Impressions: Safeties

Last year's skeleton group exits spring 2011 with five (relatively) healthy competitors...and help in the way.

Fate Intervenes

Harrison Smith was one unconscionable drop by USC wide receiver Ronald Johnson from ending the 2010 regular season as the fans' fall guy in Notre Dame's ninth straight loss to USC. Instead, with Smith trailing the play after slipping, Johnson dropped the would-be-game-winning score, the Irish hung on and snapped the Trojans streak (thanks to Smith's ensuing heroics) and the Knoxville, Catholic-product cemented his 2011 captaincy when he either broke up, or intercepted five of the next 12 passes thrown by opposing quarterbacks Mitch Mustain (USC), Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris (Miami)…

Smith did not intercept a pass in his first 29 games at the school; he's since thieved seven in his next (and most recent) nine contests; he's a lock for pre-season All-America mention during the summer magazine season (always my favorite time of year) and ranks as one of the most versatile backline players in recent program history (more on that in Smith's Pre-Camp Assessment this summer)…

It's fitting Smith will serve as the lone team captain entering August – he's the defense's "go-to" interview (refreshingly honest with a sense of humor) and a respected voice inside the locker room. In other words, he's the Dayne Crist of the defense, only Smith's starting spot is cemented in stone. (Off-topic: If Crist wins the starting job early or midway through August, look for the senior signal-caller to add "Co-Captain" to his duties alongside Smith.)...Smith's ascension from fan-base whipping-boy following 2010, to top tier safety at the conclusion of 2011, ranked as the feel-good story of the season:

"It's a testament to the coaches, because as a player you always think that you're capable of being one of the better guys out there," Smith said of his well-deserved captaincy nomination. "Up to that point, I just hadn't delivered. Being with Coach (Chuck) Martin, (Kerry) Cooks and (Bob) Diaco, the whole mindset of the team turned around. I focused on the little things and started to become a better player. It wasn't a huge big picture thing, just day-to-day doing things right and then the big things take care of themselves."

Jamoris Slaughter was my 2010 late-August selection as a breakout star for Chuck Martin's first secondary unit – but one severe ankle injury vs. Purdue (season-opener) and eight months later, that unfortunate high-sprain has him a half-step behind junior Zeke Motta for the starting role opposite Smith…Slaughter brings speed, toughness, and aggression to the position, but he was a shadow of his former self through the team's Week 10 Bye before showing signs of rebirth during the team's 4-0 finish…

Its probably irrelevant, but I'll offer it anyway: seven of the top 10 plays I've seen from Slaughter have been in practice/scrimmages – he needs more game experience to earn the staff's trust after Motta filled in admirably last fall…I think Motta's more of a hybrid: half-safety, half-linebacker (the latter in a different scheme), but thankfully, he's all hustle and competitive desire, traits that will serve him well entering his second season as a regular this fall – still, the Irish need more than his one turnover caused by an 8-game starter (13-game contributor) at the other safety spot…Motta, Slaughter, and cornerback Lo Wood will battle for the team's nickel defender role (two of three will play in passing situations alongside Smith and cornerbacks Robert Blanton/Gary Gray.

Earning a 5th

An August hamstring strain and subsequent shoulder injury destroyed Dan McCarthy's 2010 season – unfortunate in that the Irish operated with two healthy safeties from the second half of Game One through Game Nine and McCarthy could have earned valuable playing time in relief of both Motta and Smith…McCarthy's November 2007 neck injury in high school was the first in a string of career-altering injuries, and the presence of a red jersey over his pads during the 2011 Blue Gold Game indicates the summer months will be crucial, as the senior completes his rehab from off-season shoulder surgery…McCarthy displayed obvious disgust when forced to "tap" Blue team runners (rather than engage in tackling) during the spring scrimmage – the Irish could use his contributions next fall, both on special teams and as a safety pushing Motta/Slaughter for scrimmage time…

Of note: the elder McCarthy, Kyle, had just 4:27 of playing time entering his junior season, though he then broke through with a start and 12 games played while ranking third on the squad in special teams appearances. K-Mac broke out in 2008, his senior season, and thus earned a 5th year…D-Mac's a year behind that pace, but a strong special teams season and contributions from scrimmage would go a long way toward earning a crucial 5th year of competition for the younger McCarthy in 2012 – the Irish have 14 seniors eligible for a 5th-year: at present, McCarthy ranks no higher than ninth on that list, one that shrinks with every 2012 recruit signed.

Young blood Sophomore Austin Collinsworth is an enviable spot entering his second season: he's an established special teams contributor (and will remain on coverage and return teams next fall) that's one play away from two-deep duty, while learning a new position from a quartet of elders…Collinsworth was among my favorite 2010 recruits, and though I pegged him for safety as early as late September 2010, I felt he could have been a solid No. 4 WR by next fall (2012)…Unfortunately, the Irish have a plethora of No. 4 WR types, but that's a column for later this week…Collinsworth can help on the perimeter this year (good feet, great instincts, extremely coordinated, breaks down under control in space to deliver a blow) but he'd be a bit overmatched as a starting safety as a true sophomore – a thought that puts Zeke Motta's yeoman efforts of 2010 in perspective...Though I like Slaughter's potential more over the next two seasons, Motta deserves praise for holding down the fort in last year's defense…Spring 2012 will feature a potential seven-safety battle of Slaughter, Motta (the assumed starters with good luck/health), a 5th-year McCarthy and junior-to-be Collinsworth, the return of Chris Badger (2010 recruit/4 years of eligibility remaining), and incoming freshmen Eilar Hardy and Matthias Farley – at least one of the latter pair will make a serious push as the team's No. 3 safety one year from today.


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