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Defensive BacksThe unit suffered a drop-off in production from 2010 to 2011 and the eyeball test didn't do the experienced backfield any favors last fall, either. Still, two of Irisheyes.com's 10 best players from the past season played defensive back and both players have exhausted eligibility.
Departing: 5th-year senior and team captain Harrison Smith; senior cornerback Robert Blanton; 5th-year senior cornerback Gary Gray. Smith and Blanton were both top 10 players for the program over the last two years – Gray was in 2010 before a precipitous drop-off in 2011.
Players Returning: This space could change significantly between today and National Signing Day. Regardless, the personnel in Irish secondary have been consistent since the opening kick of 2009 – new blood enters the equation for 2012.
- Senior Jamoris Slaughter – A lock to return for a fifth season as one of Notre Dame's 10 best players. For what it's worth, Slaughter "tweeted" that he'll be back. (That's one too many references to "tweeting" in this column). He'll start at safety and play plenty of Dog/Drop linebacker, a position at which he excelled at the tail end of 2011…
- Junior Zeke Motta – Played the best game of his career in the team's 18-14 loss to Florida State, scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery and breaking up a downfield pass to augment his effort vs. the run. Motta is not an ideal fit for Harrison Smith's deep safety role (Smith is a unique athlete) but the former's experience as a two-year starter and three-season field contributor will be invaluable on the back end as the Irish break in two new cornerbacks.
- Sophomore Austin Collinsworth – Named the squad's Special Teams Player of the Year for 2011, Collinsworth also appeared intermittently in the team's dime package as a sixth defensive back, usually aligned alongside field constant Manti Te'o at linebacker.
- Sophomore Bennett Jackson – Moved ahead of Lo Wood in the CB pecking order in mid-November, and saw rare rotation time vs. Stanford and FSU when the game was in doubt. A physical, fast player who's play inexplicably suffered in kick coverage this year after a standout (Special Teams Player of the Year) 2010 season as a true freshman.
- Sophomore Lo Wood – Did not play in either of the team's last two games. Of note: suffered the same fate last fall, not appearing in wins vs. USC or Miami. Scored a touchdown vs. Maryland on a 57-yard interception return just weeks prior to his benching.
- Freshman Josh Atkinson – Made his initial field appearance vs. Air Force (Game Six) and appeared in the next seven games as well, mostly in kickoff coverage.
Potentially Returning: Recent rumors indicate senior safety Dan McCarthy has been offered a 5th-season in the program. McCarthy has played sparingly from scrimmage due to injuries throughout his career. He became a special teams regular in 2011.
2010 safety recruit Chris Badger is expected to return from his religious mission to Ecuador to join the team in the summer. Badger would have four seasons of eligibility remaining beginning with 2012.
Incoming: Current freshman cornerback Jalen Brown spent the season on the Irish scout team. Brown was singled out by Kelly for improvement in a late-season meeting with the media and as a young player that competed with Michael Floyd every day for three months. Classmate Eilar Hardy missed 2011 with a torn ACL suffered in August camp. He'll return to compete at safety in 2012.
Verbal pledge Tee Shepard has announced he'll enroll at Notre Dame next week for the spring semester. Shepard immediately enters the fray at cornerback with a chance to start thanks to A.) his talent, and B.) a dearth of experience at the position.
"Big Skill" prospect Nick Baratti (6'2" 215-225 as of the latest report) will begin at either safety or linebacker (the guess as ND's beat writer is safety though Scout.com analysts project him as a middle linebacker). Look for Baratti to evolve into a role similar to that of Jamoris Slaughter at season's end 2011 – a hybrid safety/drop linebacker.
Recent pledge Elijah Shumate (6'1" 205, Scout.com 4 stars) could also play safety or outside ‘backer (or running back, though that's less likely). Shumate and Baratti are unlikely to be slotted at one position for their 4-5 years on campus as ideal "Big Skill" recruits (one of Kelly's favorite, versatile recruiting models as referenced here
Potential Position Switches: Not including incoming freshmen, none are scheduled, though I could see former wide receiver Austin Collinsworth moving back to compete at slot receiver, especially if Hardy is expected ready for August camp and Badger returns to the roster as scheduled. Freshman wide receiver Matthias Farley has the skill set to play safety as well, though the need is greater at wide receiver.
Hunch: Shepard and Jackson start the opener in Dublin on the corners with Slaughter at OLB (specific to Navy's option) and Motta and surprise 5th-year senior Dan McCarthy as the safeties. McCarthy would be the rotational starter if and when Slaughter's presence is needed at the drop linebacker spot.
Hunch, Part II: Former verbal pledge Ronald Darby signs his letter of intent for Brian Kelly and the Irish.
Projected Spring Depth ChartMost of the six position units previewed previously included educated guesses (at worst). Predicting the second and third unit defensive backs at this point is likely an exercise in futility…but below is my best guess at both sets Exiting spring ball:
First Unit: Bennett Jackson (Boundary CB) Tee Shepard (Field CB) Jamoris Slaughter (SS) Zeke Motta (FS)
Second Unit: Jalen Brown (Boundary CB) Josh Atkinson (Field CB) Dan McCarthy (SS) Austin Collinsworth (FS)
Reserves: Lo Wood (CB) Eilar Hardy (S-injured)
Note: Badger, Shumate, Baratti, Turner and Prosise aren't expected to join the group until the summer conditioning program begins in late June.
Next in our position previews – the Irish offensive line