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Fri-YAY Listicle: Notre Dame Football’s Most Successful Position Switches of the 21st Century

What “depth chart engineering” moves executed by Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, Chuck Weis, and Brian Kelly paid off?

Arnaz Battle #3 Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Welcome, everyone, to the weekly One Foot Down listicle! Each week on Friday, Matt Greene and I will alternate providing for you all a listicle of the greatest/top/best Notre Dame Fighting Irish-related things we can think of. They might be more serious, but mostly they will probably be wacky (what else would you honestly expect from the two of us?). We are AMPED to provide these for you each week.

This week, we’re gonna dive into the wonderful world of “depth chart engineering” — when coaches switch players to new positions in a dual-effort to help that player reach their fullest potential and to help cover up holes in the depth chart caused by sub-par recruiting, transfers, injuries, etc.

Notre Dame football has done PLENTY of this over the years, and there are many success stories about which to reminisce. Before I dive into that, I wanna give a shout-out to some of the position switches that really didn’t move the needle at all — thanks for trying, Travis Thomas (RB to LB), Munir Prince (RB to CB), Chase Hounshell (DE to TE), Jafar Armstrong (WR to RB...sort of worked against Michigan, but injuries derailed this), Ovie Oghoufo (LB to DL), Darnell Ewell (DL to OL), and likely a lot more I can’t think of right now.

Also, I want to give a special shout-out to Gary Godsey and Jared Clark, who both managed to make the Tim Tebow-esque position switch from quarterback to tight end in the early 2000s for the Irish. Godsey actually came to ND as a tight end recruit, so his career took the classic TE-QB-TE route (and included quarterbacking the Irish to victory over a Drew Brees-led Purdue team in 2000).

Both guys ended up contributing nice little stat lines: they combined for 23 catches and 259 yards during the 2002 season, and Clark put up another 15 receptions for 142 yards in 2003. So, here’s to those guys having super normal Irish careers!

ND Football’s Successful Position Switches

Okay first, let me establish some guardrails here — I’m going to limit this to position switches in the 21st century. This is partially because I’m 30 years old and that’s as far back as my Notre Dame football fan memory goes, and partially because a lot of players back in the day played on both sides of the ball and/or played like 10 different positions — I’m looking at you, Johnny Lattner.

So, with that said, let’s take a look at the most notable player position switches that ended up working out for Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, Charlie Weis, and most especially Brian “King of Depth Chart Engineering” Kelly.

Arnaz Battle: QB —> WR

Arnaz Battle was a fantastic athlete, and originally came into Bob Davie’s program to mostly be an option QB. Heading into his junior season in 2000, he was the named starter following Jarious Jackson’s graduation, and led the Irish to a season-opening win over #25 Texas A&M, passing for 133 yards and 2 TDs while also running for 50 yards himself.

In game 2, he ran for 107 yards in the Irish’s close-but-no-cigar effort to knock off #1 Nebraska in overtime, but broke his wrist in the process (leading to Gary Godsey’s glorious start against Purdue). Matt LoVecchio would eventually take over the starting role and never look back (until Carlyle Holiday came into the picture).

With LoVecchio now the starter, Battle was moved in 2001 to wide receiver so that the team could still use his speed and athleticism. He made next to no impact that season (Bob Davie’s last one before being fired), catching just 5 passes for 40 yards.

In 2002, with Carlyle Holiday at QB and Tyrone “Return to Glory” Willingham at the helm of the team, Battle exploded in terms of production. He caught 58 passes for 786 yards and 5 touchdowns, and on a team very much led by the defense, he accounted for 35% of the receiving yards, 34% of the receptions, and 45% of the receiving touchdowns out of nowhere and just two seasons removed from starting at QB against the #1 Cornhuskers. And a couple of his TDs that season were...memorable.

Battle went on to play NINE years in the NFL at wide receiver, mostly with the San Francisco 49ers. He finished his professional career with 178 catches for 2,150 yards and 11 touchdowns, and also had 2 rushes for 77 yards and a touchdown, as well as nearly 900 combined punt and kick return yards and 1 punt return touchdown.

