Safety in Numbers?

The loss of staff favorite and security blanket Austin Collinsworth puts a dent in Notre Dame's already inexperienced defensive backfield. Then again, few positions are as well-stocked on the roster in terms of sheer numbers as safety, where 11 competitors will suit up in August.

Of the 12 safeties on Notre Dame's 2012 team roster, only two have started a college game. Surging junior Austin Collinsworth was not one of them, but the reigning Special Teams Player of the Year had ascended to the level of a starter in the eyes of the only people that matter: the coaching staff.

"I'm really pleased with the three-man rotation with Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke (Motta) and Austin (Collinsworth)," said head coach Brian Kelly just prior to the Blue Gold game during which Collinsworth purportedly tore his labrum. "At the safety position we can go play right now and feel really good about that."

Collinsworth suffered a torn labrum during the contest that required surgery, shelving him for the 2012 season. (Expect a medical red-shirt and subsequent eligibility through 2014.)

Of the nine August camp safeties competing for playing time in his stead, seven have never graced the gridiron on a college football Saturday. Another is a former walk-on, accomplished special teams player Chris Salvi, joined by the oft-injured Dan McCarthy, a 5th-year senior who's played less from scrimmage during his Irish career than has Salvi.

Without Collinsworth in the fold, Slaughter, the team's most versatile player, might not be as readily used as its nickel (slot) defender…or Dog (Drop outside linebacker) vs. certain foes…or as an emergency cornerback, etc., etc.

"It's not an experiment. He's in there if we need him," said Kelly of Slaughter on the corner. If we get into a bind because we lose a guy or two, he can go in there. That's kind of what we're doing with Jamoris. He's our safety, but he has to be ready to go in case we need him."

The defense needs Slaughter everywhere to capitalize on his true worth as a player. For that to come to fruition, one (or more) of the following must step up and prove worthy of meaningful snaps from scrimmage this fall:

Chris Salvi: A two-year regular on the kickoff coverage unit, the former walk-on finished the spring as the staff's No. 4 safety -- Salvi's not on unfamiliar ground as the 2010 defense played the entire first season of the Kelly era with three scholarship safeties, relying on the then first-year walk-on to be at the ready in early season contests following an injury to Jamoris Slaughter.

Salvi will bring knowledge of the defense, toughness, quality tackling, and functional football quickness if not raw athleticism to the role.

Elijah Shumate: Our choice as the least likely of the incoming 14 freshmen to be withheld from action in 2012, Shumate's size/speed ratio and aggressive nature seems an ideal fit for special teams work. If defensive coordinator Bob Diaco needs a backup to play in the box, mix it up with opposing running games and contend with receivers in a short space, Shumate is the top candidate from the group.

Eilar Hardy: Completed competition in the spring just eight months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered in his freshman August camp. His knee structurally sound and ready for action, it was the ancillary aspects of injury Hardy still battled (foot speed, recovery after practice, and most important: the ability to translate what he learned in the film room to the practice field.

Hardy worked almost exclusively at field safety (the spot occupied by Harrison Smith last fall) but received a bit of work at the team's "Star" position -- one played with great success by Robert Blanton in the nickel defense last year and to be manned by Slaughter this fall.

Dan McCarthy: The 5th-year senior is the wild-card of the group as injuries (neck, shoulder, hamstring) appeared to have robbed him of his overall burst. But McCarthy is a willing hitter who should know the defense well despite plenty of scout team action over the last two years. He was likely brought back to be a special teams regular but now there's a job for the taking, and the only players standing in his way have never played a college down.

C.J. Prosise: A candidate for punt return duties, Prosise's speed might be a necessary add to the back line. If Diaco uses others (Slaughter -- who'll be everywhere -- Shumate or Dan McCarthy) near the line of scrimmage it opens the door for Prosise to battle Hardy and Matthias Farley (below) for potential playing time. Prosise appears to be the most natural field (free) safety of the incoming quintet.

Nick Baratti: Like Shumate, appears destined for special teams action from the outset. Like Shumate, would likely mix it up in the box better than in the deep zones as the competition level jumps ten-fold from his high school days. And like Shumate, there's a job for the taking, but overloading an incoming defensive back with an entire set of responsibilities is unlikely. Baratti will likely be tried in a niche role from scrimmage but do the bulk of his first-year work on specialty units as he's an athlete that could help on each of them.

Matthias Farley: Entered school as a player Irisheyes.com and other outlets projected at safety, but Farley spent his 2011 freshman season as a Scout Team wide receiver. He's a safety now, but one with barely a leg up on his incoming competition in terms of assimilating to the position.

Asked if his season at wide receiver offered much help to Farley's transition to safety during the spring, co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks said. "No. He's starting from scratch. To his credit he's doing everything we've asked him. He played high school ball for two years; this is really his second year so he's going into four years, ever, of football. He's a ways away, but he's working his butt off. He's in the meeting rooms every day after practice so he's going to be fine."

Chris Badger: Hasn't played football in two years while completing his religious mission in Ecuador. Badger is eligible through the 2015 season and with Slaughter, Motta, McCarthy, and Salvi moving on after the season, the door is open for a 21-year-old Badger to fight for playing time in the spring of 2013…Determined, heady 21-year-old sophomores are a luxury for a defensive coordinator such as Diaco.

John Turner: Enters college a jack-of-all trades and from a quality high school program, though one not likely ready to tussle with the nation's best downfield or yet strong enough to earn a scrimmage spot playing closer to the line of scrimmage. As with at least six players on this list, special teams are his quickest ticket to initial playing time. Could one day compete for the Dog linebacker role.


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