Eye in the Sky: Secondary

O'Malley looks at the Irish secondary in Saturday's blowout victory over the Midshipmen

It was a tough start for senior safety Zeke Motta, who, after the entire front played a wide option pitch perfectly, missed a tackle in space on slot back Gee Gee Greene. The completive, underrated Greene got Motta three players later, beating him to the sidelines on an out-route from the slot for 11 yards on third-and-10.

Greene is a quick, cagey player, and Motta fared better later in the contest, but the disparity in foot speed between the two was apparent. First round draft pick Harrison Smith will be missed in the defensive backfield.

Motta faced the same play later in the contest and responded with the season's best hit to date, leveling slotback Darius Staten for lost yardage. If the senior was down on himself for two early mistakes, that late knockout blow offered a positive spin on his season opening efforts.

Motta's veteran teammate on the back line, Jamoris Slaughter, had an unusually quiet game vs. a triple-option attack, though unlike in the recent past, Slaughter was slated for true back line safety duties. He finished with three tackles in run support but was also partly at fault for a 25-yard post pattern touchdown to begin the second half. Though rookie cornerback Keivarae Russell was in press man coverage on the outside, Slaughter bit too long on quarterback Trey Miller's play-action fake and exacerbated his hesitancy by breaking the cardinal rule of a deep safety: his first step wasn't back.

The result was an easy down-the-pipes touchdown over the head of both Slaughter and the trailing Russell.

Russell was notably beaten on two occasions: the touchdown described above, and a 41-yard go route near the end of the first half (a field goal was the end result) in which he fell at the line trying to execute a jam. Russell also gave up three hitch routes for first downs (slipping once on his break), but that's something the defensive staff will live with in a true freshman's debut.

Russell showed great competitiveness after being beaten and that's crucial, because he's going to be beaten every week through the Holidays as his transition from high school running back to BCS-level cornerback is but a month old. Backup Jalen Brown showed well in limited action; he'll undoubtedly be called upon throughout September and would be a starting option if Russell falters.

More Starting Debuts

More disturbing than Russell's occasional struggles was junior Bennett Jackson's efforts in man coverage. Jackson was turned around on pass patterns three times: one for a potential 25-yard gain on a post-corner route (dropped), then later for 38 yards on a nice double move, again post-corner, to begin the second half.

Jackson though displayed an aggressive mentality throughout the game, coming up for run support vs. a screen pass he stopped at the line of scrimmage, sprinting through traffic to stop an end around before damage could be done, and going low for a pair of stops on the sidelines. He failed to trust the defense once and was sealed inside on an option pitch (giving up the sidelines) but that will be corrected by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco this week.

A pleasant surprise in the Irish secondary was backup safety Matthias Farley, who filled the Dog linebacker role normally occupied by Slaughter in nickel situations and vs. option teams. Farley's first career tackle limited a pitch to the perimeter to four yards (it could have gashed ND as slot-back John Howell made a sharp cut inside), but it was his discipline and apparent knack for the difficult position that was most impressive.

Farley forced early pitches on runs to his (field) side, stayed home when necessary to contest a fumbled pitch, and just once on film seemed tricked by Navy's blocking scheme, getting leveled on a late move into the backfield. He was also held on an 8-yard gain after forcing the play back inside (no call).

Will Farley play the nickel vs. standard offenses, keeping Slaughter back as the last line of defense? From a previous conversation with Bob Diaco and a tactic hinted later by Brian Kelly, it appears to be the plan, though Farley won't start this week vs. Purdue with classmate Ben Councell earning the nod as the true Dog linebacker.

Regardless if he plays a true safety position or the actual nickel role in the team's five defensive back package, Farley's continued improvement will be a key factor in the season's pass defense.

Quick Thoughts

I agree with Saturday's color commentator Gary Danielson: teams that can spread out the Irish defense with multiple wide receivers could pose a major problem for the defense. Allowing yards and limiting points might be the tactic vs. such offenses…Notre Dame's corners will need to make more big plays than expected to offset the fact that they're going to give them up, too…I think Slaughter might be favoring a heel/ankle injury from camp, he didn't have his usual burst…Jackson's an impressive tackler at full speed, it will be interesting to see how he fares at the boundary vs. opposing running games. He led the Irish with seven stops vs. the Academy...

Three of the team's five main secondary contributors were in first time starting roles and two had never played a college down; nor had its sixth main contributor, the aforementioned Jalen Brown. Irish fans that expected each to perform flawlessly was short-sighted, but improvement will be necessary over the next two weeks.

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