Courtney Watson: RB —> LB

Courtney Watson was a running back in high school, and was really recruited as such (although maybe with other possibilities in mind) when Bob Davie brought him into the program in 1999.

He was almost immediately switched to linebacker, a position he began to learn while redshirting his freshman year and while playing primarily on special teams as a sophomore. He was starting at linebacker by his junior season, and then as a senior he kicked it up a notch, serving as the leader of the defense at middle linebacker and earning All-American honors and being named a Butkus Award finalist while leading the team in tackles (90) and finishing tied for 2nd in INTs and tackles-for-loss.

Pittsburgh v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

He followed that up with another really good individual season in his 5th year in 2003, totaling 117 tackles and 15 TFL before being drafted in the 2nd round by the New Orleans Saints, with whom he played for 2 years before bouncing around on the off-season/practice squad rosters of the Bills and Texans and then ultimately retiring from football.

Shane Walton: Soccer Player —> CB

Most of you probably know the story here, but it’s still pretty awesome. Also, this position switch technically happened in 1999 for Walton, but I’m going to include it because it really didn’t come to fruition until the 2000s, and also because Shane Walton rules.

Walton began his time at Notre Dame as a soccer player, earning Big East Freshman of the Year honors (and 2nd Team All-Big East) thanks to a rookie season that saw him lead the Irish in scoring.

However, he decided to walk on to the football team in 1999, and by 2000 had earned himself a starting spot at cornerback. He had 2 interceptions in his first season (one vs. #1 Nebraska, and one being a 60-yard INT return TD vs. Purdue) to go along with 40 tackles, and as a senior in 2001 he added another 2 picks to his resume.

Then, as a 5th-year senior in 2002, Walton had one of the best years a Notre Dame defensive back has ever put together. He was a UNANIMOUS All-American and one of the leaders of that ridiculously good ND defense, picking off SEVEN passes (including 3 in the season opener against Maryland), two of which he returned for touchdowns.

He formed one of the best Irish secondaries in recent memory along with Vontez Duff, Gerome Sapp, and Glenn Earl, and was constantly making big plays in big games, including a game-sealing pass breakup against Michigan.

Walton would go on to be drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the 5th round and play a single season in the NFL before moving on to other things, but he will always be considered one of the best lockdown cornerbacks in Notre Dame history (and also a really good soccer player).

Carlyle Holiday: QB —> WR/PR

Carlyle Holiday passes

Carlyle Holiday ended up having a similar position switch as one of his favorite targets, Arnaz Battle — but wasn’t nearly as wildly successful in making the change. Holiday came to the Irish as the best dual-threat QB recruit in the country, and after redshirting as a freshman in 2000, took over the starting job from Matt LoVecchio in 2001 and started 24 games at QB for the Irish, including manning the position in 2002’s 10-3 season that ended with a Gator Bowl berth vs. Philip Rivers and NC State. During that stretch, he broke or tied numerous records of the time (all broken since), including 100-yard rushing games in one season by a QB, most completions without an INT, and TD passes in one game.

After a rough start to his senior year of 2003, true freshman Brady Quinn overtook the starting job (and obviously never gave it back). Holiday decided to stick around for his final year of eligibility, though, and converted to WR.

It didn’t pay off super well offensively (3 catches, 25 yards), but Holiday’s move also meant he started returning punts, and he was decently successful there. His athleticism and versatility enabled him to have a cup of coffee in the NFL, playing for the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers during his 3-year pro career. In that time he caught 9 passes for 126 yards, none being more historic than the one he caught from Brett Favre that broke Dan Marino’s career completions record (Favre’s record has since been broken by Drew Brees).

Chinedum Ndukwe: WR —> S

It’s likely that most of you know the story of Chinedum Ndukwe’s recruitment to Notre Dame, considering it’s a well-known story that Tyrone Willingham, in recruiting the WR prospect Ndukwe, was urged by the Ndukwes to also take a look at Chinedum’s high school QB, some kid named Brady Quinn.

