Upward Bound?

Our final position preview for 2014 and beyond examines the team's safeties -- a group that remains intact after its first unimpressive season as a group during the Brian Kelly era.

The good news? Notre Dame's entire collection of 2013 safeties returns for Brian VanGorder, providing the second defensive coordinator of the Kelly era ample experience and talent from which to choose.

The sobering news? Finding one from the lot that played consistently well last fall.

Roster Reset

Potential 5th-year senior: Austin Collinsworth

Seniors: Matthias Farley (2015), Eilar Hardy (2015)

Juniors: Elijah Shumate (2015), Nicky Baratti (2016), John Turner (2016)

Sophomore: Max Redfield (2016)

Incoming Freshmen: None

Potential 2014 Class Additions: Five-star S/WR prospect, Juju Smith. Smith will visit his purported favorite, USC, this weekend.

2014-15: Crowded at the Top

*Notre Dame's extended run (arguably 15 consecutive seasons) of outstanding play from at least one of its two starting safeties ended last fall.

Those close to the program anticipated rough seas early for a safety unit that featured just one returning regular -- Matthias Farley -- from 2012. Few though thought the safeties would drown in their collective attempt to sink or swim for the better part of the 2013 season.

Farley struggled mightily, Collinsworth intermittently, and Shumate

In the end, the most effective and productive was Collinsworth, and the staff rewarded the senior with 11 starts (Farley, Shumate, Hardy, and Redfield combined to start the remaining 15 games in either safety spot).

Collinsworth is a lock to return for 2014 as a fifth-year player. He's not, however, a lock to start, at least not for the majority of contests as young talent and a new defensive scheme emerge.

Redfield is the most intriguing, both in pedigree and, to be frank, because we don't know what he doesn't do well yet. (Nothing like reality putting a damper on previous recruiting rankings.)


Shumate had an uneven 2014 campaign

Shumate's practice penchant for the physical had little chance to materialize on game day as the sophomore was often cast in a slot coverage role (early) and then suffered a nagging hamstring injury late. He, along with Hardy, was suspended for the season-finale at Stanford.

Hardy earned his first shot at regular playing time but was suspended twice along the way, once in mid-September, then to end the season. Spring 2014 -- and an early impression on the new head man -- will be crucial to his development.

Though roles and expectations change, Farley was far better fundamentally in 2012 as a rookie than he was as a second-year starter last fall.

Baratti's sophomore season was lost due to shoulder surgery -- a second on the same shoulder since he concluded a solid season as a freshman backup in 2012. He'll miss the contact portion of spring 2014 as a precautionary measure and be prepared to compete for a full-time role (two-deep, starter, special teams) by August camp.

Turner, a special teams regular as a redshirt-frosh last fall, faces an uphill battle for 2014 scrimmage time, though he has worked as a drop (field side) linebacker position over the last calendar year as well. (And thus could backup Jaylon Smith should Ben Councell be slow to return from a torn ACL suffered November 2 vs. Navy.)

(*Top safeties taking the field for the Irish from 1998 through 2012 include Deke Cooper, A'Jani Sanders, Tony Driver, Gerome Sapp, Glenn Earl, Tom Zbikowski, Chinedum Ndukwe, David Bruton, Kyle McCarthy, Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, and Zeke Motta.)

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One off the Books

Of the players listed above, only Collinsworth exhausts eligibility following the 2014 season.

Should one of the Farley/Hardy pair return for a fifth season, Notre Dame would enter 2015 with two 5th-year players, three seniors, and a junior. Two of the seniors will be eligible to play through 2016.

Assuming the highly touted JuJu Smith does not join the 2014 class, Notre Dame will likely look to land a minimum of two safeties in the 2015 cycle with three advisable to bring the total to four from the 2013-2015 recruiting cycles.

The next era of outstanding Irish safeties is (it is to be hoped) already on campus, but new blood will work its way into the mix by 2016.

Final Grade and Projections

2013: D+ … Miscommunication plagued the Irish in losses at the beginning of the season (Michigan), the end (Stanford) and in between (Oklahoma). Poor tackling -- the kind that resulted in touchdowns -- was an issue through the team's crippling third loss at Pittsburgh.

2014: C+ … Too many "ifs" to assume a jump to the B/B- range, but talent and experienced depth are in place as is coaching continuity with Bob Elliott and Kerry Cooks -- the mentors of a sound secondary in 2012.

2015: B+ … Max Redfield the junior, Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti as seniors, fifth-year options such as Matthias Farley and Eilar Hardy. The unit will doubtless improve greatly over the next two seasons and could evolve into a strength during Year 2 of the VanGorder era. B+ might be too low.

Previous Posts

For our continuing series of position previews heading into spring ball, click the links below:

Cornerback

Inside Linebacker

Outside Linebacker

Defensive Line

Quarterback

Tight End (Pre-Niklas Defection)

Wide Receivers

Running Backs

Offensive Line


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