The 2010 Irish began the fall with four scholarship safeties following the temporary loss of incoming freshman Chris Badger to a religious mission in Ecuador. But those ranks thinned immediately when backup Dan McCarthy suffered a camp hamstring injury and starter Jamoris Slaughter was lost to an ankle injury vs. Purdue.
Fast forward one year and Hardy now joins a deeper, reinforced safety group, with the aforementioned quartet back to battle for playing time, and converted wide receiver Austin Collinsworth in the fray.
Safety Depth ChartThe number in parenthesis denotes the player's remaining years of eligibility:
1st Unit: Smith is the only sure starter, though it's a safe bet both Slaughter and Motta will start opposite the team captain at various points during the season, with the other earning significant playing time.
5th-year senior Harrison Smith (1): Second on the defense with 820 snaps while leading the squad in interceptions (7), passes defended (14) and ranking second in tackles (93).
Senior Jamoris Slaughter (2): Amassed 292 snaps in intermittent duty. Slaughter battled an ankle sprain and subsequent foot injury through the season's Week 10 Bye. He appeared to exit spring slightly behind junior Zeke Motta, but I believe he'll either win the role for 2011 or simply participate in more snaps than his competitor.
Junior Zeke Motta (2): 553 snaps helped stabilize a unit that had only walk-on Chris Salvi available for backup duty during much of September and part of October. Motta had been slated for a dime linebacker role exiting August camp (the "Buck Linebacker") and adapted well to a taxing, full-time secondary role.
2nd Unit: It's wide open behind the veteran trio discussed above, though McCarthy appeared to be on the verge prior to a pair of injuries last fall.
Senior Dan McCarthy (2): Just 22 snaps thanks to a pre-season hamstring and in-season shoulder injury. (Click here for McCarthy's pre-camp assessment.)
Sophomore Austin Collinsworth (3): Starred on the team's coverage units, recording seven tackles and forcing a fumble that led to a touchdown vs. Utah in early November (one of a mere nine fumbles forced by the 2010 Irish). Harrison Smith lauded the converted wide receiver for his easily assimilation to the position in Spring Practice.
Freshman Eilar Hardy: The most natural safety of the four-man defensive back haul, especially with the bigger Mathias Farley set to receive his initial evaluation at wide receiver. Hardy told IrishEyes he'd begin at safety but cornerback remains a possibility.
Freshmen Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown are expected to debut at cornerback, affording the Irish six competitors; three-deep depth at the position.
Hardy's Potential DebutSimilar to the vast majority of still-growing defensive backs that preceded him, look for Hardy make his field debut as a member of the Irish coverage units. Notre Dame's punt coverage group was one poor open field tackle (and a heck of a stutter-step by Tulsa return man Damaris Johnson) away from a perfect coverage season. It's kick return group was among the nation's best as well, making more big plays than it allowed in the process – the unit's starting spots are at a premium.
Returning from the coverage groups are mainstays Collinsworth, Slaughter, Bennett Jackson (Notre Dame's ST Player of the Year), Steve Filer (its leading tackler in consecutive seasons), Chris Salvi, and Dan Fox; with regulars Lo Wood, Robert Blanton, and likely, Dan McCarthy and Anthony McDonald, back in the mix following their return from injuries.
Competition among the three freshman defensive backs and WR/DB/Athlete Farley will be fierce in camp. Look for both Hardy and Farley to win jobs on one of the coverage teams (with Farley also a return candidate).
Forecast: A first-year monogram for Hardy thanks to special teams duty, but a healthy quartet at safety and the continued improvement of Collinsworth will likely prevent meaningful scrimmage snaps for the true freshman.