Obviously both players ended up signing with the Irish, but a lot of people probably forget that Ndukwe originally was a receiver for the Irish. He even played in 12 games as a freshman, catching 3 passes for 14 yards. He didn’t see the field in 2004 as he converted to safety, but then went on to have a really strong career at the back end of the only defenses remotely worth a damn (2005 and 2006) in Charlie Weis’s tenure.

As a junior he had 52 tackles (2.5 TFL) and 2 INTs, and then as a senior was 2nd on the team in tackles with 98 (3 TFL) to go along with 2 more picks and 1 sack. Oh, and he also did this to a guy who would later be nicknamed “Megatron”:

Ndukwe was drafted in the 7th round by the Cincinnati Bengals, but unlike most 7th rounders, saw immediate playing time as a rookie due to injuries to other players, playing in 14 games and starting 2. He finished his rookie year with 45 tackles, 6 passes defended, 3 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery.

He’d go on to have 4 more pretty productive years in the league for the Bengals and Raiders, finishing his career with 260 tackles (11 TFL), 19 passes defended, 7 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumbles recovered (2 for TD), 7.5 sacks, and 18 QB hits.

Harrison Smith: S —> LB —> S

I won’t spend too much time on this one, because we all know what happened. Smith came to ND as an athletic safety prospect (although some recruiting services just called him an “ATH”), and then got moved to linebacker immediately for his first season of play as a redshirt freshman in 2008.

USC v Notre Dame

He performed pretty well there, as well as in moving back and forth between linebacker and safety during his final season under Charlie Weis in 2009, but it wasn’t until he was moved to safety permanently for the 2010 and 2011 seasons that he became the player who would eventually be a 1st round pick and the highest-paid and highest-rated safety in the NFL.

  • 2008 and 2009 while playing at least part-time at linebacker: 126 tackles, 11 passes defended, 0 INT, 1 FF
  • 2010 and 2011 as a full-time safety: 183 tackles, 17 passes defended, 7 INT, 1 FF

That full-time switch paid off, of course, considering Smith has amassed 747 tackles, 39 TFL, 28 INT, 66 PD, 7 FF, 8 FR, 13.5 sacks, and 4 TDs in his 9 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, earning more than $53 million to-date with plenty more on the way.

Not. Too. Shabby.

Bennett Jackson: WR —> CB

Bennett Jackson was kind of an afterthought as a recruit when he signed with ND in 2010. He was a 3-star WR prospect from New Jersey, ranked as the #523rd player and #74 receiver in his class. However, he was a pretty darn good athlete, which got him on the field as a freshman both on special teams and in returning kickoffs.

By 2011, the coaching staff felt he was better off helping provide depth in the secondary, and so he played sparingly as a sophomore on that side of the ball. Then, in 2012, Jackson’s athleticism and a year developing in the position paid off, and he earned a starting role at cornerback that he would not give up for the remainder of his Irish career.

Notre Dame v Stanford

In that 2012 undefeated regular season, Jackson reeled in 4 interceptions and accumulated 65 tackles as part of Big Game Bob Diaco’s top-5 defense, and he followed that performance up with 64 tackles, 2 INT (1 returned for a TD), and a sack as a senior.

After being drafted by the New York Giants in the 6th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Jackson’s had a really unique run in the NFL. He’s been cut/released, torn his ACL, been signed to various practice squads, moved to safety, etc., but is somehow still in the league, having finally seen regular season playing time for the first time in 2019, and having just signed a new deal with the New York Jets in April.

Theo Riddick: RB —> WR —> RB

Theo Riddick is one of my favorite — if not my absolute favorite — Notre Dame players of all-time. His unique and versatile skill set allowed him to be used differently seemingly every season of his ND career, but it ended up preparing him perfectly to be the ideal 3rd down running back in the modern NFL, despite lacking the exceptional speed or size that generally comes with being an NFL running back.

