The ineffectiveness of the Irish 2014 secondary, specifically the cornerback position, had less to do with talent and ability and more to do with lack of depth and experience. Heading into last season the secondary was supposed to be an area of strength for Notre Dame football, but as the season grew longer, the amount of able bodies grew shorter. When you combine the suspension of KeiVarae Russell along with numerous injuries of varying levels and lengths, the lack of production from the cornerback position during the 2014 campaign really came as no surprise.
That’s the bad news, the good news is that the suspension of Russell is over, and the injuries have healed. With that said, there are some specific battles taking place during spring practice that will hopefully give Irish fans a clearer picture of who will garner the majority of playing time beyond the starters of Russell and Luke, once opening kick-off against Texas arrives.
The Irish will finally have a few familiar faces to rely on as starters at the cornerback position, but who will they rely on as a third cornerback in specific formations, or in case of injury? There will be three legitimate contenders during spring practice 2015 that will try and help solidify the position. Here is a look at what Russell and Luke bring to the table, and the three most viable options that Brian VanGorder will hopefully have at his disposal to fill in, assuming there are no significant injuries again during spring practice.
Prime Time Players
KeiVarae Russell – There is no denying the talent that the senior from Everett, Washington brings with him. Starting all 26 games during his tenure at Notre Dame, Russell was named to the Freshman All-American team in 2012. He followed that with an equally impressive sophomore season, tallying 51 tackles, including 40 solo stops, one interception, and three pass break ups in 2013. When you combine his instincts and 40 yard dash time of 4.34. Russell is the type of defender that you could describe as a shut down corner, and the Irish secondary is significantly better with him in the mix.
Cole Luke – The Arizona native started in all 13 games in 2014, and if you watched closely you witnessed his growth and maturity as a player as the season progressed. Luke has a natural eye for the ball as he had 11 pass breakups and 15 pass passes defended during the 2014 campaign. The Irish will rely on Luke to play opposite of Russell for the majority of snaps, and that duo has the ability to be quite a dangerous combination for opponents in 2015. Luke doesn’t quite possess the natural speed that Russell does(4.5 40), but his size, quickness and awareness make up for it.
So we know, barring injury, that Russell and Luke will be the starters when it comes to the two primary cornerback positions, but the real battle during spring practice will be to see who the next man up is behind these two.
Battle For Playing Time
Nick Watkins – Although a sizeable quest to dethrone Russell or Luke for either of the two starting cornerback positions, one would be wise to keep an eye on the sophomore from Texas. He has the size, speed, quickness, and some describe his ability as more technically sound than that of both Luke and Russell. Measuring in at just under 6’1 and 190 lbs, Watkins has all the tangible measurements, and a lot of the intangibles that could see him garnering more playing time than most initially thought. If you’re looking for someone to focus on during the spring game, you could do a lot worse than focusing in on Watkins.
Matthias Farley – The graduate student from North Carolina will look to make the most of his final year in a Fighting Irish uniform. Tallying 49 tackles and two interceptions on 2014, Farley saw action in all 13 games, and looked solid for the majority of snaps. Farley struggles in man coverage and does better in zone, especially underneath where he can help support against the run. The converted safety looked best last year when he was playing outside-in and could use his natural instincts. His role in 2015 may be a bit diminished from last year, but make no mistake, if used properly, Farley can still help elevate play on the defensive side of the ball.
Devin Butler – While Butler saw extensive action in all 13 games during last season, he probably saw a bit more than he was ready for, due to injuries and lack of depth. That’s not to say Butler lacks in the skill set required to play the cornerback position at a major power. He doesn’t, but in a defense that requires a lot of press coverage, Butler needs to refine that aspect of his game. The spring practices and game are extremely important for the D.C. native, and he would do well to take all the advice he can from teammate Cole Luke who excels in press coverage. Although the Irish may not view Butler as a starter in 2015, they need him to be at his best because his number will be called. How often though?, well that depends on him.
I feel it’s safe to say the Irish are in good hands at the cornerback position for the 2015 season. Not only is there a lot of talent and depth, but now with former Irish great Todd Lyght in control of the secondary it would seem they are in better shape than ever, at least during the Brian Kelly era. As we previously mentioned, Russell and Luke are all but guaranteed to be the two starters, but there should be a fierce battle between Farley, Butler, and Watkins to see who is next in line, and one of the better storylines to pay attention to during spring practice. Based off of early returns, my guess would be Nick Watkins, but there is still a long way to go, and a lot of work to be put in until August gets here.