Notre Dame Football Spring ’24 Position Breakdown: Safeties

Among their different defensive units, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s secondary, including the safety positions, is cause for the least concern. That feeling stems from the fact that the minimal losses sustained should be countered by the strong depth within this group. Of course, living up to that during the 2024 season isn’t guaranteed but offers a positive message during spring practice.


Prior to last season, Ramon Henderson was seen as a potential candidate to have a breakthrough season. While he had his moments, most notably a 41-yard scoring return of a Pittsburgh fumble, he managed to finish with a mere 14 tackles on the year. He ended up entering the portal after the regular season and has since moved on to UCLA.

After a lengthy career with the Irish, D.J. Brown’s tenure came to an end last year. Seeing five seasons of action, Brown averaged 46 tackles over the final three campaigns. After the 2021 season came to an end, the hope was that he’d build on his three interceptions that year but he only managed to snag one during his remaining time on the field.

The one-year Notre Dame career of Antonio Carter isn’t likely to be recalled in the years ahead, making his exit through the transfer portal a footnote. That same portal was how he arrived from Rhode Island last year and during his time on the field, he made just eight tackles, most in a reserve capacity. His one highlight was a fumble recovery in a rout of Tennessee State


Northwestern transfer Rod Heard comes with much more playing experience than Brown, though a good portion of that came as a cornerback for the Wildcats. Still, Marcus Freeman and his defensive staff believe that Heard can compete for the starting spot opposite last year’s standout Xavier Watts. At the very least, he figures to be used in nickel coverages, providing the Irish with another experienced defender when he arrives in the summer. While he officially transferred to Notre Dame, he is not enrolled for spring similarly to wide receiver Beau Collins.

One early enrollee who’s likely to get an oversized deal of attention as he begins his Notre Dame career. That’s because the father of Kennedy Urlacher happens to be Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher. The younger Urlacher has the potential to play at cornerback, though given the strong depth there, is a better candidate for a role in the safety unit.

A Look Back and Ahead

Watts, like Henderson, was considered a potential breakout star. Entered training camp as the starting strong safety, Watts went far beyond any positive comments about his potential and finished the 2023 season as the Bronko Nagurski Award winner, symbolizing the best defensive player in the country. That prestigious accolade came after a season in which he finished with 52 tackles, including three behind the line. Yet, his most noteworthy numbers zero in on his seven interceptions, including two each in consecutive wins over Southern Cal and Pitt. In addition, he returned a fumble for a score in that win over the Trojans.

Even though the presence of Watts won’t afford Ben Minich an ample amount of playing time, outside of garbage time, he gives Notre Dame another athletic player with the talent to thrive. He was an early enrollee last year, a period in which he broke his thumb. Avoiding another similar issue, especially during the regular season, would give the Irish a boost on special teams.

At free safety. Adon Shuler has been surging this spring and is the top candidate to nail down the position unless Heard delivers an impactful training camp. Shuler does have to make the transition from being almost exclusively a special teams candidate. One reason for his quiet 2023 campaign was that he underwent offseason shoulder surgery, with the Notre Dame coaches bringing him along slowly. Having gotten a taste of college action, Shuler is looking to use his speed to make an impact this year.

Backing up Shuler could be Heard or it might end up being Luke Talich, who played last season as a walk-on. His performance in eight games might have only resulted in two tackles but it was good enough for him to earn a scholarship earlier this month. That sort of determination and his athleticism will give the Irish protection behind Shuler as well as a potential start in the near future.

The Irish secondary was a beneficiary last year of the strong pass rush of the Notre Dame line and linebackers, with Watts’ remarkable performance the centerpiece of that effort. It’s probably too much to expect him to achieve such lofty levels again but another strong year will send him off to the NFL, so his motivation remains high. Most of the others will get their first major challenge in the spring before Heard’s veteran savviness is added to the roster at either safety or the nickel spot offering a bright spot for the year ahead.

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