Theo began his career at ND as a running back in 2009, but mostly just returned kicks that season, running for 160 yards and catching 6 passes for 43 more through the air. With the arrival of Brian Kelly as head coach, though, he and his staff saw something in Riddick and decided they needed him at wideout.

Despite not having home run speed, Riddick thrived in the role, catching 78 passes for 850 yards and 6 touchdowns in his sophomore and junior seasons, including what SHOULD have been the game-winning TD in 2011 against Michigan (AHHHH GARY GRAY).

Trigger Warning: do not watch this video past the intended highlight of Theo catching that touchdown. Please. Don’t do that to yourself.

With Cierre Wood getting in a little trouble before the 2012 season and the Irish needing a strong running game to help bring along redshirt freshman QB Everett Golson, Kelly moved Riddick back to running back for his senior year — and he absolutely crushed it. Riddick used his shiftiness, strength, and vision to run for 917 yards and 5 touchdowns (while also adding 36 catches for 370 yards and 2 more TDs) to help drive the offense through an undefeated regular season and into a BCS National Championship appearance.

Despite all that, I think most people would have assumed Riddick’s career would mostly end there — he just didn’t have many of the measurables that NFL teams look for at the position. However, Riddick found a way to use his versatility to build a niche role in the league for the last 8+ years as one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL, helping set the standard for what skillsets NFL scouts look for now in running backs. He’s run the ball a little bit in his time with the Lions and Raiders (1,037 yards and 5 TDs), but his receiving numbers are sensational for a back: 290 receptions, 2,281 yards, 14 touchdowns.

Theo Riddick has as much of a claim as anyone on this list to being the person who most benefitted from switching positions in college, if only because there’s no way he’d carve out a career like that if he hadn’t spent time both running the ball and playing receiver.

KeiVarae Russell: RB —> CB

Notre Dame v Temple Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Russell came in as a running back prospect from Washington who was immediately asked to switch to cornerback due to senior Lo Wood tearing his ACL, meaning there was no starter opposite Bennett Jackson for the 2012 season. Russell’s athleticism and speed and swagger all helped him pick up on the job fast, and led to him being a Freshman All-American and a moderate standout on a defense full of absolute standouts, finishing that season with 58 tackles and 2 interceptions.

Russell began to develop into one of the better corners in the country as a sophomore (51 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD), but then got derailed a bit as part of his academic suspension in 2014 as part of that larger scandal. However, he earned his way back into the school and onto the team, and managed to have a nice senior year in 2015 to the tune of 60 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PD, and 2 FF.

That would be good enough to set himself up for a 3rd round selection by the Kansas City Chiefs, for whom he never actually played, being waived by the team prior to the beginning of his rookie season. Instead, he signed with and played for the Bengals for 3 years before bouncing around a couple of teams’ practice squads and then landing in Green Bay for 2020. He has since been released and is currently a free agent.

Matthias Farley: WR —> DB

In a similar situation as Bennett Jackson, Matthias Farley was an unheralded receiver recruit who was quickly converted to defensive back, and as a redshirt freshman in 2012, was suddenly thrust into a starting role when Jamoris Slaughter went down with a season-ending injury. Farley was fantastic in Slaughter’s stead, making 49 tackles and being a solid back-end piece of the defense next to Zeke Motta, even returning an interception 49 yards against Stanford on College Gameday.

Over the next three seasons, Farley would play all over in the defensive backfield, and despite some injuries and occasional missed opportunities, he managed to have a really nice career for the Irish: 192 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 8 INT, 5 PD, 1 FF.

Stanford v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Furthermore, Farley seemed similar to Riddick in terms of not seeming to project well to the next level. However, his versatility in the defensive backfield combined with his smarts and his knack for making big plays actually enabled him to build out a really nice NFL career over the past 5 years with the Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets, ranging from being a reserve DB and special teams star, to starting at safety for the Colts for the vast majority of 2017 (98 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR that season).

Hats off to Matthias for going from a 3-star WR to a 5+ year NFL DB — dude took advantage of a great piece of depth chart engineering.

