Notre Dame hasn’t played a game since Thanksgiving weekend, but that hasn’t stopped the Irish from adding more injuries to the lengthy 2015 injury report. On Tuesday, Brian Kelly alerted the media that Devin Butler broke his foot in practice and will miss the 2016 Fiesta Bowl versus Ohio State on Friday.
Butler was set to make just his second career start on Friday after stepping into the lineup for Keivarae Ruseell following his injury against Boston College in Fenway in November. Butler had some ups and downs in his lone start but with a full month to prepare he would have given Notre Dame a solid starting corner opposite Cole Luke against the Buckeyes. Instead, sophomore Nick Watkins is now set to make the first start of his career.
Butler was not the only starting secondary member lost for the Fiesta Bowl on Tuesday. Kelly also announced that starting safety Max Redfield was sent home for violating team rules and would not be available for the bowl game.
With Redfield and now Butler missing for the Fiesta, Notre Dame faces a serious depth problem in the secondary. At this point, it’s probably easier to look at who IS available rather than whose not. As now, this is who the Irish have.
- Corner: Cole Luke, Nick Watkins, Nick Coleman, Conor Cavalaris, Torii Hunter
- Safety: Elijah Shumate, Matthias Farley, Nick Baratti, John Turner, Nicco Fertitta
Now, Notre Dame could remove the redshirts from corner Ashton White or safety Mykelti Williams but at this point it would be a shame for either to lose a year of eligibility. Avery Sebastian could also potentially be used but that would remove the possibility of the graduate transfer receiving a medical redshirt and 6th year of eligibility. Using any of the three will likely be avoided at all costs.
What most likely will happen now is Watkins and Luke on the outside with Hunter or Coleman in the slot and Farley and Shumate manning the safety positions. Baratti will likely see some time, but in the brief playing time he received against Temple, the rust he’s built from not playing much over the last few years because of injuries was very evident. Hunter has played briefly at slot – most noteably against Pitt when Redfield was suspended for the first half. Should he play a larger role on defense, it’s possible that we see a little bit of CJ Sanders at the slot behind Amir Carlisle.
While Ohio State is at its best when running the ball, the Buckeyes will be very tempted to alter their own game plans to attack the wounded and undermanned Notre Dame secondary. Notre Dame will benefit from the return of Jarron Jones at nose tackle although his snap count is still very much in question and the Irish will be much more capable of slowing down the Buckeyes on the ground. Through the air, Notre Dame is now even more vulnerable than they were before.
How much the losses of Redfield and Butler alter Brian VanGorder’s game plan will be very interesting to see. VanGorder loves to blitz, but given the relative lack of success his blitzes had in 2015, you have to wonder if he and Kelly will instead play it more safe and try to prevent big plays by playing more zone and giving the inexperienced secondary more help. At the same time one could argue that not blitzing could only expose them more by forcing them to cover for a longer time period. If there was ever a game Notre Dame needs its front four to generate a pass rush, it’s this one.