When August 2010 camp concluded, those four scholarship bodies had been reduced to three, with promising junior Dan McCarthy felled by a hamstring (and later shoulder) injury.
The safety situation worsened when starter Jamoris Slaughter injured his ankle in the first half of the season-opener against Purdue. Suddenly Kelly and then defensive backs coach Chuck Martin had two scholarship safeties: Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta, with then walk-on Chris Salvi waiting in the wings (not coincidentally, Salvi recently earned a scholarship for his final year, 2012.)
Smith and Motta remained upright, a hobbled Slaughter later rejoined the fray, and Salvi was always at the ready. But two close losses (Michigan and Michigan State) were likely affected by Slaughter's absence/injury, and restocking depth at the position became a priority, one achieved over the last two recruiting cycles as the Irish secondary now has no fewer than 11 safety competitors/incoming players at its disposal…but maybe not for long.
The transfer of Scout.com 5-star cornerback and 2012 early enrollee Tee Shepard leaves Kerry Cooks' CB core with four competitors, none of which has started a college contest.
Juniors Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood – the former a wide receiver for the Irish in 2010 – enter spring as the assumed starters. Sophomores Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown (who was withheld from action last season) their backups. At some point this spring, and certainly next fall, someone will receive an evaluation at the position.
Below is a run-down of the candidates:
- Highly Unlikely: Zeke Motta, Chris Salvi, Chris Badger, and potential 5th-year safety returnee Dan McCarthy are not expected to compete at cornerback. If one of the quartet must, McCarthy would be the first emergency choice.
- Unlikely, but not illogical: Safety Jamoris Slaughter is the team's best defensive back…the former cornerback is also likely the team's best cover man, and though the Irish desperately need him to fill a hybrid S/OLB/Nickel role next fall, he could step in and start at cornerback with little resistance.
- Too Late Anyway: Incoming freshmen John Turner, Elijah Shumate, and Nick Baratti don't have the prototypical body types to play the position; each is better suited for safety/hybrid roles as manned in the past by Slaughter and Robert Blanton. Neither arrives in time to learn the position and compete as the No. 5 cornerback next September, to boot.
- Logical Evaluations – On campus: 2011 Safety Eilar Hardy missed last season with a torn ACL, an injury suffered last August. Knee injuries + rookie cornerbacks generally don't mix, but Hardy will likely see time at both CB and S as he returns to the fold this spring and improves his football conditioning this summer.
- Incoming safety prospect C.J. Prosise could receive an early look, if only to add depth and if he were likely to be withheld from game action as a safety in 2012. Prosise could earn a special teams starting role while earning valuable cornerback reps as a true freshman.
- Current junior Austin Collinsworth likely knows the defense well enough to play in a pinch, but his approach to the game and skill set seems (far) better served in a safety role as well. Redshirt-freshman wide receiver Matthias Farley was a highly touted safety prospect entering last season. He has the quickness, athleticism, and defensive acumen to challenge for a two-deep role. The question regarding Farley is how much does the staff covet those same skills with the ball in his hands as well?
- Finally, incoming freshman Davonte' Neal was ranked by Scout.com as a 5-star cornerback prospect. At 5'9" 175, Neal doesn't have the frame the staff covets at the position, and his feet and hands would be a valuable asset to the offense next fall…then again, beggars can't be choosers. When a 5-star player joins the fray, it's hard to ignore his talents when a dearth of talent and numbers exist at his potential position.
Notre Dame's staff has been forced to overcome low numbers at multiple two-deep positions over its first two seasons (QB, RB, WR, S immediately come to mind, with true depth along the OL and DL only recently forming).
Cornerback is not a place for the meek or untested – Cooks, Elliott, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, et al, have less than six months to find a reliable fifth competitor before the bullets go live.