Troy Niklas: LB —> TE

Troy Niklas is one near and dear to my heart, as I lived in Stanford Hall with him and he’s an awesome guy who, again, really benefitted from his position switch. Troy came to the Irish as a huge, hulking prospect who was originally slotted to play linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme.

However, after not playing much there as a freshman in 2011, Kelly and co. decided this huge, strong athlete with soft hands could be better-suited to develop into another really good Notre Dame tight end. And so, Niklas made the switch for 2012.

With Tyler Eifert dominating the position, Niklas’s statistical contribution was minimal with 5 catches for 75 yards and 1 TD. However, he found other ways to inspire his team and school that season...

Once Eifert moved on to the NFL and Niklas could step in as the go-to tight end, he flourished in 2013 to the tune of 32 catches, 498 yards, and 5 touchdowns. That plus his measurables were enough for NFL scouts — Niklas was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2nd round of the 2014 Draft, which is crazy considering just two years earlier he was a linebacker.

Troy unfortunately had some injury issues that limited his playing time, and thus his career professional numbers finished at only 19 receptions for 203 yards and 3 TDs. However, he managed a nice short career in the pros and is considered part of the incredible run of ND tight ends over the last 20+ years, so the switch certainly wasn’t a bad thing overall.

James Onwualu: WR —> LB

James Onwualu began as a wideout on the Irish roster, catching 2 passes for 34 yards as a freshman in 2013. As a strong, athletic, compact guy who showed some good tackling ability on special teams, the Irish coaching staff decided he should be moved to linebacker — definitely one of the less common landing spots for wide receivers going through a position switch.

Onwualu did very well with the switch, though, and by the time he was a senior he was starting at linebacker and racking up 77 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 passes defended, and 3 forced fumbles, He did a little bit of everything for a ROUGH defense that saw its coordinator fired mid-season, and proved to be a good enough athlete that the San Diego Chargers signed him as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2017.

James has managed to hang around the league since then, spending time with the Chargers, 49ers, Jaguars, Panthers, and now Raiders, with 10 tackles and 1 forced fumble to his name to-date.

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Georgia Tech at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Amir Carlisle: RB —> WR

Back during his original high school recruitment, Amir Carlisle was a blue-chip running back prospect who chose the USC Trojans over Notre Dame. However, when he decided to transfer and chose the Irish as his landing spot, he didn’t see a ton of time at the running back position in his first eligible season (47 carries, 204 yards) due to other guys on the depth chart whom Brian Kelly and co. trusted more (Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson III).

So, knowing Carlisle was a talented athlete, the staff converted him to WR to get him onto the field and involved in the offense, and it certainly paid dividends for his productivity. Carlisle caught 54 passes for 660 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final two seasons with the Irish, giving Everett Golson and DeShone Kizer a reliable, veteran target with decent speed and shiftiness.

C.J. Prosise: S —> WR —> RB

Most of the position switches in this list involve two positions, so I love thinking about C.J. Prosise’s journey with the Irish and how it took him to 3 different roles that cover both sides of the ball. He was recruited as a safety in the 2012 class, considering he had good speed and size to both stay with receivers and really lay the lumber. However, before he’d even seen the field, the staff decided his speed could better be utilized on offense, and he was shifted to receiver for his first two years of actual game action in 2013 and 2014.

2014 was when his production really took off, as Everett Golson’s return from suspension gave him the QB arm he needed to run lots of go-routes. Prosise hauled in 29 passes for 516 yards and 2 TDs that season, and also contributed a little on the ground — particularly a long touchdown run against LSU in the Music City Bowl.

That speed and running ability on display helped lead the staff to cross-train him at running back, and when junior Tarean Folston went down in the 2015 season opener with a torn ACL, Prosise was tapped to carry most of the load despite having been a safety and wide receiver for the entirety of his ND career to that point.

