Ample opportunities await young Irish

Chief among head coach Brian Kelly's challenges this spring: blending his defense's increased athleticism with its lack of game day experience.

In March, hope spring eternal for all college football programs. For Brian Kelly's fifth-edition Irish squad, the current glass half-full feel can be traced directly to an infusion of perimeter athleticism on both sides of scrimmage.

"Alot of new roles for players," said Kelly following Wednesday's practice. "Again, you've got a lot of guys who have a lot of athletic ability, are talented, but inexperienced. That's the exciting part, and that's probably going to be the one area that we'll have to grow into as well. There's going to be some growing along the way here, but a lot of excitement as well, so hopefully we'll be able to grow both of those together and together we'll really become a football team."

If the old adage, "the best thing about a freshman is he becomes a sophomore," Notre Dame is well-equipped entering 2014, with at least 19 of its 23 second year players in heavy competition for extensive playing time.

But promise and raw athleticism are of no use to a top tier college football team if confidence and an understanding of roles and responsibilities aren't present.

Spring lays the groundwork, especially on the perimeter of the Irish offense and throughout the back seven of its changed defense.

"We're trying to find roles in a lot of our sub-packages," said Kelly of the spring's first four practice sessions. "A lot of third down. I've never really gone third down this early. It's usually a migraine headache day for the quarterbacks and the offense, but because we're going to be using a lot of sub-packages, we wanted to be able to start to evaluate some of those players."

Brief practice viewings to date indicate an array of blitz packages will accompany Notre Dame's nickel/dime, or "sub" packages defensively. The versatility of sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith appears to be the feature attraction.

Notre Dame's dime defense proved crucial in a win over USC last fall.

"We're finding that out right now as to what he can do," said Kelly of Smith. "We're overloading him, quite frankly, with a number of different looks. We don't want offenses to know where he is. We're going to play him in a number of different positions. He can be inside, outside, we're moving him all over the place."

Below is a look at those who've surrounded Smith in special packages with cornerback Keivarae Russell and safeties Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth as constants among myriad back seven looks.

Junior (redshirt-sophomore) John Turner: Both a third-string safety and drop linebacker last fall, Turner has worked in tandem with Smith as a pair of roving inside linebackers when the Irish go to their first unit sub package. Base inside linebackers Joe Schmidt and Kendall Moore leave the field with Turner and Matthias Farley entering.

"John Turner has been an interesting player for us," said Kelly. "I'll go back to his recruitment. We got to see him work out for us for 30 minutes, and we loved his skill set. He's long, he's athletic. It wasn't translating very well, for whatever reasons. We think that with the position that we're looking at him right now, it seems to be clicking a little bit for John. (Defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder really likes what he's doing right now.

"For whatever reasons, sometimes a change does a guy good, right? He may be the beneficiary of that change. I think it's more of the benefit is that in the sub-package, it takes advantage of a long kid who is almost a 'tweener.' He's almost a 'backer, he's that big. So some of the positions that we're running him in right now, he can cover a No. 2 receiver and he can also bring some pressure. He's got a unique skill set."

Senior (redshirt-junior) Matthias Farley: Has worked almost exclusively as a nickel (slot) defender in official media viewings suggesting Kelly and VanGorder are pleased with a foursome of Russell, Cole Luke, injured sophomore Devin Butler (shoulder surgery) and transfer Cody Riggs entering fall camp.

"We've talked about finding a position for him," said Kelly. "He's a pretty good athlete. He's got some size and some experience playing at the highest level. Quite frankly, I think we're still really early in that process for a lot of guys. I don't think it's just Matthias.

"It's Cole Luke, it's John Turner, it's Austin Collinsworth. There's probably five, six, seven guys. It's (safety) Eilar Hardy."

Sophomore Cole Luke: Will wage an August battle with the incoming Riggs for a starting cornerback spot but both will play regularly, regardless. Luke appears more at home on the edge than inside and would be challenged as a tackler vs. read-option offenses should VanGorder employ sub packages in medium yardage (2nd and 6, 3rd and 5) situations.

Notre Dame's nickel breakdowns were noticeable early last season.

5th-year senior Austin Collinsworth: Could start, as he did 11 games last fall, or could be used as a third-down blitzer in sub packages (as he was last fall). Or more likely, both. Collinsworth will play plenty in 2014 whether or not he technically retains his starting job. The Irish have better cover men from the slot but Collinsworth proved last September he could make plays on the quarterback as a blitzer. And regardless of the prodigious talents of his safety competitors, someone has to drive the proceedings along the back line -- he's far and away the best choice in March 2014.

Senior (redshirt-junior) Eilar Hardy: Likely slated to compete as a true back line safety but Hardy expressed an affinity for slot coverage in the spring of 2013.

Sophomore James Onwualu: Said Kelly of the converted wide receiver: "I think (the transition) is going well and we're trying to find that role too, where that is, whether it is down closer to the ball, whether it is back. I think there's a lot of different moving pieces there as well. He might be a guy that could probably handle both roles on offense and defense in a limited capacity. He's a really good football player that if we're smart with it, I think he can do some different jobs for us possibly on both sides of the ball."

Add the injured Butler and incoming Riggs to the fray in August and competition for playing time in Notre Dame's crucial sub packages intensifies. Top Stories