The final installment of our preseason Better Or Worse series is a look at the last line of the Notre Dame defense. Things were rough on the back end in 2016, and it started long before the season started. Projected starting safety Max Redfield and reserve cornerback Devin Butler were booted from the team in the preseason and possible starting corner Nick Watkins broke his arm in offseason workouts that ended up costing him his season. Couple that with the fact starting corner Shaun Crawford tore his Achilles early in week 2 and things really started to tumble from there.
In all, five Notre Dame freshman played significant minutes in the secondary–three at corner, and two at safety. It’s popular to say it’s ok to to play freshman, as long it’s because of ability and not need. Well, last year was more the latter than the former, and the team suffered for it.
However, the good thing about trial by fire is at least you’ve been through the trials, and the lessons learned from the young secondary will be invaluable later in their careers. Plus, turns out there is some real talent back there. Let’s take a look at what the back end will look like in 2017.
Better: Overall Quality
Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford have returned from their injuries to go along with the three freshman who filled in for them last season. Of those three youngsters, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn have showed the most promise early in camp. That leaves Troy Pride as the 5th guy, and as far as 5th guys go, he’s a pretty good one. That gives Notre Dame five corners we can feel good about, and the only one I’d consider would bring a drop in play would be Pride. (For the record, I like Pride, it just seems it’s taking him a little longer to get the technique down. But, he’s one of, if not the, fastest players on the team. He’s got talent.)
If Notre Dame lost three corners from the depth chart like they did last season? Oh boy. They just don’t have the numbers. Nick Coleman, who played corner last year, could move back from his converted safety spot, but he’s now been training exclusively at another position for 8 months. He could do it, but that’s not what I’d call ideal.
Notre Dame struck out at corner recruiting in 2017, so they don’t even have a freshman body to just throw in there like the 2016 team did. It’s not a problem now, but if we see some long term injuries things are going to get a little tight around the collar for secondary coach Todd Lyght.
With Drue Tranquill playing all season at strong safety in 2016, the overall athleticism of the group took a dip. And true freshman Devin Studstill wasn’t where he needed to be physically to compete play after play from an athletic standpoint. Notre Dame has seen an upgrade in this area in 2017.
Tranquill has moved to a hybrid linebacker role where he doesn’t need to cover large areas of the field, and he’s been replaced by Jalen Elliott, and former corner Nick Coleman has moved over to free safety. Coleman had significant struggles at corner last season, but he is an athletic upgrade from Studstill and looked pretty comfortable at safety almost immediately upon moving.
Freshman Isaiah Robertson adds another athletic player, and ideal size, to the position in the event he is inserted into the game, along with his classmate Jordan Genmark Heath.
These are good athletes who can compete physically on a high level with anyone on the schedule. Now, do they know what they are doing?
I don’t really want to say they are worse, because this was a poor group last season. But, I can’t say they are better because I’m not sure that’s true. Coleman hasn’t played a single game snap at safety yet, and he’s probably going to start. Most reports from practice highlight the fact this group has trouble tackling. And to be clear, those came from the first day in pads, and anyone who has played football knows you don’t go months at a time playing in shorts and t-shirts then come out in pads day one and play like Jeff Burris, ok? That’s not how that works.
Another undetermined, that will have clarity next week according to Brian Kelly, is the availability of Navy safety transfer Alohi Gilman. The sophomore out of Hawaii started a number of games for the Middies last year, recording 76 tackles, including five for loss. He has applied to the NCAA for an immediate waiver to become eligible this season. He would bring depth and experience to the unit, but like his mates, has been unspectacular so far in camp.
Let’s be honest, this position is a concern. The good news is Mike Elko specializes at coaching safety and there is a story going around that he took a two star nobody at Wake Forest and turned him into a second team All-ACC safety. So there is reason for optimism. I would just prefer this was a little more certain than wishing upon a star for some Elko wizardry.
I like the corners. A lot. The safeties scare me, but there is at least potential there, where last season it was mostly just healthy bodies. Cornerback Julian Love provides some options at the back if needed, and Brian Kelly has already indicated he’ll play back there on third down.
Just looking at a starting lineup of Watkins, Love/Crawford, Coleman, and Elliott, that’s a pretty good group. It depends a lot on how good Coleman plays, but overall that unit is solid. At the very least they have the right guys playing in the right spots, which gives them a chance. My suspicion is the unit will be much better in October than they are in September. Those early games will be a little touch and go.
They are better, but the bar was low.