaco’s system have a demanding task to be physical in the run game and play tight zone coverage in the passing game.
It’s tough to judge Lo Wood at this point because he didn’t play enough as a freshman and isn’t a corner with prototypical size, but he’ll be in the mix from day one. I’m excited to see him cover one of the Irish’s best receivers in the spring game because we’ll get a good look at his skills.
Bennett Jackson played great as a freshman but it remains seen how he’ll transfer over to defense.
Can he backpedal with speed?
Does he have the natural smarts to read coverage and defend receivers?
Behind those four players, I think the freshmen will be pushing for serious minutes. None of them have to start at this point but their development as football players likely starts the day they come to campus; I don’t see any redshirts here.
Mu gut tells me that Brown and Atkinson see minimal minutes on defense and contribute on special teams, while Hardy likely moves into the third option at corner behind Wood and Blanton.
Everyone was all over Harrison Smith during the 2009 season, as he was the most confused and misused player on defense, but he came through with a great performance in 2010. Suddenly, Smith has gone to a player without a home, to a much-talked-about safety with All-American skills.
Smith probably has a ways to go until he’s great, but he offers a combination of size and speed that is pretty rare. His success has always revolved around playing smart and the prospects are pretty exciting that he’s learned to become a good safety in such a short time.
Jamoris Slaughter started out 2010 as a starter at safety, but suffered an injury that lingered all season long and prevented him from ever reclaiming that spot.
Zeke Motta stepped in for Slaughter at safety last year as a true sophomore and really struggled in the early part of the season before finally settling down and playing well down the stretch.
It's hard to tell who is going to start opposite of Smith as Slaughter has the edge in being the starter to begin last year, but he doesn't have prototypical size. Motta meanwhile got a lot of experience last year and has the size the coaching staff wants at the safety position.
Because of his size and potential, I think Motta gets the starting nod.
Another thing to watch will be the nickel position. Whether it was due to Slaughter's injury last year and the lack of experienced secondary players, or if Diaco's defense prefers to keep as many linebackers on the field as possible, the nickelback wasn't used very much last year.
If he plays well in fall practice I like Hardy's chances to be this guy.
It remains to be seen if Dan McCarthy will ever be able to stay healthy, but he should head into camp as the number four option at safety. Austin Collinsworth is transitioning from offense, but played safety in high school and could challenge for a two-deep position right away.
Overall, this is a talented secondary but there just isn't a lot of depth or proven experience at either corner or safety. As long as there are no major injuries the team should be fine, but it will be a tough chore in 2011 to get some of these younger players experience without ruining the teams chances at victory.
Who are you most looking forward to playing in 2011?