Prosise didn’t flinch at all and proved to be an EXCEPTIONAL running back, amassing 1,029 yards on 6.6 yards per carry and scoring 11 touchdowns, all while also catching 26 passes for 308 yards and a TD to help drive the comeback against Clemson in that monsoon (that ultimately fell short on a failed 2-point conversion).

That senior year was strong enough for Prosise to be selected in the 3rd round by the Seattle Seahawks, and early on it looked like he was going to be a big-time pick for them.

However, durability issues plagued Prosise ever since he got to the NFL, and so he struggled to stay reliably healthy, bouncing from the Seahawks to the Texans and now to the Buccaneers. Hopefully he can catch some good luck and stay healthy, as he’s got the speed and playmaking ability to really be a nice skill guy for a good offense.

Drue Tranquill: S —> LB

Not sure if you guys have heard of Drue Tranquill, but he essentially did the opposite of Harrison Smith. He played safety for the Irish for his first 3 seasons, showing some nice flashes and playmaking ability in between torn ACLs.

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 06 Michigan at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

However, it wasn’t until he moved to linebacker for Mike Elko and Clark Lea in 2017 that he really began to shine as the leader of the Irish defenses that season and in 2018’s CFP year. He accumulated 171 tackles, 19.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, and 4 FR during that time, and managed to get drafted in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers.

Tranquill started out on special teams for the Chargers and immediately proved to be a standout there, earning time on defense (including 3 starts) and finishing the season with 75 tackles (4 TFL) and 1 pass defended.

He played well enough to enter 2020 as a starter for the San Diego defense. Unfortunately, Tranquill once again suffered a season-ending injury, breaking his ankle in Week 1. Still, the future for Tranquill appears bright with the Chargers — especially if he still has this attitude after any setbacks he suffers:

Avery Davis: QB —> RB —> CB —> WR

This one is wild, as you all certainly know. Avery Davis was a top-250, dual-threat QB prospect when he signed with the Irish back in 2017. However, with Brandon Wimbush, Ian Book, and then 2018’s Phil Jurkovec set to handle the QB position, Davis was moved to running back as a sophomore to provide some depth behind Dexter Williams and Jafar Armstrong. He played in 9 games providing depth at that position, with 70 yards on the ground and another 30 yards receiving on 5 catches.

As a junior, the talented athlete was once again shifted to try to help with depth concerns, this time to cornerback. However, he would finish the season having been shifted once again to receiver, where he caught 10 passes for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns.

That set up Davis to start in the slot in 2020, and BOY were Irish fans thankful that’s where he’s landed after that whole QB/RB/CB experiment. Davis reeled in 24 passes for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns last year, including a 4-catch, 78-yard, 1-TD performance in the Irish’s November upset of #1 Clemson.

Davis’s 53-yard catch in the final minute and then touchdown catch with 22 seconds left in regulation helped the Irish tie it up, send it to overtime, and ultimately score the biggest win of Brian Kelly’s coaching tenure, Trevor Lawrence’s absence factored-in or not.

Davis will be back in 2021 and it’s assumed he’ll start once again and serve as a reliable, veteran playmaker for Jack Coan to work with in his one-year stint in South Bend.

Which of the Below Will We Be Adding to the List Next???

Well folks, that’s gonna do it — my one final thought is that there are a handful of guys on the current roster who could possibly be added to this list sometime soon — I’d love for you all to chime-in in the comments and tell me who you think will be considered the next great depth chart engineering move by Brian Kelly and co., as well as if you think I missed any big ones who should have been included in the list above.

Here are just a few potential future options:

  • Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa: DT —> DE
  • Cam Hart: WR —> CB
  • Joe Wilkins Jr.: CB —> WR
  • Houston Griffith: CB —> S
  • Paul Moala: S —> LB
  • Hunter Spears: DL —> OL
  • Kyle Hamilton: S —> WR (DO IT FOR GREG)

BONUS Position Switches: What Could Have Been

I always like to remind you guys of what could have been, had Brian Kelly and co. decided they needed some more beef under center and out wide. Sigh...

  • Louis Nix III: NT —> QB
  • Ronnie Stanley: OT —> WR