Safety in Numbers

Many starting jobs and key roles in both the offensive and defensive rotations remain to be claimed as the Irish prepare for the 83rd annual Blue Gold game, and more important, for the four months that follow before the team embarks for Ireland.

Position competition continues to define the Irish on both sides of scrimmage as the 2012 spring session reaches its apex. Saturday's Blue Gold game will pit the offense vs. the defense with a modified scoring system, and while the setup fosters natural competition (unit vs. unit), the reality is the team's best defensive players – along with a handful of proven offensive starters – won't see much playing time to end April.

Manti Te'o, Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta, Stephon Tuitt, and Kapron Lewis-Moore, along with a sprinkling of other defenders will, however, log major minutes next fall. It's the rest of Bob Diaco's crew that head coach Brian Kelly would like to see Saturday in the Stadium's setting.

"At the cornerback position it's still a battle between Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson out to the wide field," said Kelly in his wrap up press conference for the spring. "Bennett (Jackson) has done a nice job as our boundary corner, and (former RB) Cam McDaniel has had some nice practices. He's come along way in a very short period of time.

"Jalen Brown had two (good) back-to-back practices. He has a lot of talent; he just needs to continue to mature. He's long, he's athletic, he's been really impressive in man-to-man. We have to continue to work on his technique when we get into zone coverages."

(Notre Dame has played predominately zone coverage in the first two seasons of the Kelly/Diaco regime.)

Atkinson moved recently from the boundary side to field to challenge Wood. Brown then moved from field, where Wood had a sizeable advantage, to the boundary.

At safety, tiered playing time is likely set, with three upperclassmen holding a distinct advantage over redshirt-freshmen Matthias Farley and Eilar Hardy as well as 5th-year senior Dan McCarthy.

"I'm really pleased with the three-man rotation with Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke (Motta) and Austin (Collinsworth). At the safety position we can go play right now and feel really good about that."

Slaughter enters 2012 with 36 games played and 16 career starts. Motta has also played in 36 games, starting 14. The pair has split starting assignments for the bulk of the last two seasons next to mainstay and former captain, Harrison Smith. Collinsworth served as the No. 4 safety last season, playing mostly linebacker in the team's dime package (six defensive backs on the field).

Front Seven…minus one

The springtime loss of freshman All-America Aaron Lynch took a chunk of talent from what was the team's deepest position, defensive end. Now 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore and sophomore Stephon Tuitt will hold down the fort. Tuitt's classmate Chase Hounshell is the main backup at DE though he was hampered this spring while recovering from September shoulder surgery.

"On the defensive front, Stephon Tuitt has done a nice job in being in a very prominent role defensively for us. Kap Lewis. You guys know the guys up front. Nobody there should surprise that they've all had a really good spring.

"I think that if there are some guys that have shown themselves a little bit more, I think it's (first) been Ishaq Williams," said Kelly of the sophomore Cat linebacker. "Ishaq has really impressed me with his sense or urgency. I thought that last year there was a lot of thinking, now he is reacting. He's been a guy for me that has really caught my eye. I really like the way he's playing. And Jarrett Grace, at the Mike linebacker position. Those guys really have done a nice job for us in the spring."

Grace has impressed his head coach, defensive coordinator and position coach (Diaco) and the daily media throughout the past season. He is, however, slotted behind one of the nation's best in Te'o in the middle of the Irish defense. Could the redshirt-freshman move next to Te'o to compete at the Will linebacker spot?

"We think with (Dan) Fox and (Carlo) Calabrese, we have two guys there that we think that position is in great hands," said Kelly. "Could (Grace) play Will? Sure, he could. But we like the Wills that we have, and now (we're) developing Jarrett Grace for right now and in the future."

Said Kelly of Grace: "He's a smart football player. He knows the game very well. He's so focused. His football intelligence with his focus allows him to really progress quickly."

Potential on the Perimeter

Locked in a position battle at the vexing Dog (Drop) linebacker position is junior Danny Spond and redshirt-freshman Ben Councell. Spond's a former safety comfortable with the position's coverage duties; Councell a rangy athlete likely two years away from his best football after playing on the Scout team last fall.

"It's still open-ended. It's been a really good spring," said Kelly of the Dog battle. "Ben Councell has looked really good. Danny (Spond) has done some nice things too. It's nice having both in a very competitive situation."

As for Williams' potential move to the Dog in an effort to put him and explosive pass-rusher Prince Shembo (also a Cat) on the field simultaneously, Kelly sarcastically offered: "Okay, we'll think about it."

The reality is that Kelly likes his two competitors in a rotation on the boundary side…and at the Will…and on the Nose...

"It's really proving to be a very good situation for us. We feel like with Prince and Ishaq; Louis (Nix) and Kona (Schwenke) and Stephon Tuitt, and that's not even mentioned (Tony) Springmann who I think is really going to help us (at nose guard) when we move forward. We have to have a great rotation, keep them fresh, keep them on the field, and I think that's going to be a real strength for us."

Shembo missed the second half of spring ball, recently undergoing surgery to repair what had initially been deemed turf toe.

"We're not worried," said Kelly of Shembo's recovery. "He went up to the Cleveland Clinic and had that (toe) surgery done. (Team Physician and former Irish linebacker) Brian Ratigan really likes his progress. We feel really good; he does too. He wants to get out of the boot and get going."


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